Jason Thompson Is About to Break the NBA's Longest Playoff Drought
Jason Thompson paid his dues in Sacramento for seven years. Now, the player with the most regular-season games without seeing the playoffs is about to break through.
Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Aside from that whole emoji thing, you probably do not remember much from last year's first-round series between the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks. Most observers predicted that the Rockets would win the series in short order, and they did, in five games. They would go on to more meaningful postseason moments, while the Mavericks would go through another summertime reimagining, complete with more urgent and expressive emoji usage.
One small significance stands out amid all that relative insignificance: Charlie Villanueva, then in his 10th NBA season, played 43 minutes in those five games. They were the first postseason minutes of his career, after 594 regular season games. That left Jason Thompson, who at that point had played 541 games, all of them with the Sacramento Kings, as the league's reigning champion in a punch line of a category: most games played without a single playoff appearance.
And then, early in the offseason, came a mixed blessing: Thompson was finally being traded away from one of the most dysfunctional organizations in the NBA, and he was going to his hometown team. The bad news is that Thompson grew up near Philadelphia.
"You're going to a situation where you're not going to the playoffs, and you're going to one of the not-best teams in the league," Thompson said, charitably, earlier this week. "But you make the best of it. That's the whole, true definition of being a pro."
Thompson's streak looked poised to go to eight seasons, but not for long. Three weeks after the trade to the Sixers, he was moved again, this time to Golden State. Philadelphia management asked Thompson if he was interested in going to the defending champions, and he did not hesitate. The Warriors later cut him loose to make room for Anderson Varejao, but Thompson found a soft landing in Toronto, where the Raptors were well on their way to a playoff spot when he signed in early March.
Thompson is not sure how many playoff games he has attended, but he knows that number does not reach double digits. This weekend, Thompson will be on the bench for his first when the Raptors open their series against the Indiana Pacers. He could even play, although his spot on the periphery of the Raptors' rotation makes that an unknown. It is likely that at some point this spring he will make his playoff debut.
"I'm like a kid in a candy store, man," said Thompson, still sweating after a heated one-on-one game with Raptors assistant coach Jerry Stackhouse. Thompson pointed out that he was just nine when Stackhouse played his first game for the Sixers. "It's something you always want to do. I think when you first get into the league, you just want to fit in. You're so excited, and you'll do whatever it takes to help the team. When you kind of establish yourself in the league, then you've got to set goals. Getting to the playoffs is one. You can't think about championships if you've never been to the playoffs." (In case you are wondering, the league's new king of sadness is Milwaukee's Greg Monroe, now 456 games into his career. Thompson's longtime Sacramento teammate, DeMarcus Cousins, trails at 415 and counting.)
Thompson's career arc has been a strange one. Generally, when teams struggle to win, they try changing countless aspects of their organization to improve. The Kings have struggled, and they have certainly shuffled deck chairs with abandon, but Thompson had the bizarre luck to wind up as a mainstay on one of the most unstable franchises in the NBA. For all the churn, the Kings could not bring themselves to move on from Thompson until his career was seven years old.
With Cousins, it makes sense: Boogie, for all of his faults, is one of the most skilled big men in the league, and a franchise talent. Despite being drafted in the lottery, 12th overall, in 2009, Thompson has never been considered in that class. As a King, he bounced back and forth between the starting lineup and the bench. Mostly, he was just there, a role player on a bad team. Seriously, he was there: Thompson missed two or fewer games in five of his seven years in Sacramento, and never missed more than seven in a season.
"If you're in the lottery, you're not doing well the year before," Thompson said. "There is no way you can have success when, one, a team isn't sure they were going to stay in that city—that's a lot of distractions, as much as you really don't want to admit it. And then in my seven years, I had seven different coaches. There's no way [you can tell if] a system is working if you're not there for longer than two seasons.
"Two different types of ownership, seven coaches. I had hundreds of teammates. I could write a book on just all of the different stuff that I saw."
Still, Thompson was not a guy who avoided watching the playoffs; DeMar DeRozan did that for a few years before his Raptors broke through in his fifth season. Thompson went to a few games in Philadelphia to track his old Sacramento teammate Spencer Hawes, and did not seethe with jealousy. Instead, he viewed it as a chance to learn.
"It's the offseason, so it might be tough to watch," Thompson said. "But you want to know, because you don't really know the feeling until you experience it."
That experience will come this weekend. Thompson said he feels at home with the Raptors, where he is playing with someone he has known since he was a teenager, fellow Philadelphia-area kid Kyle Lowry, and a pair of ex-Kings teammates in James Johnson and Patrick Patterson. They told him about the atmosphere inside the Air Canada Centre, and what goes on outside it in the space nicknamed Jurassic Park.
But hearing about it is different than living it, and everything is new to Thompson, now. "Before [in mid-April], I knew I could wake up at any time of the day I wanted to and be OK," Thompson said. "Now I'm going to have to set my alarm and get to work."