Isiah plays the waiting game

Updated: July 5, 2004, 11:06 AM ET
By Marc J. Spears | Special to ESPN.com

New York Knicks president Isiah Thomas would love to get his hands on Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal or Rasheed Wallace. But while the interest and pressure is there to make it happen, it will be extremely difficult for Thomas to get any new NBA superstar in a Knicks uniform since his hands are tied financially.

"They always set the bar up so high for me," Thomas said. "And if you don't do it, you fail. They aren't talking about [Nuggets general manager] Kiki [Vandeweghe] getting Shaq. You can't tell me he doesn't need a center and he has $23 million. They aren't talking about Utah getting Shaq. I think that's part of being me. Go get Shaq and Kobe, and if you don't, you fail.

"Let's keep it in perspective. We went to the playoffs. No one thought we would for three or four years. Now, they want us to get Shaq?"

Thomas is quickly being engrossed by the never dying high pressure of being the lead executive for a pro franchise in New York City. The New York Yankees got Alex Rodriguez. The New York Giants got Eli Manning.

What are you going to do next, Isiah?

With free agency under way, Thomas has made phone calls to express his interest in Wallace and Bryant. You better believe Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has received a call from him, too. But here is the problem which makes it tough for the Knicks to be a real player -- they are limited to just the mid-level exception in free agency (around $5 million) and other high-payroll teams like Dallas and Sacramento have much more attractive pieces to dangle than New York.

So instead of the likes of O'Neal, Wallace and Bryant, free agents like Jamal Crawford, Mehmet Okur, Antonio McDyess, Rodney White and Michael Doleac seem like more realistic possibilities.

"I'm in a wait-and-see-what-happens mode," Thomas said. "We'll probably have to wait for someone to make a mistake with one of their players or contract talks to break down to get back in the game. We're playing with $5 million and other teams are playing with $20 million."

So what about Kobe and Rasheed?

Word is Bryant's top three choices are the Lakers, the Clippers and the Knicks. There has been talk that Nike would double Bryant's salary to get him in a Knicks uniform. Endorsement money would probably come in mint fashion if Bryant were in New York. But there is a major difference between potential endorsement money and the reality of having a maximum contract from the Lakers for $150 million or a max deal slightly less from the Clippers sitting in front of you. Especially if Bryant could make similar endorsement money in Los Angeles if he is exonerated from his sexual assault case.

If Thomas is to get strongly in the mix for the Kobe sweepstakes, he believes the nostalgia and challenge of playing in New York City could be a drawing point.

"We'll talk to [Bryant], but that didn't come from us," said Thomas, about the ossibility of Bryant coming to New York. "He said that in the Finals. Once he gets done visiting Phoenix, Denver, Los Angeles and everyone else, at some point we'll talk. What we can offer to Kobe from a challenge standpoint is if you can win in New York, you've made your mark on history. You can make your mark in other places. But when you win in New York, you're a legend."

Thomas added: "[This year's free-agent crop] is kind of light. But if there is one player who is a superstar, it's Kobe. With his issues, you don't know. You don't know if he could possibly be in jail or play. But he is definitely worth the risk."

As for Wallace, Thomas will try but has already conceded that he expects Wallace to re-sign with Detroit. While comparing New York to Detroit as a city is like comparing Halle Berry to Whoopi Goldberg, it would seem silly for Wallace to turn down a lucrative long-term contract -- that no other team can match in money and years -- not to mention a chance to return to an NBA championship team.

Willis Reed was a great Knicks center. Patrick Ewing was the greatest Knicks center. Shaq would be even better.

If the Lakers trade O'Neal, you would think they'd prefer to ship him out East and see him just twice a season instead four times in the West. With a payroll of $93 million, the Knicks definitely have the contracts to match O'Neal's $27 million salary for next season in a trade. The Knicks have some talented and interesting high-priced players like guard Stephon Marbury ($14.6 million), guard Allan Houston ($17.5 million), swingman Penny Hardaway ($14.6 million), forward Tim Thomas ($12.9 million), guard Shandon Anderson ($7.3 million), forward Kurt Thomas ($11.8 million) and center Dikembe Mutombo ($4.4 million). But keep in mind that O'Neal would likely opt out of his contract next summer with hopes of signing a lucrative deal that would send the Knicks' payroll soaring over $100 million.

For Shaq, there is probably no Knicks combination or combination on this planet that will make the Lakers feel like they got close to equal value back. But if a trade must be done, Dallas, Sacramento and possibly even Memphis have high-priced players that could make for a more appealing package.

"If the Lakers are going to trade him, I would think he could only go to one place," said Isiah Thomas, before the Suns lured Steve Nash to Phoenix with $65 million. "There is no equal value for Shaq. But Dallas does have the players, and that's a place Shaq is willing to go."

One thing is for certain: Many players have seemed more interested in being a Knick since Isiah took over. Marbury was ecstatic about his return, and Bryant and Wallace have entertained the idea of playing in New York. But with a handcuffing payroll, today's Knicks team will probably be tomorrow's Knicks, too, with maybe a wing or drumstick added but no breast. Even so, Thomas is going to try to work out some kind of miracle for New York before free agency ends since that is what is expected from him anyway.

"I like what I have. I'm not out chasing," said Thomas, who believes Houston will be back solidly from a season-ending knee injury. "The team we have is a pretty good team. We made the playoffs and I'm looking forward to the team we have coming back. I don't feel we have to make changes or get a big piece."

"Players see, like Kobe and Rasheed, that they can fit in and play next to Marbury or Tim Thomas," Isiah added. "Shaq can say if I am on this team, we have the perimeter pieces and it can make my life easier. That shows that we are going in the right direction."

Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA and Denver Nuggets for The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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