Thomas in charge leaves Knicks no better
So, there was Jim Dolan, the worst owner in sports, standing in the ruins of Madison Square Garden, coughing on the smoke rising out of the embers, spitting out the lamest of ultimatums:
Isiah Thomas is gone, unless there's "significant progress" next season.
Wonderful. Now, Knicks' fans have to root against the team this year. Because Larry Brown stopped trying to win games -- kept losing to prove a point to Dolan -- the bar has never been set so low.
Thomas is running away from several of his trades, blaming them on Brown. He's trying to distance himself from the three most impossible facts in NBA history: Hall of Fame coach, $125 million payroll and 23 victories.
The question now: What's progress for the Knicks? No more harassment suits? Jerome James gains just 20 pounds this summer, instead of 40? Eddy Curry runs back on defense on consecutive trips down the floor this season?
For the job Thomas has done, he doesn't deserve an ultimatum. He deserves to get kicked out of the Garden, with Brown and the rest of the coaches that have come and gone under Dolan's miserable watch.
If Thomas were on the market tomorrow, there wouldn't be a franchise in the sport that would hire him. No one would hire him as an executive. No one would hire him as a coach. Somehow, this truth gets him bigger responsibilities with the Knicks.
Two years ago, he swore it was impossible to be the Knicks' top executive and coach. The two jobs were too big. He wouldn't try. Now, Dolan orders him to do it.
There's some management.
"This is his team," Dolan said. "He made this bed. There's nobody better than him to make this thing go forward. But he has to do that. He has one year, one season to do that. At this time next year, Isiah will be with us if we can all sit here and say that this team has made significant progress toward its goal of eventually becoming an NBA championship team. If we can't say that, then Isiah will not be here.
"It's his team, it's his responsibility."
He made the mess, so he gets to clean it up? Some plan. Anyway, Dolan ordered him to step out of the game-night tunnel at the Garden and into the fire.
Thomas' defenders come up with just this: His bad contracts aren't as bad as Scott Layden's. Somehow, this is sold as the standard for the Knicks. Layden was worse. When the Knicks have the resources, the prestige, to have one of the best basketball minds in the world, Thomas has reduced it to this debate:
Better than Layden?
The Knicks need to be competing with Rod Thorn in New Jersey, and Jerry West in Memphis, and Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford in San Antonio. They won't pull themselves out of this state of disrepair with that kind of self-defeating, delusional comparison to the Layden era. They're giving Thomas another year to make trades, absorb contracts and lay waste to draft picks. He has crippled this franchise for the short and long run.
Progress toward a championship? What title? The AAU summer tournament in Las Vegas? That's what the Knicks are now: a modern, multimillion AAU team of fat, out-of-shape big guys and selfish, me-first guards who make no one better but their accountants.
Next season, watch the way opposing coaches go out of their way to praise Thomas, publicly begging for him to be spared. With the Knicks' resources, no one in the NBA wants to see them get it right. And as long as they keep Thomas, and as long as Dolan is running the franchise, the Knicks are years and years away from ever coming out from under.
In the meantime, they'll blame Brown. Here's the thing: Brown stayed true to his character (which is to say, he has none). Dolan and Thomas blamed Brown for trying to make trades behind Thomas' back. They blamed him for trashing his players in the paper. They blamed him for requesting trades for Steve Francis and Jalen Rose, only to change his mind about them within weeks and say that he no longer wanted them on the roster.
They blamed Brown for, well, being Larry Brown. He didn't behave differently in New York than anywhere else he's been -- except he lost a lot more. A truth-telling contest between Dolan-Thomas and Brown is like trying to pick between Iran and Iraq. I'll go with Joe Dumars against Brown, because everybody knows the kind of integrity that's been a hallmark of Dumars' life.
With the Knicks and Brown, there's no one to root for. You don't want to see Brown get the $40 million owed him, and you don't want to see Dolan get away with keeping it in his pockets.
This is the biggest mess in sports, and it only gets bigger now. Thomas is going to coach the Knicks, and the fans of this franchise (at least those interested in the long term) will be rooting wildly against him, just praying the progress of 30 victories with a $125 million payroll doesn't buy them the worst of all possibilities: Remaining the only place in all of pro basketball that would keep Isiah on the job.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His book, "The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty," is available in paperback.