The NBA is considered, rightfully, a young man’s league. But Thomas playing while older than Jack Benny isn’t unprecedented.
Basketball-Reference has 24 recorded NBA seasons at age 40 or older. Interestingly, 22 of them have come since 1987-88, ten of them since 2002-03. So one important thing to remember is that the window for playing career has expanded on the older side over the past few decades.
Remember also that Kurt Thomas, as a power forward, fits the profile of how a player manages to stick around in the league at age 40: size. Of the 24 40-plus seasons, exactly four have come from players under 6’8″ (which was Charles Oakley, in case you were wondering if that fit a power forward or not). One was John Long’s comeback for the Toronto Raptors after six years out of the game. Another was a single game by Nat Hickey in 1947-48. And the other two were the final seasons of Bob Cousy and John Stockton, two of the greatest point guards in league history. In other words, outliers, all of them.
The other 20 came from players like Oakley, Kevin Willis, James Edwards, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Herb Williams, Cliff Robinson… so some greats, some merely productive late. Thomas fits nicely in that latter group.
But what can the Knicks expect from Thomas? Well, only four 40-plus seasons were better than league average, measured by PER: Stockton’s 02-03, Karl Malone’s 03-04, Robert Parish’s 93-94, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 87-88. Four Hall of Famers, all far better than Kurt Thomas. So a season that good seems quite unlikely, particularly since Thomas has been right around a 10 PER for the past three seasons.
But Kevin Willis isn’t a bad comparison for Kurt Thomas, and suggests that Thomas may retain the skills he’s displayed over the past few years in 2012-13. Willis had a career PER of 15.7, jumped from 14.6 at age 38 to 16.1 at age 39, thanks mostly to a halving of his minutes. In shorter bursts, Willis could be effective, and he was at age 40, with a PER of 12.5, and at age 41, with a PER of 14.9. Not great, but useful off the bench.
In Thomas’ case, his minutes dropped from around 23 at age 38 to around 15 at age 39, with his PER remaining relatively static, 10 at age 38, 9.5 at age 39. And he figures to play less than that for the 2012-13 Knicks, probably more like 8-10 minutes per game, if he is in the rotation.
Can he maintain a useful level of production? Hopefully. Willis didn’t drop into the single-digits, PER-wise, until age 42. But drop he did, and players like Clifford Robinson (5.9 PER), James Edwards (3.5 PER) and Rick Mahorn (1.5 PER) showed that at age 40, they’d stuck around a season too long. Robinson had played at roughly Thomas’ level at age 39, with a PER of 9.6. Edwards and Mahorn, however, were well shy of Thomas at age 39.
The hope and team belief is that Thomas, in short bursts, can be more Willis than Robinson. The precedent shows that is far from guaranteed, but certainly possible.