Thomas as coach: Unconventional, calm

Unconventional and calm are two words to describe Isiah Thomas' first week as Pacer coach, notes Marc Stein.

Updated: November 7, 2000, 1:25 PM ET
By Marc Stein | Special to ESPN.com

NBA coaches generally wouldn't view Jonathan Bender opposite Steve Kerr as a feasible matchup, like Isiah Thomas did during the first real game he ever ran from the bench.

NBA coaches typically couldn't bring themselves to trust neophytes such as Bender, Al Harrington and Jeff Foster to play alongside Travis Best and career backup Zan Tabak in the third quarter of a tight opening night, as Thomas briefly did in his debut.

NBA coaches certainly aren't usually seen in their locker rooms after a game, milling about with the players. Or clutching a stat sheet, hunting down a chair and ultimately plopping between Best and Derrick McKey to see if the veterans have any suggestions about righting some free-throw woes.

"Let me show you guys something," Isiah Thomas whispered, mere minutes after the reigning Eastern Conference champion Indiana Pacers were dropped to 0-2. "What can we do about this?"

Thomas was pointing to the 10 free throws Indiana missed in a six-point game, and unintentionally supplying yet another hint that the search for solutions will be anything but normal on Zeke's watch. Everyone wants to know what kind of coach Isiah will be -- since so few of us ever expected him to be one -- and this much you can already tell.

He's going to be different.

It's a little early for snap judgments, true, but Week 1 of the Thomas Era was too unconventional to ignore. Mainly, he just looked so freakishly calm as the Pacers, last seen stretching the Lakers to six games in the NBA Finals, needed three games just to break 90 points and a get a win.

Maybe calmer, perhaps, than the expressionless Larry Bird.

"He's a calm guy," Austin Croshere said of his new boss.

How calm? So calm that, so far, Thomas is spending more time sitting on his hot seat than stalking up and down the coaches' box. He has also displayed no hesitation about dropping his hands into his pockets when things start going bad, or repeatedly flashing that trademark smile while his Pacers were losing in San Antonio and Dallas to start the new season.

There were hearty laughs in Week 1, too. Smiles. Laughter. At this rate, we're half-expecting Thomas to bust out that famous little jig -- the one from all the old highlight reels where he tucks the ball under his arm and dances in circles on the floor -- when 1-2 Indiana makes it to .500.

We doubt you can stay this unflappable, Mr. Thomas. Can you?

"I'm going to be honest with you -- I don't know," said Thomas, before letting out another robust chuckle. "I just try to get a lot of work done in practice. If we can get the things done that we want, I shouldn't have to get up too much and make too much noise during the games.

"Everyone has a different personality. And mine is probably still developing on the sideline."

Thomas, at 39, seems unruffled by the knowledge that his every sideline twitch will be scrutinized. Of course, that will inevitably lead to suspicions that it's all an act from a renowned actor -- just more evidence to support the widely held belief that Thomas is manipulative, selfish and coaching merely because it's a necessary step on the road to NBA ownership, his real ambition. The theory Thomas has to keep calm on the outside to prevent anyone from suggesting that he's not in control or not ready for the X-and-O world.

Miller
Miller

Rose
Rose

His most prominent players don't buy that, though. Reggie Miller, initially fuming in the wake of Indiana's decisions to abandon Mark Jackson and Dale Davis, says now that Thomas has helped him "feel better" about the Pacers' long-term prospects. Michigan man Jalen Rose, who should return later this week after breaking his wrist, talks excitedly about playing for one of his boyhood idols.

"Isiah and Magic -- that's like 1A and 1B for me," Rose said.

It's a mutual admiration society, too, because Thomas is referring to Rose -- not Miller -- as "our best player." As in: "Don't forget we're playing without our best player, without our leading scorer," Thomas said.

As long as Miller is OK with that assertion, and so long as Thomas' top two players are so supportive, he shouldn't have any internal problems. All of the other Pacers will fall right into line behind the two All-Stars.

And that will allow Thomas to proceed to the bigger problems. Such as offense and defense. Isiah has said repeatedly that he wants the Pacers to "make it very difficult for the opponent to score" as a defense-first club, but that's difficult when Rose is out and Miller is surrounded by kiddies. The younger Pacers don't know how to fight through screens, or get out to open shooters or counter the basic pick-and-roll. Even Best, who has been around, tends to gamble for too many steals ... and dribble too much for Reggie's liking.

