What do you do when the backup plan for the backup plan for your backup plan falls through?
That's what the New Jersey Nets are about to find out.
After missing out on superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, then failing to land even a lower-level All-Star like Carlos Boozer or David Lee, the Nets set their sights on Tyrus Thomas as their big free-agent target for this summer. When Thomas, the 23-year-old misfit covered in tattoos and unreasonable career expectations, is the future of your franchise, you know you're in trouble.
Turns out, they missed out on him too. Thomas surprised more than a few Garden State basketball fans a week ago, turning his back on a potential Nets signing and returning to the Charlotte Bobcats, his team for the last five months, for five more years and a cool $40 million. For Thomas, it's a monster paycheck and a chance to find himself on a promising young team; for the Nets, it's just another episode in a miserable season of summer wheeling and dealing.
Salary cap space isn't everything, and Mikhail Prokhorov's Nets are exhibit No. 1. The Nets went into this offseason $30 million under the cap and armed with all the cash in the world, and they came away with little more than Travis Outlaw to show for it. Last year, the Nets were historically bad, losing 70 games for the first time in their history; now, there's no reason to think they can't do it again.
Thomas is no LeBron, but he was supposed to be the one missing link the Nets needed. They've already got a star at the point (Devin Harris) and another in the paint (Brook Lopez) — their biggest need was a versatile, athletic forward that could strengthen their supporting cast and play a little defense. Thomas was that guy, and the Nets had all the money in the world to make sure of it. But somehow, they let him slip away.
But enough about New Jersey. Thomas chose Charlotte for a reason — the Bobcats, who picked Thomas up at the trade deadline back in February, have the right nucleus in place for the future. Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace and the late addition of Thomas were enough to win 44 games in the muddled Eastern Conference and nab a No. 7 playoff seed. That team is set up to be a winner for the next half-decade — Thomas, who won't be a free agent again until he's 28, has plenty of time to polish his resume by piling up playoff appearances.
This could be a turning point in Thomas' career. There were high hopes for the kid when he was drafted back in 2006, No. 4 overall and well ahead of budding stars like Brandon Roy, Rudy Gay and Rajon Rondo. Thomas was supposed to be a world-beater on both sides of the ball — a versatile scorer and playmaker on one end of the floor, and an athletic defender that could shut down anyone on the other.
His development lagged in Chicago. Thomas was always considered a rising star during his three-plus years in the Windy City, but he never quite rose the way Bulls brass hoped. When the Bulls finally gave up on Feb. 18, unloading him for a modest package of Flip Murray, Acie Law and a draft pick, it looked like Thomas was a bust.
But now he's got a fresh start and a fat bank account.
In New Jersey, there's a frustrated front office and scores of despondent fans after a failed summer. But in Charlotte, there's a 23-year-old kid with a chance to make it big.
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