If Thursday's 104-59 debacle against the Celtics was not the nadir of the Isiah Thomas era of the Knicks franchise, then what follows may be of Dantesque proportions at Madison Square Garden. They may have to hire the Rice band to play courtside.
The Knicks needed a three-point heave from just over the halfcourt line at the buzzer from Nate Robinson to avoid setting a new franchise record for fewest points in a game. This "effort" came after the Knicks had actually managed to string together two straight wins including one, over Utah, that came against a team that is playing very well. Robinson's basket gave him 11 points in the game. He was the only Knick to reach double figures. What in the name of Bernard King is going on here?
These kind of extreme blowouts crop up in the NBA from time to time. It's usually best to not read too much into them. One of the downsides of the NBA's grueling schedule is that on occasion, you'll have a team on the road playing on tired legs that simply cannot give its best effort. The energy just isn't there, and the fans that have paid good money to see a competitive basketball game are essentially being ripped off. These kinds of games are few and far between, thankfully, but they do exist and every team in the league will serve up a stinker or two at some point during the long season. Maybe not a 45-point stinker, but a stinker nonetheless.
In this instance, however, the Knicks have so such excuse. Not only had New York won two straight at the Garden, they had a full two days off before making the short trip to Boston. The modest winning streak came on the heels of a messy eight-game losing skid; a good performance against the division-leading Celtics could have served as a turnaround point for the Knicks' season. The game was on national television and one of Thomas' former players, Reggie Miller, who was working the game as an analyst, had called the New York franchise a "league-wide joke." There was ample incentive for the Knicks to put on a good show.
Obviously, they didn't. In the wake of the disaster, the calls for Thomas' head have never been louder. As the rout unfolded, Knicks players not only played a brand of basketball that Thomas quite accurately termed "selfish," they played almost as if they had an extreme dislike of each other. Meanwhile, Thomas sat stoically on the sideline. His characteristic grin was conspicuously absent; he looked as disinterested as his players. One can only imagine what Thomas' college coach, Bob Knight, may have done. Hopefully, he wouldn't have had a supply of birdshot nearby. By contrast, the Celtics had players diving into the stands and starters rooting on reserves from the bench, even in the fourth quarter when the outcome of the game wasn't even remotely in question.
That was only one game, of course, but that one game is simply the latest example of the long, downward spiral that has shaped Thomas' tenure in New York. I love how Matt Littman put it in an entry over at The Huffington Post when he invoked a quote from the immortal Michael Ray Richardson: "The ship be sinkin' so fast, the sky's the limit."
Considering what Thomas has gotten away with to this point, you have to wonder just what would Isiah have to do to get James Dolan to put him out of his--and Knicks fans'--considerable misery. What exactly is Dolan waiting for? A permission slip from his father? If any one person deserves to be held solely accountable for a team's failings, it's Thomas. This is a team he put together and he made himself responsible for making it work from the bench.
Thomas was hired by the Knicks on December 22, 2003. The next night, they fielded a starting lineup of Antonio McDyess, Howard Eisley, Allan Houston, Keith Van Horn and Dikembe Mutombo. Kurt Thomas and Frank Williams were also occasional starters. Charlie Ward was still around, as were Shandon Anderson, Othella Harrington, Michael Doleac and Michael Sweetney. The roster was one of mostly aging players whose productivity no longer justified the amount of money they were being paid. That season, the Knicks' payroll was around $85 million--nearly twice that season's salary cap and the highest in the league.
McDyess, Ward and Kurt Thomas were in the last year of their contracts. Mutombo, Harrington and Doleac had only one more season left on their deals. Thomas was stuck with the bad contracts of Houston and Van Horn for a couple more seasons but, beyond that, the roster/cap situation was manageable. A gradual process of clearing out cap space and/or accumulating draft picks and young talent could have put the Knicks in a good position in a year or two, especially considering the team's position as an attractive destination for free agents and taking into account Dolan's obvious willingness to wade well into the deep luxury tax waters.
Thomas, whether or not working from a mandate from Dolan, displayed no patience for that kind of plan. Instead, he traded away draft picks, some of them lottery choices. He took on bad contracts that other teams were all too glad to be rid of (Steve Francis). At one point, he had a four-guard rotation consisting of Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Francis and Nate Robinson, arguably four of the most selfish and worst defensive guards in the league. (I would argue that Crawford has since matured into an underrated player.) He signed Jerome James, a one-dimensional shot blocker, to a five-year, $30-million contract because James had averaged 12.5 points per game for Seattle during the 2005 playoffs.
Thomas' motley collection of talent was so ill-fitting that Larry Brown, brought into coach for the 2005-06 season, suffered through the most miserable season of his long career, winning just 23 games. (Brown won 21 games with the 1988-89 Spurs, but that team was merely treading water as waited for David Robinson to finish his military service. The following season under Brown, San Antonio won 56 games.) Brown battled Thomas' players and lost. Isiah fired the Hall of Famer and took the reins himself.
Meanwhile, Dolan finally showed a semblance of backbone and laid down an ultimatum: Thomas would have to show progress or he'd be gone. That seems like a reasonable expectation for a team with one of the league's highest payrolls. When the Knicks reached the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings at one point last March, Dolan happily handed Thomas an extension. Since that point, the Knicks have lost 25 of 33 regular-season games.
While all of this was going on, the Knicks' front office atmosphere became something straight out of "Mad Men." Thomas graced the tabloid pages during the early part of autumn, the target of a nasty harassment suit, one he eventually lost. Rumors surfaced that things had gotten so bad that NBA commish David Stern threatened to step in and clean things up himself. (Stern has since denied making statements to that effect.) Once the season started and the Knicks, whose payroll had once again ascended well above everyone else's after the draft-day acquisition of Zach Randolph, hit the skids almost right from the start. Thomas apparently decided at one point to bench Marbury. Marbury left the team in a huff in Phoenix. The next night in Los Angeles, Marbury returned and despite a team vote to keep the point guard on the bench, Thomas sent him out to play. (This according to Marv Albert during the Celtics/Knicks broadcast.)
I am hard pressed to think of another sports franchise that is such an utter catastrophe on and off the court. Thomas seems like a bright enough guy, and is certainly articulate and charismatic, but what has he ever done to deserve the opportunities he's been given in his post-playing career? He went straight from active playing duty to running the Toronto Raptors. While he identified some nice young talent in Toronto (Marcus Camby and Tracy McGrady come to mind), the Raptors didn't turn the corner until Thomas had left the scene. Thomas then spent a couple of years running the CBA into the ground before being handed the keys to a talented Pacers' franchise. Indiana made the playoffs all three seasons during Isiah's tenure there, but also lost three straight years in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, earning a reputation for underachievement in the process. Larry Bird stepped in, fired Thomas and allowed Rick Carlisle to guide the Pacers into the conference finals. That's about when James Dolan stepped in to give Thomas the opportunity to run one of the NBA's flagship franchises.
I ask again: What has Isiah Thomas ever done to be given so much responsibility with an NBA franchise? He is a man who has been handed too much for doing too little, and Knicks fans are the ones who have paid the price. At this point, it seems inescapable that Thomas will finally be let go. After that, it's hard to imagine a team giving him another opportunity anytime soon.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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