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Has the Matt Thomas experiment failed?

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Matt Thomas is the best pure shooter on the Toronto Raptors, but he’s racking up DNP-CDs. Let’s examine why he can’t crack the rotation.

Toronto Raptors v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Through the first three games of 2020-21 Toronto Raptors season, Matt Thomas looked like was part of Nick Nurse’s rotation. The second-year shooter averaged almost 20 minutes per game through the first two, looking like the regular eighth man in the rotation.

Thomas’ minutes dove the next game, but Philly’s size made it hard for Nurse to roll out three-guard lineup featuring both Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet along with one of Norman Powell or Thomas, especially with the Raptors undersized up front as well. In fact, Thomas was en route to his first DNP-CD until Nurse called his number seconds before the end of the third quarter, as the team struggled to score against the Sixers, who packed the paint the entire game.

It was a decent seven-minute run for Thomas, who had a couple of three-point attempts, making one. His presence alone provided some spacing for the Raptors, especially after his made three. But what came next was a surprise, as he racked up eight DNP-CDs in the next 10 games, with only two garbage time stints against the Sacramento Kings and the Dallas Mavericks.

What’s curious about this is that during their most recent games, including last night against the Miami Heat, the Raptors struggled against zone defenses; a shooter like Thomas is traditionally key to beating a zone. It’s starting to become a tradition after every bad offensive game for the Raptors to see Thomas’ name trending online.

You know the Raptors struggled offensively when you see Matt Thomas’ name trending online.

Let’s investigate.

As a Rotation Piece

The Raptors’ coaching staff had Thomas pencilled in to be part of the bench crew those first two games, with Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet passing the PG baton to each other while the other starters caught their breath. Thomas shared the SG/SF duties with Powell on the court to help space the floor for Pascal Siakam.

During the first two games, Thomas averaged 8.5 points in 19.5 minutes per game. Most of his attempts came from behind the arc, shooting five a game while hitting a 50% clip (5/10). However, he hasn’t had the desired offensive impact (his usage through three games: 12%, 20.5%, 15.8%) while his overall defense was subpar.

Not counting his garbage time minutes, Thomas had the worst Defensive Rating through the Raptors’ first three games (111.7), and his offensive rating (99) didn’t make up for it, yielding a Net Rating of -12.7. Of course, it’s not like the Raptors were playing well overall during this stretch, and several key players like Aron Baynes, Siakam, VanVleet, and Powell had an even worse Net Rating.

What Worked

Thomas’ mere presence adds a certain level of pressure on the opposing teams’ defense. He’s one guy that the defense can’t cheat off, and a ball swung to him typically means a defender scrambling to close on him.

When Thomas is wide open behind the arc, he lives up to his “Mr. 99%” as he’s only missed two uncontested three-point attempts. It doesn’t always look smooth, but so far, we have seen Thomas pull a side-step using the “Danny Green fake” to avoid a fly-by to free himself up.

At times, Thomas has taken advantage of his defenders banking on him camping around the perimeter. There were plays where he recognized a teammate with the ball in distress — or an opportunity to cut/backdoor for an easy layup.

Perhaps what’s surprising here is Thomas’ playmaking potential. He has shown that he can make solid decisions passing the ball once the defense snuffed the play to get him open. For example, Thomas found a rolling Boucher after giving him an off-ball screen for a layup. On another play, he was able to find Boucher cutting through the backdoor. It didn’t lead to an assist, but it yielded a trip to the free-throw line.

Why was this Experiment abandoned?

First, we have to be honest with Thomas’ performance through three games. His contributions on the floor were not substantial enough for Nurse to keep him on the floor, and his defensive shortcomings added more stress to what was an already horrible defense during that stretch.

With Thomas out of the rotation, Nurse has auditioned Stanley Johnson, Yuta Watanabe, Terence Davis, and Malachi Flynn in non-garbage time minutes.

Johnson is starting to pull away with the eighth rotation spot, but collectively, they are efficiently filling the gap that Thomas left. As mentioned above, Thomas averaged two three-point makes in four attempts per game during his run. Since then, Johnson, Davis, Flynn, and Watanabe’s collective unit yielded decent output — 2.36/6 for almost 39% from behind the arc per game — while bringing other things to the table, such as defense, size, versatility, and playmaking.

Offensive Issues

Before watching the tapes again, I thought that Nurse was severely under-utilizing Thomas on the floor, as there were many plays where he’s not involved at all. That may be true on plays where he’s buried in the corner, and he loses his value if the ball does not swing to his side of the floor.

It’s also frustrating that Thomas appears invisible to his teammates when he’s wide open. Here are some plays where a kick out/swing pass to Thomas would have had a higher scoring probability than whatever his teammates were trying to do:

I also noticed that Thomas’ usage does not go up whether he plays 5, 10, or 20 minutes. Looking closely, I came to the following conclusion: He rarely shot a semi-contested three-pointer. Thomas hunted those high percentage wide-open perimeter shots and passed up situations where there’s a potential closeout or if he feels the footsteps of a trailer coming after him.

Perhaps there’s a reason why Thomas doesn’t want to pull the trigger in such situations. Sadly, he’s not a legit 6’6”-6’7” like Duncan Robinson nor Kyle Korver that can shoot over their defenders. Thomas is probably closer to 6’3” without shoes like Powell. The difference between him and Powell is that Norm really elevates on his pull-up shot, whereas Thomas is more of a conventional shooter who would just use the elevation that he needs to get the shot off smoothly. However, there’s no reason for him to turn down a mildly contested shot on a late closeout from smaller players like JJ Redick, Seth Curry or Patty Mills unless he doesn’t feel confident that he can shoot over them even with enough daylight.

