Cam Thomas can’t be the happiest person in the room.
Just like the phrase Thomas recently attempted to trademark, there “ain’t s—t funny” about a player posting 40 or more points in three straight games suddenly getting relegated to a bench role.
That, however, is his current reality: Thomas exploded for those 40-point performances while Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant orchestrated their trades out of Brooklyn. Now with Spencer Dinwiddie starting, Thomas has been moved back to the bench, and with Seth Curry returning the rotation after the All-Star break, head coach Jacque Vaughn says Thomas could be on the periphery of what he hopes is a rotation that moves closer to fewer than 10 players a night.
“I’ll continue to reiterate how important he is to our group. Historically the three games of 40 were awesome, super happy for him. They can’t ever take that away from him. He’s in the record books,” Vaughn said of Thomas. “But at the same time, we lost two of those games in Washington by two points. So the ultimate goal is to create a team and an atmosphere where everyone can be a participant, and we’re going to utilize and maximize everyone’s talent.”
Thomas’ diminishing role is a microcosm of the challenge that lies ahead in Brooklyn’s full sprint toward the playoffs. Ten players on this roster have started games for different teams, and four of Vaughn’s five starters arrived in the Durant and Irving trades.
Thomas, the team’s most gifted scorer, and Ben Simmons, the team’s highest-paid player and most decorated star, each find themselves playing smaller roles than they had hoped.
Selflessness is the new name of the game in Brooklyn, where a team once built upon star power now must lean on its newfound strength: versatility.
And with this much versatility comes difficult decisions.
“What I think Cam can be is a bonafide, efficient, and productive scorer for us when asked upon. He’s a guy that can shot create, but we don’t anticipate him playing 40 minutes as he did in those games,” Vaughn said. “So the big part of our whole group is we have depth and so why not lean into that? I’ll continue to love on Cam, and he was extremely efficient last game [against Miami] for us, and I think that’s an area that he can repeat over and over again and be asked upon to do that over and over again, without impacting and having a negative impact on the team overall, because at the end of the day, it’s about the entire group, and I’m gonna continue to push that culture more than anything else.”
Nic Claxton knows Thomas’ struggle all too well.
His rookie season in Brooklyn was a struggle not only because of nagging injuries that limited his availability, but also because he was the third center on a roster that already included an emerging star in Jarrett Allen and a declining veteran in DeAndre Jordan.
In fact, Claxton watched as Jordan got the starting job over Allen, even though Allen was clearly the better player at the time.
Thomas finds himself in a similar situation. His scoring talents are undeniable, but with Vaughn outwardly tabbing Curry as the team’s backup point guard while also proclaiming the rotation will stick below 10 players, the math doesn’t side in Thomas’ favor.
“You’ve got to stay the course and control what to control. Brooklyn is a great organization, so just staying the course, stay down and your number is going to be called. Like you saw, he’s taking advantage of this opportunity,” Claxton said. Is that easier said than done? “Yeah. But everybody has their different journeys. You see some guys playing on teams where they’re given the keys right away, and sometimes you have guys in front of you like me or Cam and you’ve just got to stay the course and continue to work on your game.”
Thomas played what Vaughn described as a close-to-perfect game against the Heat. He scored 19 points on 21 minutes off the bench, shot 6-of-11 from the field, three-of-five from downtown and dished four assists to only two turnovers.
Yet Thomas was particularly dismissive when taking questions after the game, only expanding on his thoughts when asked about it his role entering the second half of the season.
“It’s tough,” he said. “From doing one thing and trying to adjust to the team because that’s just what you got to do. It’s tough for sure. So just got to figure it out and, you know, move on from there.”
Claxton is part of another quandary in Brooklyn: maximizing Simmons, whose back issues and reluctance to search for his own shot have made it difficult for Vaughn to find the right lineups that best suit his game.
It has traditionally been difficult for the Nets to play Claxton and Simmons together because neither are outside scorers and both have been poor free throw shooters. And when Vaughn referenced the backup center position, he mentioned exclusively minutes for Day’Ron Sharpe and Yuta Watanabe — not Simmons, who he also didn’t mention as the team’s backup point guard.
“We did a little bit of everything in that last game versus Miami where we ended up putting those two [Claxton and Simmons] in the game for a little bit of a stretch, which worked out. Not sure I want to see it for long stretches, but there’s some time when Ben might guard a perimeter guy or Nic can guard a perimeter guy, and then we still have another big to protect us at the rim,” he said. “So sometimes it’s going to make sense. Preferably as a coach, I love space and pace of the game and taking advantage of mismatches a little bit. So I’ll probably always lean into that, but have that in the back of my pocket, for sure.”
Vaughn says Rolls Royce is the gold standard for adjusting to the changing minutes on the fly.
Royce O’Neale once ranked second in all of basketball in total minutes played behind only Kevin Durant. In recent weeks, he’s been moved to the bench in favor of a newcomer and has seen his minutes shrink from closer to 40 a night now to around the 25 minutes-per-game mark.
Vaughn uses O’Neale as an example for how every player has to approach the evolving roles and rotations this season. O’Neale says it’s about being a professional and giving the team everything he has when his number is called.
“You play your minutes and you consistently do it on a daily basis, you play those minutes hard, and I think Royce is a prime example of a guy that started for us, played high 30s for us some nights, now is in the range of playing 25 minutes for us right now, but a guy that finished the game the other night because [Dorian Finney-Smith] didn’t finish the game,” he said. “So that’s the mentality. Like don’t get caught up in I’m the starter, I play this. Don’t put yourself in a box that way. We’re trying to win as a group. I’m gonna coach that way, to try to win that night and just roll with me. And so he’s a prime example of a guy that finished the game for us the other night.”
Again, however: The Nets have about two entire five-man units worth of starters on their roster. Vaughn says each player must put their ego aside.
“I’ve told them before it’s not conventional. I’ve fessed up to that. It’s not your typical, ordinary NBA and we’re not gonna play that way. I can’t coach that way,” he said. “And so it does put us in a different area than other teams. I think it makes you mentally tough, but also, I’m being honest with you, and when your number is called, guys are producing, so I think it is different, and hopefully we can use it to our advantage because we are deep.”
The Nets are already facing an uphill battle. They are fresh meat, so to speak, in an Eastern Conference loaded with star-level talent down to the 10th seed. They have the seventh-toughest remaining schedule in all of basketball, and their players are still learning to speak the same language with four new starters who arrived at the trade deadline.
They are also only 2.5 games out of the seventh seed, meaning a three-game losing streak plus three wins for either the sixth-seeded Knicks or seventh-seeded Heat could send them into sudden-death Play-In Tournament territory.
The Nets aren’t focused on the schedule, or on egos. They’re trying to put the best possible product on the floor and live with the results based on the strengths of this newly constructed roster.
At least that’s the message Vaughn has given his players — along with a dose of reality of where they stand in the rotation, even if a gifted player doesn’t like where he stands in the lineup.
“Attention to detail, focus and just a general effort. [Vaughn] wants no team to play harder than us,” Dinwiddie said. “He wants us to impose our will both offensively and defensively just with a level of intensity, and understand that we’re gonna make mistakes. We’re a group that doesn’t know each other and that’s kind of a way to bypass some of the mishaps that have happened.”
Source: Berkshire mont