Walsh: I'd consider Isiah for GM
A reunion between Isiah Thomas and the New York Knicks is possible, according to Donnie Walsh.
Walsh, the Knicks' president, said Thomas will be on his list of candidates if he is given the go-ahead to hire a general manager.
"With other people, yes, Isiah would be under consideration from me," Walsh said in a telephone interview Saturday. "But that's a situation the owner would have to be involved in."
Walsh said he hasn't hired a general manager for financial reasons. If Knicks owner James Dolan allows it, he said he will eventually do so. Walsh, 69, also said reports of his imminent retirement are "totally off-base" and that he has no plans to step down.
There is little question that Dolan would be willing to consider rehiring Thomas, who served as the club's president and eventually head coach for 4½ years. The two have maintained a close relationship since Thomas was fired by the Knicks in April 2008.
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Thomas, now the head coach at Florida International University, even assisted the Knicks in their pursuit of free agents in this historic NBA summer. Thomas played a huge role in the Knicks' courtship of Amare Stoudemire, Joe Johnson and LeBron James.
After the Knicks signed Stoudemire on Thursday, Walsh thanked Thomas publicly for his help during free agency.
"Isiah helped us a lot in getting Amare," Walsh said Saturday. "And he tried to help us get Joe Johnson and LeBron. He knew some of the people that were connected with some of the players, and he has a good reputation with the players and with the people that represent them. He was great."
One member of the organization said Thomas deserves the lion's share of the credit for bringing Stoudemire to New York.
"Nothing was going our way," the person said. "We were afraid we were going to get shut out. We didn't have a person who could relate to these young guys and we were panicking. Isiah stepped in and did that for us."
While Stoudemire was the only big-name player the club signed, a person close to Johnson said Thomas' work on New York's behalf had the Atlanta Hawks All-Star seriously considering joining the Knicks.
Before Thomas began recruiting Johnson a few days before free agency began on July 1, the Knicks "weren't even on our radar," according to the person close to Johnson. But the Knicks ended up being the first team to meet with Johnson after the Hawks. After both clubs offered Johnson maximum-salary contracts at their first meeting, Johnson was thinking of joining the Knicks.
"It was 50-50 between New York and Atlanta at that point," the person close to Johnson said. "Joe was going to have to leave that $30 million on the table to go to New York, but he was still considering it. If Isiah had been in pocket with the Knicks, meaning if he had still been working for their organization, there's a strong possibility that Joe would have ended up there."
While Thomas has a poor reputation in New York because of the team's struggles -- as well as his primary role in an embarrassing sexual harassment case -- during his tenure with the Knicks, the Hall of Famer is widely respected by players and those in their inner circles throughout the league.
Over the past two weeks, he used his stature to promote the Knicks. Though Johnson had a good relationship with Mike D'Antoni, he wasn't even going to give the Knicks a meeting before Thomas began speaking about the organization, according to the person close to Johnson.
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"Isiah spoke very positively about New York," the source said. "He was just telling us how loyal the Knicks were, how good of an organization it was and how the owner was a good guy. For him to say that about an organization that had fired him really put the Knicks in a positive light in Joe's mind."
Realizing the pull Thomas has with players, Dolan sent him to Cleveland to meet with James on Wednesday in a last-ditch effort to recruit the superstar. Thomas never got an audience with James, but he met with one of the members of his inner circle.
Walsh, who hired Thomas to coach his Indiana Pacers in 2000, said Thomas' tarnished image in New York is a bit unfair. The Knicks were already a disaster when Thomas took over in December 2003, having gone two straight seasons without making the playoffs.
While Thomas saddled the club with several big contracts, there's no question he upgraded the team's talent, acquiring All-Stars Stephon Marbury and Zach Randolph in their primes. He also hired two legendary coaches in Lenny Wilkens and Larry Brown, and his strong work in the draft is undeniable. Thomas selected Trevor Ariza in the second round in 2004, got Channing Frye, David Lee and Nate Robinson in 2005, and Wilson Chandler in 2007. He also urged the Knicks to draft Brandon Jennings in 2009.
Upon replacing Thomas in 2008, Walsh was stunned by the level of dislike for him in New York.
"When I got here, he was getting killed beyond anything I'd ever seen before," Walsh said. "I've never seen anything like that."
With Thomas being such a lightning rod in New York, it may be difficult for the Knicks to bring him back. But at the very least, his work on behalf of the organization this summer could go a long way in restoring his image.
Chris Broussard covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.