OAKLAND, CALIF. — The reunion is happening more than three weeks later, and on a different coast, than he wanted, but Al Thornton is still excited about finally facing the team that waived him earlier this month.
The Washington Wizards and Thornton mutually agreed to part ways, with President Ernie Grunfeld informing Thornton and his agent, Bill Duffy, that the fourth-year forward wasn’t going to be a part of the team’s future. Thornton quickly made plans to join the Golden State Warriors, but the 48-hour waiting period following his release kept him from debuting against the Wizards — as he had hoped — when the teams met on March 2.
“I really thought I was going to be playing that day,” Thornton said with a laugh on Saturday after putting up extra shots at the Warriors’ practice facility. He watched the Warriors defeat the Wizards, 106-102, from his apartment in Washington and signed with them the next day in Boston.
The Wizards (17-54) will bring their league-worst 1-34 road record to Oracle Arena on Sunday, and the delay has allowed Thornton to get acclimated to his new surroundings and a new more wide-open, high-octane offensive system with the Warriors. In 13 games coming off the bench, Thornton has averaged seven points and shot 55 percent — a slight decline in scoring, but an improvement in field-goal percentage from 49 games this season with the Wizards.
“I’m excited to be here,” Thornton said. “These guys are unselfish. They know how to play. They share the ball. I think we need to tighten up on the defensive end a little bit — that’s obvious — but I like the style of play here.”
Thornton was the primary asset the Wizards acquired in their three-team deal last year that sent Antawn Jamison to Cleveland. But his time in Washington was defined by inconsistency and injury, as he had the potential to dominate and disappear from game to game. He started 23 games for the Wizards this season, but the addition of Rashard Lewis in the Gilbert Arenas trade, the return of Josh Howard from his left knee injury, and Thornton’s injuries to his ankle, abdomen and later the middle finger on his shooting hand eventually caused him to slide out of the regular rotation.
“Maybe I could’ve been more consistent,” he said. “The year didn’t go quite as well as I thought it would go. A lot of it had to do with injuries. I’m not using that as an excuse, but that’s what it is. It was tough, because the times I was coming back off my injuries, I wasn’t quite well but I was just so eager to get out there and play and play well and play at a high level, and I wasn’t healed all the way. I was banged up, nicked up, but I was thankful. I appreciate the time there and I enjoyed it.”
When the Wizards added Maurice Evans and Jordan Crawford from Atlanta at the trade deadline, Thornton approached Grunfeld about his standing within the organization and realized the team didn’t have plans to keep him beyond this season. And, with Coach Flip Saunders’s rotation, Thornton wasn’t going to get the opportunity to showcase his talents for potential suitors when he became a restricted free agent.
“Once they started bringing in all those small forwards, I was like, ‘It’s time for me to go,’ ” Thornton said. “It wasn’t about starting, it was about consistent minutes wasn’t gong to be there. And I wasn’t going to be playing that much. I needed to get up out of there, man. It was just a messed-up situation.”
Since Thornton left, though, the Wizards have lost Lewis, Howard and Andray Blatche to injury and even had to sign Othyus Jeffers from the NBA Development League to add depth at the position. Trevor Booker, who has started the past eight games at small forward, is questionable against the Warriors after he jammed his right foot Friday in Denver.
Although he realizes he likely would’ve had the opportunity for minutes in Washington if he had stayed, Thornton said he doesn’t have any regrets about leaving the Wizards to join the Warriors, where Coach Keith Smart was already familiar with Thornton, since he was assigned to scouting the Los Angeles Clippers in his time as an assistant under former Golden State coach Don Nelson.
“I was looking forward to coming here,” said Thornton, who had to sacrifice $400,000 as part of the buyout agreement with the Wizards. “I wish those guys the best. I hope they can get healthy and finish the season up strong. It’s going to be a weird feeling, but I’m just excited to see them again, some of my old friends, some old coaches. I know it’s going to be a competitive game.”