The Case for Isiah

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The Case for Isiah
Doug Benc/Getty Images
Isiah Thomas returns from NBA exile to the Knicks.

The prodigal son has returned to New York. Last Friday, the New York Knicks announced that former coach and president of basketball operations Isiah Thomas would return to the organization as a part-time consultant. Thomas touted this role as an opportunity for the Knicks to take “full advantage of [his] skill set as an evaluator of basketball talent.”

Current Knicks president Donnie Walsh isn’t impressed, with reports surfacing that he nearly resigned when he learned Knicks owner and Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan went over Walsh’s head to hire Thomas. Many believe this is a sign that Thomas is angling to claim the GM position and usurp control over the Knicks operations back from Walsh.

As expected, the always zealous New York media is rampantly battering this decision, although New York fans don’t appear to be as unilaterally against Thomas’s return or his intentions. However, assuming David Stern doesn’t quash the entire idea due to the potential conflict of interest with Thomas’s current job at Florida International University, are there merits to having Thomas as a Knicks consultant?

Isiah Thomas: Skilled Evaluator of Talent?

Thomas with David Lee, not a bad draft pick.

One reputation Thomas has picked up is that he’s a master at the draft. When he actually keeps the draft picks to use, as opposed to trading them so he can throw bloated contracts at mediocre talents like Eddy Curry and Stephon Marbury, Thomas has often found success. His credits:

  • 1995 Toronto Raptors – #7 Damon Stoudamire, #35 Jimmy King. The first ever pick in Toronto Raptors history was heavily booed, as Raptors fans wanted UCLA hero Ed O’Bannon. Yet, in a rookie class featuring Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, and Kevin Garnett (all of whom were picked before #7), Stoudamire ended up winning Rookie of the Year. Clearly, he was the right choice, as knee injuries ended O’Bannon’s career after only two years. Jimmy King was the last member of the Fab Five and accomplished little professionally.
  • 1996 Toronto Raptors – #2 Marcus Camby. After Allen Iverson was selected #1, Naismith College Player of the Year Marcus Camby was a no-brainer. Although injuries muddled the middle of his career, Camby has Defensive Player of the Year, four All-Defensive Teams, and All-Rookie First Team awards on his mantle and continues to be a force in the middle for the Portland Trailblazers.
  • 1997 Toronto Raptors – #9 Tracy McGrady. Thomas’s pick in 1996 would look even brighter had that draft not been arguably the deepest ever. Of course he missed out on Kobe Bryant at #13, but no one–NO ONE–predicted the career Kobe would have. Thomas would not miss the high school phenom of the 1997 class, however, selecting McGrady after such luminaries as Keith Van Horn, Antonio Daniels, Tony Battie, Ron Mercer, Tim Thomas, and Adonal Foyle were off the board. Seven-time All-Star McGrady was the last pick of any value in this draft until Stephen Jackson at #43.

Following an unsuccessful bid to buy the Raptors in 1998, Thomas resigned, tried broadcasting, ruined the CBA, did a stint as coach of the Pacers, and didn’t re-surface in another front office until Crazy Jimmy Dolan hired him late in 2003.

