Ty Thomas and LaMarcus Aldridge Revisited

These two players will always be linked and compared. They play the same position, came into the league through the same draft and were dealt for each other the night of that draft. While Aldridge was chosen before Thomas, most stat guys like me felt Thomas had the much better future at the time. This was my bottom line opinions of the two players going into the draft: 

Thomas: The draft is weak, but I believe Tyrus Thomas is the best player available and the one player who has the best chance to become a perennial all-star. 

Aldridge: But right now Aldridge is just a good college player who isn’t producing enough on the court that I’d consider him a good NBA prospect. Right now he looks like a player who will spend his career backing up at PF and center around the league.

Because it had been suggested to me that I start doing some reviews of my past draft previews, I felt this was a good place to start. It is probably a good thing for me to do for accountability. I mean if I whiff on every analysis it would tell me that I either need to start doing my analysis a little differently or take up a new hobby, like gardening perhaps. I doubt I’ll do much review of the drafts before 2007. The simple reason is that was the year my analysis started focusing on prospects reaching certain statistical benchmarks as the core tool in ranking them. Before that draft I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was trying different things to analyze the prospects, but a lot of it was trial and error type of stuff. But I will step back to the 2006 draft to review Thomas and Aldridge. 

The careers at this point 

Thus far the careers of these two players have been nothing like I expected. While Aldridge has been a solid part of the Blazer’s revival, Thomas has struggled to fit in with the Bulls and probably punched his ticket out of town with a recent profanity-laced tirade directed at coach Vinny Del Negro over playing time.

Here are the career NBA numbers of the two players: 

Per Game

Minutes

FG pct

Points

Rebounds

Assists

TO

Steals

Blocks

Thomas

20.1

.448

7.8

5.1

0.9

1.4

0.9

1.4

Aldridge

33.0

.488

15.7

7.1

1.5

1.3

0.7

1.0

 

Per 36 Minutes

Points

Rebounds

Assists

TO

Steals

Blocks

PF

Thomas

13.9

9.1

1.7

2.5

1.6

2.4

4.3

Aldridge

17.2

7.7

1.6

1.4

0.8

1.1

3.1

Aldridge has been the superior player. Thomas certainly has some better per minute numbers and we might even call him the better defender of the two. I could also make the case that Aldridge is soft for a PF and overrated, considering his hefty contract. But Thomas has not been able to get consistent court time with a team that has been around .500 for most of his time there. Aldridge has been part of the core of a 50-win team.  That makes him the winner in this little battle of 2006 PF draftees. 

So what did I miss? Here are the per 40 minute numbers of the two players during the 2006 NCAA season: 

Per 40 Minutes

FG pct

Points

Rebounds

Assists

TO

Steals

Blocks

PF

Thomas

.606

18.5

13.8

2.0

2.8

1.5

4.6

3.8

Aldridge

.569

17.6

10.8

0.6

1.9

1.6

2.3

2.9

It is easy to see why I liked Thomas better. He scored more often and efficiently than Aldridge. He was the superior rebounder by a wide margin. He was the better passer and defender. Both teams made the final 4. Aldridge was taller and weighed more, but Thomas’s wingspan and leaping ability probably evened that up some. What was left?  There were other things to take into account. Thomas had a high foul rate that limited him to 25.9 minutes per game in college and has continued to hinder him at the next level. Thomas was very raw offensively. He averaged about 8 FGA per game and a large percentage of his points came from FTs. Aldridge’s numbers were probably suppressed somewhat by playing next to PJ Tucker, a 6’5” college rebounding machine. I also seem to remember reading about Aldridge working on a short perimeter game that year, which may have had a negative affect on his FG pct, but eventually helped him become a more effective pro. Aldridge was coming off an injury which also may have also had a negative affect on his numbers. Still, this one wasn’t really close. Thomas’s numbers suggested a much higher upside. 

NBA Team Situations 

Aldridge went to a team that was young, struggling and trying to get past an era they would like to forget. Aldridge was allowed to develop at his own pace. He was surrounded with talented, young teammates and they’ve grown into a force together. With Brandon Roy as the lead scorer and the center tandem of Oden and Przybilla providing great inside play, Aldridge’s 18 points and 8 rebounds per game have been a great complement. He hasn’t been asked to do anything he wasn’t capable of and he has excelled in doing what he needed to do. The Blazers also had coaching stability, with Nate McMillan in his 5th year now. McMillan has led this young team from lottery finishes to the 50-win level. He has kept the team competitive this year after a rash of injuries. In general Portland has been a great atmosphere for a young player to succeed during Aldridge’s time there.

