I.T. and J.T. have been challenged by potential replacements before, and have come out on top. Thomas has beaten Jimmer Fredette (picked 50 spots higher in the 2011 NBA Draft) and Aaron Brooks for his job. Thompson first knocked Mikki Moore out of the starting power forward spot, then beat back challenges from Landry, Sean May, Chuck Hayes, Thomas Robinson and now Patrick Patterson. And now Landry is back to try again.
Vasquez is the newest challenger to I.T., but it seems really important to note that unlike Jimmer and Brooks, the Venezuelan is of a totally different style than Thomas. Fredette and Brooks are pretty similar to I.T. in style: score-first, pass-second, get out in transition. Vasquez is the Kings' first pass-first guard since Sergio Rodriguez.
Landry, meanwhile, is coming in as -- in my opinion -- a top reserve. That's where Top Hat has seen his greatest success in recent years: as a top frontcourt scoring option off of the bench. It's also worth noting that his first run as a starter alongside DeMarcus Cousins didn't go too well. So while Landry is back and likely to steal minutes from Thompson, it's perhaps not as a direct challenger for the starting job. (Patterson is a different story.)
If you ignore Jimmer for a second and assume rookie Ray McCallum makes the roster, the Vasquez-Thomas point guard rotation makes a lot of sense. Look at their 2012-13 per-36 and shooting numbers.
Isaiah is the better individual player. He scores way more, and does it more efficiently. (He's also younger [by three years] and currently cheaper.) But basketball's not an individual game. And we've never seen DeMarcus Cousins (or Ben McLemore, for that matter) with a pass-first point guard. Vasquez is certainly a pass-first point guard. Legitimately, his numbers look like Rajon Rondo lite, right down to the poor jump shooting. (Vasquez's value would go up if his shot frequency went down, though it's worth noting he's currently more efficient on threes than twos overall because of the added point on makes from beyond the arc. His 34 percent from three is the equivalent of 51 percent on twos.)
Both guards are really aggressive, but in different ways: Vasquez is aggressive in making plays (see those turnovers, too?) and Thomas is an aggressive scorer. Both do the other thing pretty regularly (Vasquez can score and I.T. can pass), but the priorities are different. Why? Because, in my opinion, the skills are different.
Because of all this, as the roster stands now, I think Vasquez will end up the starter but Thomas (if he isn't traded) will be a valuable bench option. The mystery component in the discussion is defense: I honestly don't know enough about Vasquez on that end, and frankly we've only seen Thomas on Keith Smart teams, so we don't know enough about I.T. on that end either. Size matters in defense, and Vasquez is about 10 inches taller than I.T. But that's not the whole equation, so clearly that's an unknown. One more note in the comparison: Vasquez is a better rebounder, and the Kings need rebounding.
But I think in the end, it makes more sense to see a playmaker like Vasquez try his hand with Cousins and either McLemore or Marcus Thornton in the starting five. I actually think I.T. and Landry would be a fierce pick-and-roll combo off of the bench, and we know Thomas is a helluva sparkplug in any role.
The real question is how Pete D'Alessandro and crew handle this when both Vasquez and Thomas become restricted free agents in 2014, provided I.T. is retained. A big part of Thomas's draw is his contract value (dirt cheap). That's what makes the presence of Ray McCallum (who appears to be an I.T.-type scoring point) all the more intriguing. Thomas is more valuable as a trade asset the further from free agency he is. (Why? RFAs like I.T. will sign smaller contracts than someone like Tyreke Evans, so the team taking him -- assuming the Kings don't match -- would more easily be able to fit him under the cap or within a cap exception without giving up an asset.) So, now and approaching the trade deadline will be the best times to deal I.T. if you're going to deal him or let him go in a year when he hits the market. If McCallum shows in Summer League, preseason and early in the season that he can replicate much of what I.T. does, and if Vasquez is handling the starting job well, that'd could open the door to flipping Thomas for an asset at the deadline.
Of course, Jimmer (under contract through 2014-15) could do that too, freeing up an I.T. trade. But every indication has been that Fredette is not long for this franchise. We'll see.
(Cue the I.T. trade rumor that makes this entire thing irrelevant.)