Isiah’s Record a Litany of Failure

published August 12, 2010

They got Al Capone for tax evasion, not extortion or murder or any of a thousand other possible crimes.  Barry Bonds faces charges of perjury, not possessing or using illegal drugs.

And Isiah Thomas’s new consulting deal with the Knicks has been scuttled because of a violation of NBA by-laws, not because it was one of the stupidest ideas in New York sports history.

Thomas issued a statement on Wednesday following conversations with the Knicks and the commissioner’s office, saying he has “decided to rescind” his contract with the team he led to zero playoff wins in five years, and two seasons that equaled the franchise record for losses.  (Isn’t it generally the party that makes an offer that has the power to rescind it?)

Team owner James Dolan and Thomas, who intended to keep his position as head basketball coach at Florida International University, reached their original agreement without discussing the arrangement with the league.  It turns out that NBA rules prohibit “team personnel, including consultants, from having contacts with players not eligible for the draft.”

In other words, Thomas would have been prohibited from talking or meeting with any of his own players until after they had completed their college eligibility.

Florida International had seemed confident in Thomas’s ability to multitask, perhaps taking note of his 7-25 record in 2009-10 while uni-tasking; the distraction could only help.  It is unlikely they would have allowed him to continue coaching if he were barred from contact with his own players, but that too is speculation.

Knicks fans could be forgiven if they viewed Isiah’s return to the organization with the enthusiasm moviegoers would muster for The Next-to-Last Airbender. The mystery is, why would anyone have given the man a franchise to run in the first place?

As a player, Thomas was so popular with his fellow NBA stars that they conspired to keep him off the Dream Team in 1992.

His first front office position was with the Toronto Raptors, 1994-97.  He is credited with drafting Marcus Camby (ahead of Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, and Steve Nash) and high-schooler Tracy McGrady (who started less than a season’s worth of games in his three years with Toronto before blossoming in Orlando).  Thomas left after failing in an effort to buy out majority owner Allan Slaight, departing to accept a multimillion-dollar contract to be NBC’s lead analyst, with the Raptors last in their division at 1-9.

His performance with NBC was so poorly received that the network shoehorned Doug Collins into the late-season telecasts as a third man.  For the strike-riddled season that followed, Thomas was shifted from game duty to the studio.

While working for NBC, Thomas purchased the Continental Basketball Association, a league that predated the formation of the NBA.  He intended to operate it under a single-owner model, in the hope of becoming the NBA’s prime development league.  He slashed salaries for veterans, and according to a New York Times report, increased the league office’s budget from $2.1 million to $4.3 million.  The NBA offered to buy the league, but Isiah wanted more money for it, and the NBA decided to create its own developmental league, leaving the centralized CBA without a purpose.

Less than a year after finalizing his purchase of the CBA, Thomas accepted a position as head coach of the Indiana Pacers, which required him to sell the league to avoid an obvious conflict of interest.  He was unable to find a buyer, and four months later the league suspended operations and declared bankruptcy.  Five teams folded, and five joined the International Basketball League, which also shut down at the end of the 2001 season.

In Indiana, Thomas took over a team with one of the most talented rosters in the East – young players of the type Thomas was supposed to be good at teaching, like Ron Artest, Jermaine O’Neill, Al Harrington, Brad Miller and Jamaal Tinsley, along with older hands Reggie Miller, Travis Best, Jalen Rose, and Tim Hardaway – and failed to get past the first round of the playoffs in three attempts.  When Larry Bird became the Pacers’ president of basketball operations, his first move was to bring in a new coach, Rick Carlisle, who took Indiana to the Conference Finals.

Isiah was out of work for less than half a year before James Dolan gave him the keys to what was once a marquee franchise for the league.  Thomas’s failures with the Knicks have been well documented, including a frantic series of cap-unfriendly trades, a roster with epic imbalances, the rare combination of second-worst record in the league and highest payroll, and an embarrassing sexual harassment suit.

This is the track record of the man who was hired as the Knicks’ consultant for player recruitment a week ago.  Dolan apparently was impressed with Thomas anew through his efforts at the last minute to convince LeBron James to come to New York.

Dolan doesn’t seem to have noticed that those efforts failed, or that the failure is of a piece with the former Bad Boy’s entire post-playing career.  Fortunately for the league’s most sophisticated fan base, David Stern had reason to step in and prevent this nightmare from recurring.  Dolan should be grateful, like a passenger left at the dock as the Titanic sails away; with his instincts, however, he’d probably hire a helicopter to chase it down and drop him on deck.

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