Tyrus Thomas was a different story. The same summer the Bulls drafted him they also made a big splash in the free agent market, adding center Ben Wallace. After signing Wallace the Bulls expected to contend for the Eastern title. They had one decent year with Wallace, winning 49 games and losing in the East semis, but floundered after that. Such underachievement led to a bad team atmosphere. Another problem that Wallace posed for Thomas is they were similar players. Both are strong rebounders and defenders who didn’t score much. So instead of playing alongside a complementary player, Thomas spent his first couple of seasons next to a center who played a similar style. This forced him to the perimeter more where he just wasn’t as comfortable or effective. The next year the Bulls drafted another player, Joakim Noah, with a similar skill set. Wallace was a massive flop and eventually dumped. After a difficult start, Noah emerged as a top 10 center. Good for Noah and the Bulls, but bad for Thomas who now had another center he didn’t fit well with in the frontcourt. When Rookie Taj Gibson came in this year and gave the Bulls the type of smart, steady play at PF they desire, Thomas was sent to the bench and the situation erupted. The coaching situation in Chicago has also been shaky. For some reason the Bulls simply refuse to hire an established coach. This might go back to the early success the franchise had with the hires of Doug Collins and Phil Jackson, both unconventional choices at the time. This isn’t always a terrible thing either as a young coach with something to prove is often a better fit than a recycled coach with a big ego. But in this case that led to the hiring of Vinnie Del Negro, who came in with no coaching experience. Del Negro has been a disaster, losing games in ways never imagined before including blowing a 35-point lead at home to an inferior Sacramento team with 23:50 remaining. Del Negro has also clashed with Thomas and kept his minutes down, further exasperating the situation. Put simply Chicago has not been the ideal team for Thomas to reach his potential. 

The players and their approach 

By all accounts I’ve read Aldridge is a good guy, a hard worker and good teammate. While his situation has been great for him, he did everything he needed to do to make himself a success thus far. That is a skill in itself and Aldridge deserves credit for no reason than he hasn’t screwed things up.

Thomas has been benched for lackadaisical play, had run-ins with two coaches and been dressed down in front of his teammates by Lindsey Hunter. While the situation in Chicago had to be frustrating for him, Thomas did nothing to help matters.

That’s why any temptation to put the majority of the blame here on the Bulls is misguided. As dysfunctional as this operation can appear at times, the Bulls have actually been very good at drafting and developing talent in the post-dynasty years. Several young players, including Elton Brand, Ron Artest, Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, have been drafted by the Bulls, came here and thrived. They also signed or drafted Jamal Crawford, Brad Miller, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler who went on to long, profitable careers elsewhere in the league. Where they failed miserably is when the time has come to make that big signing or trade to get the team to the next level. If Chicago had been a place where prospects went to see their careers die during Thomas’ time here, I could see blaming the organization. But that just hasn’t been the case and because of this most of the blame has to fall on Thomas himself for his combative, uncooperative attitude. 

The future 

Since Aldridge is still just 24 and Thomas 23, this competition is far from resolved. Things can change quickly at this level. Life is good in Portland now, but there could be storm clouds ahead for Aldridge. Next year he starts a 5-year, $65 million deal. Since he is only 24, has shown himself to be a mature guy who works hard and the contract goes through what should be his prime years, age 25-29, chances are this will go off without a hitch. That he’ll average 19 and 8 while shooting .500 over the course of the deal, topping out at 20, 9 and .520 in his best year. His play will remain soft and he’ll still be somewhat overrated, but it won’t matter if the team is successful. If the Blazers become an elite team and win a championship or two, no one will care about the angry statheads in the blogosphere rolling out reams of data that they insist expose Aldridge as one of the most overrated players in the league. The problem is his contract is quite pricey considering Aldridge’s production. This is a problem for a couple of reasons. The first is a hard salary cap appears imminent after the new CBA is signed. That means each team is going to have room for 2-3 max contracts and several smaller deals for the role players. The option of paying a ton of luxury tax just to keep his team on the top will no longer be available to Paul Allen. As much as I admire his approach and attitude, I wouldn’t want Aldridge as one of the players eating up the cap space on my team. The second problem is sometimes bad stuff happens in the NBA. Anything can sabotage a talented team, be it injuries, egos or talent just not developing the way it was hoped or projected to. If the Blazers remain stuck in the 50-win range the next few years, let alone decline, the fans will start to get frustrated with this group. If that happens the wrath of the fan base often turns on the most overpaid player, which would be Aldridge. What Aldridge needs to do, in addition to continuing with the same approach that has gotten him this far, is hope Greg Oden returns next year in good health and becomes the dominant player we all thought he would be.

