Lance Thomas doesn’t just play for the Knicks. He loves them.
The Brooklyn native grew up a Knicks fan, and to be part of one of the worst stretches in franchise history — a team record-tying four straight years of at least 50 losses — bothers Thomas to no end.
The soft-spoken and even-keeled Thomas revealed during a quiet moment in the Knicks’ locker room that the constant losing “ruins my days” and that he’s always thinking about ways to fix things. One of the Knicks’ captains, Thomas spoke more like a coach and a general manager than a player, and took true ownership of this 27-50 team.
“Losing [expletive],” Thomas said. “It ruins my days sometimes. But don’t make excuses. You got to figure it out. I’m going to figure it out. I’m going to help the team figure it out.
“Me figuring out is how can I lead better? How can I get the most out of our young talent? How can I keep the locker room positive? How can I keep everyone’s work ethic really high, where it needs to be? How can I bring out the competitive nature in every player?
“I think about this every day. I really want us to be a good team. These are the things that go through my mind, not just how I’m playing, how’s Lance playing tonight? It’s not about that.”
Thomas, 29, is the longest-tenured Knick and the only player to have been a part of all four forgettable seasons. That doesn’t sit well with him, either. But he is revered by Knicks players and coaches for his sincere, selfless attitude and his leadership abilities.
Thomas has never been a scorer, averaging 5.3 points over seven NBA seasons. But he welcomes the challenge of defending the other team’s best big guard or small forward and plays whatever role asked of him. He was one of Carmelo Anthony’s favorite teammates with the Knicks and became one of his closest friends.
Thomas, who was acquired in January 2015 by former team president Phil Jackson, won two New Jersey state championships playing for Newark St. Benedict’s Prep and was a co-captain on Duke’s 2010 national championship team. He hasn’t been in the playoffs in the NBA.
“I’m a competitor,” Thomas said. “I really hate losing. This is my team. This is where I’m from. I have a more special bond and connection with this team than anybody on the team just because I grew up a fan, and I want to win in New York. I’m going to continue to do everything in my power to help. I hate losing. I’m pretty sure everybody on the team does. The city deserves to have a winning team.”
The Knicks haven’t won consistently since Thomas was a little kid. Since the start of the 2001-02 season, they have had a winning record three times, reached the playoffs four times and won one series. They have lost at least 50 games eight times in the last 15 years. Twice in that span, they dropped 49.
Injuries, poor decisions by management and not enough talent have plagued the Knicks during this stretch, and there’s little relief in sight for this rebuilding team.
Kristaps Porzingis is recovering from a torn ACL and the timeframe for his return to the court next season is unclear. The Knicks will have a lottery pick, but they aren’t expected to be big spenders in free agency. They currently have the mid-level exception and don’t want to add too much long-term salary so they can have flexibility for the loaded summer of the 2019 free-agent market.
But Thomas is committed to doing whatever he can to get to the playoffs, and get there with the Knicks.
“When adversity hits, your true character comes out,” he said. “I never want anyone to ever say his true colors came out during those four years. ‘He tanked. He’s not doing XYZ.’ We win together, we lose together. I wear my Knicks uniform with pride. It hasn’t been the result I wanted. At the end of the day, it’s my home team and I’m happy to represent it.”