Brace for destruction: Dolan welcomes Isiah Thomas back to the NBA’s hermit kingdom
While much of the basketball world focuses on whether the Knicks will succeed in their pursuit of Carmelo Anthony, the grim reality for Knicks fans is that the franchise, temporarily rescued by the competent guidance of general manager Donnie Walsh, is back under the spell of a saboteur. Isiah Thomas has returned, reconstituting what has been an incredibly unsuccessful partnership with the Knicks' isolated, incomprehensible owner James Dolan. And now, Carmelo or no Carmelo, serious malfunction will surely follow.
Sound overstated? Then you weren't paying attention to the original Isiah Thomas reign.
The case for firing Isiah Thomas the first time around could have been made any number of ways. For one thing, he is not a great person: He cost the Knicks $11.6 million, and untold levels of bad publicity, in a sexual harassment lawsuit. His Knicks conducted pre-draft workouts in violation of league rules, costing the team $200,000 in fines while putting them in jeopardy of losing draft picks. The fans, for what it's worth, detested him: He was so unpopular as team president and later, head coach, that “Fire Isiah” became an all-purpose rallying cry for the few souls who continued showing up at Knicks games throughout his tenure.
This is to say nothing of the disaster that Thomas was in terms of assembling the team itself. Huge trades to bring in Eddy Curry and Stephon Marbury cost the team any chance of getting under the salary cap (a prerequisite to landing free agents) for years, while also costing them draft picks, the other way to add players.
In a move that baffled others in the NBA, Thomas failed even to “lottery-protect” his picks. Teams acquiring draft picks will often agree that if a pick is to be in, say, the top five within the draft, they will allow the trading team to keep that pick and substitute the following year's pick. Thomas neglected to pursue this option, to disastrous effect.
Left with only a mid-level exemption to the salary cap most offseasons, Thomas even spent that money foolishly. Remember Jerome James? He cost $30 million over five years, barely played in just three of those seasons, then got shipped away for another contract headache in Larry Hughes. And James, like many other Thomas moves, wasn't merely a mistake in retrospect. As Chris Mannix of SI.com described it, James “was a mistake before he ever took the court at Madison Square Garden. The day the Knicks announced his signing, they were universally panned by executives, experts, journalists—really anyone with a voice box."
By the time Isiah Thomas left after the 2007-2008 season, the Knicks were ruined. He had razed the organization to the ground and sewed the earth with salt for good measure.
The Knicks struggled in Donnie Walsh's first two years, but that was necessary—it was a period for clearing all the Thomas-related detritus out of New York's system (save Eddy Curry, who only now is valuable due to his massive, expiring contract). By last summer, Walsh had managed to put together the first exciting team the Knicks have had in a decade.
So why, why, why is the owner of the New York Knicks backing Thomas, the man who ruined his franchise, over Walsh, the man who was in the process of saving it?
Dolan, thanks to the seemingly limitless revenue he derives from Cablevision, seems indifferent to the prospect of the Knicks succeeding, at least by any traditional measure. He has no business motive for them to win, in other words; his desire to make them into a contender would have to be predicated on some genuine feeling for the team, or for its loyal fans. But Dolan is clearly not sentimental about the team, and his utter indifference to public opinion is well documented. Combine that with an inexplicable and seemingly blind devotion to Thomas, and it's a formula for doing the unthinkable.
Thomas has apparently convinced Dolan that had he still been in charge, LeBron James would be a Knick, and that without his influence, Amar'e Stoudemire wouldn't be. Never mind that Thomas' failure to grasp even the basics of the salary cap meant that Walsh needed two years just to get the Knicks in position to afford James. Dolan believes, and that's all that matters.
What happens next? Nothing good. The moment James Dolan took control of the Carmelo Anthony negotiations, egged on by Thomas, it became clear that Walsh wouldn't be sticking around next season. He's got too little incentive, after a long career of success, to carry on as the respectable front man for Dolan and Thomas. Remember, the only reason Dolan took Walsh on in the first place, firing his beloved Thomas, was at the insistence of NBA commissioner David Stern, who watched in horror as the team in his biggest media market faded to black.
If the Anthony trade happens, Dolan's bumbling will have allowed Denver to make off with everything in exchange for a player who only wants to play with the Knicks, and could sign as a free agent with New York anyway in just a few months. Yes, the league's collective bargaining agreement, expiring after the season, could change the rules somewhat. But that would be true for everyone involved—and Denver would have had much more to lose (a franchise player for nothing) than Carmelo Anthony (a bit of salary, potentially) or the Knicks (remaining strong core and leverage from being Anthony's preferred destination).
As of Sunday night, the Knicks were offering Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Eddy Curry's expiring contract and a first-round pick. Denver wants even more. Again, keep in mind, Carmelo Anthony isn't interested in playing anywhere else—if he were, Denver would have already traded him to the Nets for a return far superior to New York's. (Included in their package: four first-round picks! This would be the NBA's Herschel Walker trade.)
The Knicks may get Anthony now, but the team will have little maneuverability from a salary perspective, none of their young building blocks, few draft picks, and no Donnie Walsh. They will have Isiah Thomas.