  • 2004 New York Knicks – #43 Trevor Ariza. With only one pick, Thomas still managed to find value with the athletic swingman from UCLA. Ariza was a critical component to the Lakers 2008 title run and a highly sought-after free agent the following summer. Nobody drafted after Ariza is still in the league, and only two others from the second round (Anderson Varejao and Chris Duhon) also still collect NBA paychecks.
  • 2005 New York Knicks – #8 Channing Frye, #21 Nate Robinson (via Phoenix), #30 David Lee, 54 Dijon Thompson. People forget that Channing Frye was the consensus second-best center in that draft (after Andrew Bogut) and actually showed quite a bit of promise his rookie year (All-Rookie First Team) before losing steam and then finding his role as a floor-spacing big man for the Suns. David Lee has been a revelation, as his new six-year $80 million contract demonstrates. The Knicks bought Nate Robinson from notorious Phoenix cheapskate Robert Sarver, and, after some turbulent seasons in New York, Robinson became a playoff hero in Boston last year and proved to be better than your average 21st pick. Dijon Thompson was out of the league in two years, a rare miscalculation as Amir Johnson and Marcin Gortat were both drafted after him. Though with two big men in the first round, it’s hard to blame Thomas for drafting a wing in the second.
  • 2006 New York Knicks – #20 Renaldo Balkman, #29 Mardy Collins. Here’s where it gets dicey. Renaldo Balkman wasn’t a bad player, but Thomas drafted him right before Rajon Rondo and several picks before Kyle Lowry, Shannon Brown, and Jordan Farmar. The Knicks did have both Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury at the time, but Balkman apologists can’t play the “We didn’t need a point guard!” card because Thomas drafted PG Mardy Collins at #29. Worse, Balkman was a total unknown, which led to an entire summer of awful “Did he think he was getting Rolando Blackman?” jokes. Collins, meanwhile, is still best known for getting slapped by Carmelo Anthony.
  • 2007 New York Knicks – #23 Wilson Chandler. Another relative unknown. The big knock here is that he was drafted one spot ahead of Rudy Fernandez, but Chandler actually outplayed Fernandez last year. No, Chandler hasn’t been as good as Carl Landry or Marc Gasol nor as beneficial to his team as Glen Davis (all picked in the second round), so this will go down as a solid pick for its position rather than another home-run.

Good evaluation of talent? Evidence supports it. The ESPN D.R.A.F.T. Initiative agrees, calling Thomas the second-best drafting GM of the past 20 years. On the other hand, first was Bryan Colangelo, who has been widely panned for the sorry state of the current Raptors, and third was Jim Paxson, who was chased out of Cleveland with sticks and burning copies of DeSagana Diop’s contract.

Clearly there is more to being a good GM than simply drafting.

Isiah Thomas: Credibility with Current Players?

Despite what Crazy Jimmy Dolan wants you to believe, 
this image had nothing to do with Isiah Thomas.

When Mike D’Antoni and Walsh pitched LeBron James in Cleveland this summer, they presented him with a Tony Soprano shout-out and spent hours talking X’s and O’s to convince him that the Knicks franchise and team were right for him. All seemed to go well, but word after the meeting was that Team LeBron now considered the Knicks out of the running.

Who did Crazy Jimmy Dolan send back to make the final plea? The same man responsible for the embarrassing quagmire that Walsh had to untangle even to have a chance at LeBron – Thomas. Thomas did get a meeting with one of LeBron’s representatives, which was good enough for Crazy Jimmy to decide Thomas had credibility with players that both Walsh and D’Antoni lacked. Like most decisions made during Crazy Jimmy Dolan’s reign of incompetence, a shred of logic led to a narrow-sighted leap off a cliff.

Yet there is that shred of logic. As much as the media and NBA offices lambast Isiah Thomas for his executive career, many NBA players still remember him as the greatest small point guard of all time and a member of the NBA’s 50 Best Players.

Forget the rumors that Thomas recruited Stoudemire, which appears questionable at best. Even without that, there is no question that Isiah has the charisma to charm even his biggest detractors in person, as well as the two championship rings to back up his words.

Is Isiah a Good Rehire?

Not better than the guy on the left.

The ultimate question. Yes, if he is coming onboard as a consultant. The ramifications this will create for the FIU basketball program and NCAA recruiting in general will be a bigger trainwreck than the one Thomas left in New York, but this can be good for the Knicks.

Yet if the rumors about Thomas’s ambitions are true, and Crazy Jimmy Dolan plans to replace Walsh, the man who fixed the worst salary cap situation in the league, with Thomas, a man who may not even know what the salary cap is, then this hire marks the first step back to insignificance for the New York Knicks franchise.


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