Looking at Thomas’ three-point compilation from last season, he made enough contested attempts, so unless it’s a Chris Boucher-type of closeout, he has to be ready to pull the trigger even for split-second daylight.

Every time Thomas would turn down a shot due to a closeout, his teammates would often have to reset and work against a shorter clock. However, sometimes, he would show good passing instincts. The other times? That’s when Thomas puts the ball on the floor and goes after his favourite, and most likely only counter: a midrange banker. However, a few times, he’s turned down a potentially semi-contested perimeter shot only to try to get his midrange shot against multiple defenders.

Thomas, especially once he makes a three-pointer catches the attention of the opposing teams. He would see quite a few hard closeouts, and his instinct is to avoid them by getting inside the arc. An airborne opposing player contesting a perimeter shot should be an automatic three free-throws for him (such a freebie would make Kyle Lowry envious). Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Thomas ever seeks to draw contact.

Defensive Issues

The Raptors found success hiding Thomas defensively last season when they played zone while on the floor. So far, the main issue is that if he’s sagging or stunting, he can’t close out/recover fast enough. When he’s zoning up on the weak side, Thomas struggles to keep track of which players are in his vicinity, especially if he turns his back on them as he rarely swivels his head for a headcount of the players behind him.

As an on-ball defender, Thomas struggles to stay in front of his man. The offensive player can easily get an angle to go through his defense, forcing his teammates to help. It causes a lot of stress on their team defense, and often, either he would have a miscommunication on switches/rotation or a step late into it. It hasn’t been pretty for him as an off-ball defender either, as he’s had a hard time fighting through screens to keep up with his man.

Potential Solutions

On the Offensive End

When people ask why Thomas is not playing, the online sentiment is that “He’s not Duncan Robinson,” which implies that he’s not tall enough to shoot over defenders. Another interpretation could also be because he doesn’t impact the offense as much as Robinson does. However, other players around Thomas’ size (or even smaller) have varying levels of handle, playmaking, and athleticism but can still snipe from a distance.

Can Thomas increase his range? That would definitely help. Also, being prepared with side-step/step-back counters to regain separation would come in handy. I’m not sure if Thomas’ shot mechanics need to be tweaked to get his shot off faster, but an excellent way to get that momentary daylight is to intelligently use the screens/bodies along the way to beat his defender to the spot. Thomas would also need to make aggressive defenders pay by baiting them into fouling him.

Thomas has to change his mindset if he wants to steal his rotation spot back. He needs to have an aggressive sniper attitude to add more value to their offense, and put more pressure on the opposing team’s defense. He can’t just be Steve Kerr or John Paxson, who would be content to wait for a kickout throughout the game. That means Thomas would have to go through their set plays with the intent of shooting the ball first, even if the shot is semi-contested as long as he’s got enough daylight. His second option should be a counter to get the opening back for a perimeter shot, and worst-case scenario, utilize his gravity to facilitate. If his reaction time between catching the ball and assessing the situation is slow, he should not overthink it and just let it fly. Just from that adjustment, we should see Thomas’ usage increase.

If Thomas is aggressive, it makes it easier for his teammates to look for him. But Nurse would also utilize him better. Last season, Thomas only had two meaningful games where we went past 20% Usage Rate. Perhaps roll out set plays or two-man actions involving Thomas. He has shown a knack for finding his teammates, so why not trust him to facilitate more, if necessary. More importantly, Nurse has to emphasize to his rotation players to always keep an eye on Thomas. Lowry is the only teammate that keeps Thomas involved regularly but he only plays a few minutes with him. Siakam, Vanvleet, Powell, and Boucher would often forget that Thomas exists, especially if he’s not involved in the main action of the set play.

On the Defensive End

The defensive issues listed above are all fixable. Thomas does not have the above-average size, athleticism, and quickness at his position, so we don’t expect him to be a shutdown defender like Stanley Johnson. However, with his offensive skill set, Thomas should be at the very least a decent team defender. That means he should work on mapping where the opponents are in his area and communicating well on incoming switches. Knowing where the opposing players are should help him close out faster if necessary.

It’s not fun chasing someone through screens, but this part is all about effort and anticipation. I’m not sure if Thomas has the foot speed to stay in front as an on-ball defender consistently, but a good handle of the scouting report helps a lot. It’s also Nurse’s job to ensure that Thomas does not get put on an island against elite players, and this is when the team should execute a quick off-ball switcheroo to get Thomas out of trouble.

I guess part of why Thomas was able to survive defensively last season was that the defensive IQ and chemistry of the core of last season’s team were at an all-time high. They were excellent at covering each other’s mistakes, and it means putting a new face like Thomas in there won’t upset the defensive balance. It’s quite different this season, as the lack of cohesion and the absence of key defensive anchors from last season was problematic enough, thus magnifying the mistakes that Thomas would make on the floor.

Now that the team is starting to settle down defensively, maybe it’s time to re-incorporate Thomas back as a part-time 9th player on the rotation (battling with Watanabe, Flynn, and Davis), preferably surrounding him with better defenders.

****

In one of Nurse’s media availabilities during training camp, he was asked about potentially seeing an expanded role for Thomas this season. Despite speaking of having a consistent role and minutes, he did end with this: “But you understand, you gotta play at both ends too, right?” Nurse recently lamented his disappointment on Matt Thomas’ defense earlier this year, seemingly confirming the main reason why he’s riding the pine. At the end of the day, Nurse’s currency for playing time is based on defense. That’s one reason why we see Stanley Johnson on the floor, instead of Matt Thomas.

The team’s defensive chemistry is getting better every game. Heck, even Aron Baynes is starting to string together games where he’s not dead weight on the floor. As Nurse said after their loss against the Heat, they were close to calling Thomas’ number. Perhaps a return to the floor could be coming soon, but he’ll have to do better on both ends of the floor when he does.