Let's get something straight from jump: There are people out there who, at every opportunity, try to denigrate the career of Isiah Thomas, who try to color everything he does with controversy. There is a difference between something not working out because of mistakes in judgment (his ownership of the CBA -- which subsequently folded -- and battles with the league, for example) and someone being incapable of doing the job. Or being a loser.
Thomas is one of the biggest winners to come down the pike. He won a national championship at Indiana. At 6-1, he willed the Pistons to two NBA championships. He changed the culture of that franchise from one that accepted losing and made moves out of panic to one that was willing to build, slowly, inexorably, toward a title. The Pistons had great, tough players surrounding him, from Dumars to Laimbeer to Mahorn to Dantley to Rodman, but Isiah Lord Thomas was the unquestioned leader of the pack. He was the engine.
Same thing in Toronto, when Thomas was brought aboard by John Bitove to run his expansion franchise. In Toronto, Thomas drafted Damon Stoudamire, and Marcus Camby, and a kid from Mount Zion Academy named Tracy McGrady. Thomas and Bitove lost a power battle within the Raptors and were soon sent on their way, but they laid the foundation.
Not quite the same thing in Indiana, where Donnie Walsh had already assembled most of the parts when he hired Thomas as head coach in 2000. My feelings on Thomas's stint there are well-documented, but a brief recap for those of you just joining us: I felt Thomas was learning to be a head coach at about the same rate his young players were learning how to win in the postseason. Both had growing pains. Unfortunately for Thomas, he didn't get a chance to continue learning his craft when Larry Bird got to town. (And no, I still don't think Bird fired Thomas to settle some old grudge. I think he fired Thomas so he could hire his friend, Rick Carlisle -- who just happened to be available after winning 50 games two years in a row.)
Now comes Thomas's biggest test -- the big room, Madison Square Garden, with one of the three most important teams in the league -- the Knicks. The Knicks, the Lakers, the Celtics. You can take the pulse of the league by how these three franchises are doing. The struggles in the N.Y. are not good for this league. Like it or not, when the Greek Chorus that is the New York media doesn't pay attention to the product at 33rd and Eighth Avenue, it hurts everyone else. And under Scott Layden, the Knicks were running in mud. No present. No future.
In comes Thomas, with a smile on his face and steel in his spine. He will praise, cajole, threaten, wheedle, wheel and deal from his new perch. But with all those bad contracts, will it matter? It will, if Thomas does a few things.
First, forget about coaching.
I know it's stuck in his craw, how he was dispatched by Bird without so much as a face-to-face meeting. I know he wants to prove to people that he knows what he's doing on the bench, that he can take a group of young men and mold them into champions. And that may well be true. But he can't prove that while being the Knicks' president at the same time. It's too much.
Zeke is inflicted with the same bug that MJ has, that Magic has. If I can only get my hands on this thing... They were so successful as players, they know in their hearts that they can turn a team around if they have as much control over it as possible. It's why Magic tried to coach. It's why Jordan came back to play. But I think that feeling holds them back in the jobs to which they're now best suited-executives and owners. They can shape franchises with their mind and their guts, like a certain Logo is doing again in Memphis.
For example, Latrell Sprewell came back in the Garden on Tuesday. He was a very good player for the Knicks, but for years, management looked the other way while he was late for arrival at home games. When they started losing, they suddenly noticed Spree's perpetual tardiness. Well, Spree's a smart guy. He saw right through that hypocrisy, and reacted accordingly.
So Thomas, secondly, can set a tone from the beginning about what he expects from his players, his coaches, his scouts, his ticket salespeople. That's the best way to shape a franchise, because it's permanent. Coaches come and go; it's the nature of the job.
And I don't think the Knicks are as hopeless as others. They have some onerous contracts, but so did the Blazers, and so did the Nuggets, and they got out of them, eventually. But does Madison Square Garden CEO James Dolan have that kind of patience? Can he deal with the R word -- rebuilding? See, I think fans can. I think fans will be incredibly patient if you give them any kind of hope for the future.
And the Knicks have hope -- if they'll take it out of mothballs. They have young kids in Mike Sweetney, and Macjej Lampe, and Frank Williams. That's No. 3 on the list: put the kids on the floor and see what they can do. People will wait for talent to mature if there's a plan.
Fourth, by playing the kids, you accelerate the inevitable firing of Don Chaney. But turn that into a positive by making it clear after you fire Chaney that he has a job in the organization if he wants to stay. He's carried the water honorably since Jeff Van Gundy quit during the 2000-01 season, and he deserves a graceful exit strategy. (My guess is Thomas will appoint his old Pistons, Raptors and Pacers coach Brendan Malone to the head spot for a year or two, then turn things over to -- don't be shocked -- Mark Aguirre.)
Fifth, let Antonio McDyess go this summer. We all hope Dice can come all the way back from his latest injury, but don't hold the franchise hostage waiting for it. Sweetney and Lampe are the future up front. There is precedent here -- in 1987, the Knicks had to make a decision on a former All-Star forward who was coming off of a serious knee injury. All they knew was the guy was working hard and said he'd be his old self. They decided to pass on Bernard King and he went to Washington. If they had re-signed King for major dollars, he may have sold out the Garden for a couple of years. But they would have never been able to surround Patrick Ewing with enough talent to ultimately reach the Finals in '94.
Do the same thing here. Hope Dice plays his way into a mid-level exception contract, and wish him well. I know that only leaves Williams from the Marcus Camby-Nene deal. So what? If Williams turns into a legit lead point, no one will care.
Sixth, don't worry about the previous regime's bad contracts. Nothing you can do about them now. Don't make the problem worse by trading them for longer, worse contracts coming back that will only get you a round or so in the playoffs. (I know: the Garden makes $1 million every time it opens its doors, so even one round's worth of home games is a big deal.) But there's a bigger picture here. If you can't find takers for Shandon Anderson or Howard Eisley, don't sweat it.
Seventh, deal the guys you can deal for picks instead of players when at all possible. Everyone wanted Layden to get Nick Van Exel for Kurt Thomas and Charlie Ward. Mistake. Not that Nick at Nite isn't still a really talented player. But he's 32. There's no future there. Better to call Denver and try and get one of the Nuggets' future first-round picks from Thomas. There's little downside for the Nuggets, whose timetable to rebuild has been accelerated. Kurt Thomas's deal doesn't expire until after next season, true, but Denver may be more willing to pay for a moderately priced veteran ($5.8 million next season) that can help now instead of using some of that loot on a non-Lottery first-rounder. See if you can pry Melvin Ely or Chris Wilcox from the Clippers, who are looking for a point, for Ward. But, at the least, get a pick.
Eighth, do a Mutombo/Kemp. Buy out Keith Van Horn after this season. You owe him $30 million after this season rain or shine, so sell him on the idea that he'll get all his money up front, and become a free agent in a summer where there's probably not going to be a luxury tax -- and teams will likely be more likely to open their wallets. Also, by becoming a free agent sooner, KVH could get one more decent contract before the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after '07. Teams are already gearing for that -- look at how many superstars' deals expire after that season. The reason to do it is so he comes off the books after the 2003-04 season, not '04-05. That would put New York under the cap after next season, a place they haven't been in a decade.
It's a long list of to-dos. But it leaves the Knicks, in 18 months, with multiple draft picks, young guys that are getting experience, a little cap room, and a future. But no matter what Thomas decides to do, here's a vote for it being bold and being smart. And, ultimately, being successful.