Thomas meanwhile is going to get himself a fresh start. By all accounts the Bulls seem set on shipping him out by the deadline or letting him walk next summer. If he finds the right situation he could well excel. He remains young and full of potential. If he can find a place where he is asked simply to rebound, defend and get his points on easy layups and putbacks he should do great. That said, I’m not as optimistic about his future as I was on draft day. He is still foul-prone, which will limit his minutes even if he excels. He also needs to change his approach. This article details some of what went wrong this year between Thomas and the Bulls and probably sheds some light on what was at the root of the problem. This is the key line: Thomas grew up with loving uncles instead of a father but still once told the Tribune he “couldn’t take other males telling me what to do.”  This is a problem, because in basketball, sports and life listening to and following the instructions of “other males” or more accurately, authority figures, is sort of a necessity for success. It also isn’t a lot to ask of someone making millions of dollars. Now this was a quote of a quote, so I’m not sure how accurate it was. But the behavior of Thomas and his problems getting his career going suggest there is something to this. The future of Tyrus Thomas looks like that of a super sub. He’ll become an energy guy who provides great production off the bench, but is too foul-prone to get big minutes. That isn’t a bad thing should he accept such a role with the right attitude. 

So what of Ed Weiland whose analysis of Ty Thomas and LaMarcus Aldridge prior to the 2006 draft is a fail akin to blowing a 35-point 3rd quarter lead to the Sacramento Kings? What has he learned from this and what might he do differently in the future?

In retrospect I went a little overboard on Thomas. I have a tendency to do that with players I like, especially if I’m taking a position that is somewhat contrary to the consensus. I should have stressed the fact that he was a raw project, who had the skills to become an all-star but the road from where he was to NBA all-star was a long one. On Aldridge I think the main thing would have been to stress that anytime you have a player who is 6’11” with a 7’4” wingspan with NBA athleticism, his upside is going to be pretty high no matter what the stats say. I also might try to read up a little more on the top prospects. If I keep reading things like “tireless worker”, “willing learner” and “great teammate” that would be a positive. While reading thing like “bad attitude: and “clashes with coaches and teammates” would count as negatives. I still would have listed Thomas ahead of Aldridge as a prospect and that analysis may yet turn out to be correct.

8 comments for “Ty Thomas and LaMarcus Aldridge Revisited

  1. Stathead
    February 15, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Very interesting read! More analysts should do this.

  2. Iso-Joe
    February 16, 2010 at 4:13 am

    Hey Ed, would the conclusion be valid that we underestimate PF/m?

    Guys like Tyrus Thomas, Greg Oden and Amir Johnson all have the per-minute stats of regulars on a playoff team, except they can’t stay on the court because they foul so much. The net result is always unsatisfactory.

    I’ve always felt avoiding fouls is something a player can become better at, but maybe that’s only true to certain point.

    To come back to your analysis: Maybe a high PF/min in college indicates a lack of basketball IQ, or a lack of athletic finesse – and will limit that player in his future career more that his other stats indicate.

  3. February 16, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Kudos on looking back, few analysts want to comment on their inaccurate prophecies. You did so with grace and an educational angle.

  4. February 17, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    The strange thing about this comparison is that it feels so tentative. LaMarcus Aldridge, ultimately, has been a successful NBA player but not a star*. Tyrus Thomas has fallen short of expectations, but there has been enough complaints about the way that the Bulls organization has handled his development that it’s still possible to imagine him breaking out.

    In other words, this isn’t like a comparison of Deron Williams and Chris Paul or Dwight Howard vs Emeka Okefor in which there’s a clear edge. This is more like Amare Stoudamire vs Yao Ming (linked in my mind due to the Rookie of the Year debate) in which both players feel just a little bit frustrating.

    * This depends a bit on the metric that you use. Based on b-r.com he was 2nd in the team in WS due in large part to the large number of minutes he played. Per minute he looks like he was equivalent to Przybilla or Rudy Fernandez. On the other hand his +/- numbers at 82games.com for last season are very good. On the third hand the shear number of minutes that he played last season makes +/- a noisier metric).

  5. February 17, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    That isn’t to say, of course, that either TT or LMA are as good as either Yao or Amare, but just that it feels like both of their careers will have at least a little bit (and possibly a lot) of “what might have been?”

  6. Trev
    October 3, 2010 at 3:14 am

    Great job, but now show us what we want to see – Oden vs. Durant!

    If I recall correctly, the Hoops Analyst verdict was that Oden’s downside was Patrick Ewing. I’d love to see that analysis again. But I haven’t been able to find it in the archives.

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