Wilkens awaits Isiah's inevitable move

Originally Published: January 17, 2005
By Mitch Lawrence | Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Every time the Knicks don't compete and end up on the wrong end of a lopsided score, the immediate reaction in New York is the same:

Isiah Thomas
Thomas, looking over Wilkens' shoulder, is always making moves, just as when he played.
"So is this when Isiah fires Lenny?"

They're such big names on the American professional sports scene, you don't need their last names.

There's Isiah Thomas, the ex-Pistons great and current Knicks president who has been entrusted to build a championship team. And there's Lenny Wilkens, the Hall of Fame player and coach who is viewed in some quarters as nothing more than a caretaker until Thomas decides it's time to return to the sidelines.

New York isn't the easiest place in the world to coach, for starters. So when the Knicks really bomb, as they've done a few times this season, it can't be easy for Wilkens. The very next day, speculation about his job security is carried in war-type headlines.

But does he ever complain? Does he vent in the papers? Does he take it out on his players?

In a word, never.

Lenny Wilkens isn't old school, he's ancient school. If and when the time comes for him to leave the Knicks, he will not slam the Garden door behind him. He will act with as much class and dignity as ever.

Meanwhile, he chuckles about the fact that people -- like maybe Isiah -- think the Knicks should be better than they are.

"People have expectations that this is a great team," he said recently. "We're a good team and we're trying to get better. We're taking tiny steps."

That's about as critical of his boss as Wilkens will ever get. It's one of the reasons that Thomas hired him in the first place. Isiah knew he was getting someone who was comfortable staying out of the headlines, as difficult as that is in the Big Apple. Because of that, Isiah, who loves the limelight, can operate out in front.

That Thomas does as well as he spends owner Jim Dolan's money. He views home games, standing behind and to the left of Woody Allen, in the tunnel leading to the locker rooms. So when he watches his team, he literally is looking over Wilkens' shoulder. But Lenny never objects.

I have no issue with what he's done. Every time we lose a game it's not the coach's fault. The players have to take some responsibility.
Knicks president Isiah Thomas on coach Lenny Wilkens
Just as he doesn't complain when Thomas walks into the locker room to address the team. Many other coaches, including ex-Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, would have a hard time if the GM decided to give the players a pep talk or a dressing-down. Those coaches believe the locker room is their place, and only theirs, to hold sway with the players. But as much as Wilkens is a competitor, his easygoing nature allows him to defer to Thomas.

Thomas knew that would be at the core of their relationship when he hired Wilkens last Jan. 14. Right before Thomas fired Don Chaney, his initial instinct was to bring in Mike Fratello. He and Fratello had several meetings and it was understood that the Czar was Isiah's first choice. But Isiah and Fratello couldn't agree on a contract and Thomas was said to have had other issues, including how he'd ever be able to coach the team if Fratello enjoyed success.

Wilkens was ecstatic to get another chance, in his hometown no less. Although he was the all-time leader in wins among coaches, with a 1292-1114 record at the time, his three-year run in Toronto ended badly, with Vince Carter, among others, saying that the game had passed him by. He was resigned to the possibility that the book on his coaching career was closed.

It didn't help Wilkens, now 67, that his victory total in Toronto went down every year, from 47 to 42 and 24, or that the Raptors' playoff runs got shorter, from the second round in 2001, to a first-round exit in 2002 to the lottery in his final season, 2003.

For the most part, Lenny Wilkens' name was removed from the Rolodexes of most NBA general managers when his coaching days in Toronto ended.

He had survived criticism before, and thrived in his own patient way. Earlier in his coaching days, he had always heard two knocks against him: He didn't play young players and his teams never got out of the first round. He objected to both, and won a title with the Sonics in 1979.

Then, after Toronto, there was a sense that he was too old for another job, even though he was only three years older than Larry Brown.

"He's a solid coach," said one Eastern Conference executive. "You know what you'll get with Lenny. His teams are prepared. It's pretty much, what you see is what you get."

