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Isiah Thomas is Owed an Apology

Isiah Thomas NY Knicks

July 20, 2010 – Kevin Burke

By now you’ve probably heard the reports circulating around the humid New York air that disgraced former New York Knicks General Manager, Isiah Thomas, is being considered again by the club for the very same role. The very same role that he was fired from. The very same role that he has become a punch line for. There is a huge misconception about Isiah Thomas’ tenure as GM of the Knicks. One that has gone on for far too long. This news of his possible (and probably unlikely) return to Manhattan finally provides me with the opportunity to set the record straight for “Zeke.”

In sports, the GM of a team has two core objectives in his job description. The first one is to improve the team’s roster.  Secondly, it is to put the best possible coach in place to direct this roster that you have assembled (if you have the type of control that Isiah was afforded).  There are some other extraneous responsibilities, but what I have outlined are definitely atop the list.

Isiah Thomas was hired as GM of the Knicks on December 22, 2003. He inherited the following roster: Othella Harrington, Kurt Thomas, a hobbled Allan Houston, Howard Eisley, Michael Doleac, Clearance Weatherspoon, Lee Nailon, Shandon Anderson, Charlie Ward, Lavar Postell and Frank Williams to name a few. In no time, he eventually transformed that roster to Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Quentin Richardson, Eddy Curry (Granted, his salary has proven to be bigger than what he is worth, but people fail to realize that Curry was 20 and 9 for the Knicks in his best year there), Zach Randolph, Jalen Rose and Steve Francis. Not to mentioned that he drafted guys like David Lee, Nate Robinson, Trevor Ariza and Channing Frye. Maybe it’s me, but the post-Isiah roster is clearly better than the pre-Isiah roster. Clearly. Objective #1 of improving the roster: successful.

The head coach of the Knicks when Isiah arrived was Don Chaney. “Who?” I said, Don Chaney. Who did Isiah replace him with? Only the winningest coach in the history of the NBA at that time, Lenny Wilkens. Nothing too serious. But, the Knicks still weren’t successful under Wilkens. Who did Isiah get to  eventually man the sidelines for the orange and blue after Wilkens, you ask? Oh, nobody. Just Larry Brown.  The same Larry Brown who just led the Detroit Pistons to an NBA Championship and the crown jewel of NBA head coaches at the time.

(I apologize, but I’m about to go off on a tangent, as I tend to do occasionally. But please stay with me). The roster that Larry Brown had was a very solid one: Marbury, Crawford, Richardson, Lee and Curry. As well as a descent bench. Larry Brown coached the Knicks to a 23-59 record, which was tied for a franchise worse, and he was completely absolved of any culpability. He walked away as the victim which still disgusts me to this day.  He signed a 5-year, $50M deal to coach the Knicks. He was only there for one season and got roughly $40M in a buyout.  So basically, he coached a team to the worst record in franchise history and was rewarded with $40M for one year. I was going to bring up the fact that he would also routinely call out his players to the media, rather than keep it in-house like he should, but I’m not going to even go down that road. Larry Brown did more harm to the Knicks that year than Isiah did, but nobody talks about Larry Brown.(Again, my humblest apologies. I’m back now).

Where was I? Oh yeah. Objective #2 of improving the coaching situation: successful.

Isiah improved the roster and the coaching situation, but the team still wasn’t successful. How can that all be his fault? His critics love to harp on the fact that he overpaid for guys. In certain cases, yes, he did but at the time it didn’t prohibit them for acquiring anyone that they had their eye on. It wasn’t until Donnie Walsh took over and forfeited 2 seasons that we realized just how many hefty salaries he had acquired. But, he wasn’t planning for 2010 like Walsh was. He was planning for then.

In hindsight, Eddy Curry’s salary is obviously way too high, and he also overpaid for Jerome James at $30M for 5-years. But James just came off a pretty impressive playoff run (for his standards) the year before for the SuperSonics, and had many GMs across the league taking a look at him.

Isiah was definitely not an angel during his time in New York. The Anucha Browne Sanders harassment case, where she was awarded $11.6M in punitive damages, is evidence of that. But he became a punch line when he largely accomplished his two primary objectives in his job. It became cool to talk bad about Isiah. It became a part of pop-culture. I was personally at a Knicks game when Isiah eventually took over as head coach, and the Knicks were up comfortably in the 4th quarter in a game against the Nets that they ultimately won. Then there came the “fire Isiah” chants in the closing moments of the game. That’s when I realized that many people don’t even know why they don’t like him.

I say that Isiah, the head coach at Florida International University, is owed an apology because the fact that he is even considered for the GM job with the Knicks means that people within the organization realize that the job he did in New York wasn’t nearly as bad as it is perceived and the hate that he has received as a result isn’t warranted. If what he did was so bad, they never would’ve sent him to Akron to try to recruit LeBron a few weeks ago, nor would they still be in communication with him. Current GM, Donnie Walsh is 70 years old and has been going through health problems of late. That is why there is even speculation that a new GM is needed.  Isiah is most guilty for acquiring high salary guys. Donnie Walsh threw away 2 seasons by getting rid of those salaries in anticipation of a guy who never came. Which is worse?

If you’re looking for your everyday, predictable basketball talk, then go somewhere else, because Kevin Burke of The Kevin Burke Project brings provocative, thought provoking content about basketball as only he can. Kevin also hosts The Hoop Doctors weekly podcast show, which you can subscribe too for free on iTunes.

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