YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Make-or-break season for Knicks, Thomas

October 29, 2006|From the Associated Press

NEW YORK — From game night to draft night, it became the rallying cry for Knicks fans during one of the most despicable seasons they had ever seen.

"Fire Isiah! Fire Isiah!"

Hang in there, New Yorkers. If things keep going the way they have, you might be very close to finally getting your wish.

Or maybe, just maybe, Isiah Thomas the coach can prove that Isiah Thomas the executive knew what he was doing all along.

Either way, the Knicks are guaranteed to remain one of the NBA's most intriguing stories whether they win or lose -- and lately it's been much more of the latter.

"All eyes are going to be on [him]," said TNT announcer Reggie Miller, who played for Thomas in Indiana. "I think he's looking forward to this. He knows he's under the microscope and that it's going to be an uphill battle."

That's what happens when the architect of the league's most expensive lineup in the country's largest media market also finds himself sitting on its hottest coaching seat. Thomas was put there this summer when Madison Square Garden Chairman James Dolan fired Larry Brown after one season, then added "coach" to Thomas' titles as team president and general manager.

Though plenty of people argued that Thomas should be fired along with Brown -- or, better yet, instead of him -- Dolan said Thomas was right for the job.

But he's not giving Thomas long to prove it. Along with more responsibility, Dolan also gave Thomas a warning: Show "evident progress" this season or be gone from both positions. Dolan didn't define evident progress, but the good news for Thomas is that it seems impossible to regress following a 23-59 season that tied for the most losses in franchise history.

The bad news is there has been little change to the underperforming roster he assembled, and nobody else has been able to win yet with it either. And though New York is expected to improve, Thomas won't guarantee a playoff spot for the team with the league's highest payroll.

"I don't know how good we can be," he said. "But I do know this: We're going to try really, really hard."

There was a time when Thomas' skills as a talent evaluator were well-respected. He drafted Tracy McGrady, former Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire and Marcus Camby while with Toronto. But none of his moves in nearly three years with New York have turned the Knicks' fortunes around.

Last season was the low point. From the hiring of Brown to the preseason acquisition of Eddy Curry to the trade for Steve Francis right before the deadline, Thomas made a number of bold moves -- some that were even praised at the time.

But Brown's already gone, and Francis has hardly done enough to let anyone know he is here. That leaves Curry, who could go down as Thomas' biggest headache of all.

Thomas didn't give up much talent when he acquired the center from Chicago last preseason. But he included the Knicks' first-round draft choice, which turned out to be the No. 2 pick overall. Fans let him have it for that one -- those familiar "Fire Isiah!" cries started some 15 minutes before the draft at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in June.

He also gave the Bulls the right to swap picks this season, which means if the Knicks end up in the lottery again, they might not even have a shot at Ohio State center Greg Oden, the presumed No. 1 pick if he comes out.

Those reasons are driving Curry to want to have a big second season in New York after his mediocre one under Brown.

"You definitely look at all of that and you want to go out and play hard for him because you realize that he didn't have to make those moves," Curry said. "He did that because he believes in you and you want to show that he made the right moves."

But he may have already made too many of the wrong ones. His mismatched roster, heavy on point guards and small forwards but lacking much interior toughness, was frequently overwhelmed last season. New York trailed by double digits at some point in 56 of its 82 games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Thomas took in most of the home debacles standing in the walkway between the court and the tunnel to the locker rooms. He couldn't have liked what he saw and definitely not what he heard, which frequently included booing of the team or jeering of him.

But it was impossible to tell what Thomas felt. Whether he was worn down from the beatings or just following Madison Square Garden's strict media policies -- Brown was fired in part for violating them -- he didn't talk publicly for the final two months of the regular season.

Perhaps he was trying to avoid a public back-and-forth with Brown, who was often critical of the players Thomas gave him and who the Knicks feel was trying to undermine Thomas. Or part of his silence could have been ordered after a sexual harassment suit was brought against him by former team executive Anucha Browne Sanders in January, a matter that is still continuing.

If any of that is bothering Thomas now, he hasn't shown it much. He's always possessed a bright smile and easy laugh, and both have been more apparent early on than they were last season. And he has shrugged off the pressure of Dolan's ultimatum, saying it's nothing compared with a tough childhood in Chicago.

"I've lived with daily pressure all my life," he said recently. "Growing up the way I grew up, it was life or death pressure every time you walked outside your door. My job is to make our players comfortable in operating under pressure. Because pressure comes with what you do."

Los Angeles Times Articles