That may not be exactly what is needed in New York. For long-time Knicks fans accustome to stingy defense from the Pat Riley days through the Van Gundy years, the team's oft-lax defense under Wilkens is unconscionable.

"Jeff talked about defense, first," said Kurt Thomas, one of the few holdovers from the Van Gundy years. "And that's really all he talked about. Lenny talks about offense, pushing the ball, and then he talks about defense."

Wilkens prefers to instruct players quietly, send them out on the court and then see what happens.

"He's forgotten more than a lot of coaches know," Jamal Crawford said.

Sometimes, it looks as if these Knicks could use a coach who emphasizes defense and screams, as Van Gundy used to. But Thomas has come out in defense of his coach, most recently after the Knicks mailed in a road game at Cleveland. The effort was nonexistent in a 104-79 blowout, prompting Wilkens to say, "This has got to stop."

For Lenny, that was a rip job.

Some observers thought it would stop right then and there, with Wilkens' ouster. But reality has hit Isiah Thomas with all the subtlety of a Karl Malone elbow.

During organizational meetings before training camp, he told associates that his team was second best in the East, after Detroit, even though he had done nothing to address the team's frontcourt problems and they were only a 39-win team a year ago.

But after making the playoffs and with Stephon Marbury going into his first full season in New York, Thomas had big ideas.

Not anymore.

Through the first half of this season, he's seen his roster's shortcomings, and has also scaled back where he thinks the team should be because of Allan Houston's continuing knee troubles and a toe injury to Crawford.

Stephon Marbury and Lenny Wilkens
A Hall of Fame point guard himself, Lenny leans a great deal on Marbury, a point guard who's never won a playoff series.
"I have no issue with what he's done," Thomas said about Wilkens. "Every time we lose a game it's not the coach's fault. The players have to take some responsibility."

Thomas refused to say anything more strongly in his coach's defense, because that would be viewed in New York as "the kiss of death," he said.

But he clearly doesn't see the Knicks as the kind of team he wants to take over as coach. He called the Knicks a .500 team.

"Sometimes," he said, "you take your lumps and get embarrassed on national TV in front of a packed house."

The fact they get to play in the Atlantic Division hides a lot of warts on a roster almost entirely assembled by Thomas and costing Dolan a league-high $103 million in salaries this season.

"We're not fooling ourselves," he said. "We don't think we're a 60-win team."

They're only two superstars from it, in fact.

Wilkens has his faults, as Thomas knows. His end-of-game strategy, including when players should foul when the Knicks are behind, and who gets the ball for a final shot, has come under fire more than once. After the home-opener disaster against Boston, Thomas jettisoned Dick Helm, Wilkens' longtime right-hand man and the only member of his staff whom he picked. It was no surprise that Wilkens toed the company line, failing to stick up for his buddy or criticize Thomas.

Wilkens will do whatever Isiah wants, and that includes leaving, when the time comes. But at this point, Thomas doesn't want to have to fire him. After all, it will reflect poorly on his presidency.

If the Knicks have a few more "Cleveland" games over the next few days or weeks in which they fail to put up a fight, Thomas will have no choice but to make a move. But until that point, Wilkens won't be so easy to run off. He's a New York institution, a legend from the streets of Brooklyn and the leading minority figure among professional sports coaches. All those were also factors in his hiring, given how PR-minded the Knicks are.

Furthermore, Thomas seems to have no viable candidates in waiting. The speculation has always had Isiah taking over, but only when the Knicks have a team that can go deep in the postseason. They're not there yet, by miles. When Thomas looks next to Wilkens, he sees only cronies like Brendan Suhr and Mark Aguirre, who have never been head coaches, and other career assistants in Mike Malone and Herb Williams.

So Isiah will stick with Wilkens, knowing that if there is another "Cleveland" game or two in the not-so-distant future, everybody in New York will be anxious to know:

"So is this when Isiah fires Lenny?"

Someday, they'll get their answer.

Mitch Lawrence, who covers the NBA for the New York Daily News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.