Thomas' early offense features more of Bobby Knight's passing game than the pick-and-rolls Chuck Daly often called when Thomas was wearing No. 11 instead of a suit. But without Rose, points have been hard to come by: 85 against the Spurs, 88 against the Mavericks and just 94 in victory No. 1 over lowly Chicago. Miller, meanwhile, is much more apt to get frustrated by all the inexperience in his world rather than his interactions with the new coach. "0-2 ? that's not worth commenting on," Miller snapped last Thursday night, before storming out of Reunion Arena.

"I think Reggie's handling it pretty well," Thomas countered.

As for himself, Thomas added: "I don't feel helpless at all. I like the way our team is shaping up. I don't see a lot of teams in this league going out and -- excuse me -- kicking ass on the road, unless you're a veteran team that's been together for a long time."

With that, Thomas retreated behind closed doors to continue his unusual survey. He sat with Rose and Terry Mills and asked them the same question about free throws that Best and McKey got: "What can we do about this?" It's ultimately up to Thomas to manufacture the answers, but, whether he's capable or not, Pacers fans will be interested to know that the coach ain't worried.

Around The League

  • There are few bright sides in Minnesota in these days, beyond the fact Kevin Garnett and Flip Saunders are still there, but here's one: Never in NBA history has it been easier for teams to acquire first-round picks, because it has become fashionable for deep teams to dump picks. Devastating as the penalties are in the Joe Smith affair -- that $3.5 million fine and five forfeited first-rounders -- the Wolves should be able to trade for a first-round selection or two in forthcoming drafts. Just one example came last June, when Orlando had three lottery picks and dealt away two of them.

  • Why aren't the Lakers among the finalists to land Smith if he stays in Minnesota? Again, LA's reputation for limited spending precedes it. Smith knows that Chicago has cap room ($5 million plus) and that Miami (Alonzo Mourning's $3.88 million injury exception), New York ($2.25 million exception) and Dallas ($2.25 million) are likely to help him recoup some of those lost millions down the road. The Lakers only have a $1.2 million exception to offer and are more apt to take the one-year-and-we'll-see approach.

  • No one knows exactly where Dikembe Mutombo will wind up after the trading deadline, but everyone knows that Deke's gone. And he's going to the team that can supply the Hawks with an All-Star and a potential All-Star. That's the minimum Atlanta is seeking in a deal.

  • More comfort for Denver's Dan Issel in his quest to quell all the hot-seat talk: Antonio McDyess totaled 10 points in the Nuggets' first two games, and there's already considerable speculation around the league that Issel's replacement has been lined up. That would be Nick Van Exel's beloved Bob Huggins.

  • James Worthy missed out on his first bid to enter the Basketball Hall of Fame last month and didn't even get to go where he was scheduled to appear on induction weekend. Worthy and Micheal Ray Richardson were the marquee names for an NBA tour stop in Israel, but the retired stars were told not to make the trip because of the recent unrest in the Middle East.

  • Some surprising stories are coming out the draft's second round. You've got two second-rounders starting for their teams: Dallas' Eduardo Najera and Chicago's Khalid El-Amin. And another second-rounder, Chris Carrawell, who has already been waived by two teams. Carrawell, the ex-Dukie projected to be selected in the top 20 in June, slipped all the way to San Antonio at No. 41. The Spurs guaranteed Carrawell's rookie salary -- not too shocking since Carrawell and Tim Duncan have the same agent in Lon Babby -- but wound up releasing Carrawell in training camp. Atlanta then picked him up and cut him the same day. Bizarre.

  • Charlotte was last season's Milwaukee, the trendy pick to win the East. Forward P.J. Brown, one of the new Hornets, thinks this is the year they live up to that billing (Charlotte, not Milwaukee). "Keep sleeping on us," Brown said of the Hornets' diminished stature this fall. "That's the way we like it." Brown also asserts that the new guard pairing of Baron Davis and David Wesley "is the strongest backcourt in the league." Brown meant sheer strength as much as talent. "Just look at their physiques," he said.

    Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

    Marc Stein | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
    • Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
    • Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
    • Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics
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    Unconventional and calm describe Isiah Thomas' first week as Pacer coach.