League closing doors on Thomas’ iffy return

Isiah Thomas was replaced as president of the Knicks with Donnie Walsh in April 2008

NEW YORK – As the clock ticked down in the New York Knicks’ draft room in late June 2005, Isiah Thomas wanted to choose Pittsburgh’s Chris Taft over Florida’s David Lee(notes). Sources say that all around Thomas front-office elders and scouts begged him to change his mind. No one believed Lee would become an All-Star, an $80 million man, but they knew this: Taft was terrible.

Only one of Thomas’ oldest confidants, Brendan Suhr, had a voice strong enough to sway him. Before the Knicks president finally backed down and submitted Lee’s name to be picked with the 30th selection, Thomas snapped, “You’d better be [bleeping] right.”

As it turned out, they were bleeping right, and Thomas could keep proclaiming himself some kind of talent evaluation guru. He’s running out of material, and out of time to sell it. Thomas keeps talking about turning down NBA jobs, but these are make-believe offers. No one has offered him a job, and he’s gone to great lengths to make sure no one ever will. Thomas isn’t delusional, but desperate. He’s speaking to a one-man audience – Knicks owner Jim Dolan.

Only now, it appears Thomas is losing Dolan, too. Dolan has come to understand the severity of the NBA’s investigation into the Knicks after Yahoo! Sports reported apparent illegal draft workouts under Thomas’ regime, sources say. And Dolan’s been livid over it. Rodney Heard, the Knicks scout at the center of the investigation, was Thomas’ guy all the way, and Heard is still involved with Thomas’ Florida International University program.

The NBA has enlisted an outside law firm to probe the circumstances of the workouts – including one in which Indiana Pacers guard Brandon Rush(notes) said he suffered a severe knee injury – and sources say more tips keep flowing in from around the league. Several teams want severe sanctions for the Knicks, because these charges dig to the heart of competitive balance and fairness. Beyond monetary fines and forfeiture of future draft picks for Donnie Walsh’s regime, league sources say any uncovering of Thomas’ possible complicity in potential violations could result in a suspension to be tacked onto his future return to the NBA.

In the end, that could be moot for this simple reason: Thomas may never work in the NBA again. No one in the league has done more for Thomas’ post-playing career than Walsh, and yet Thomas has gone out of his way to undermine his benefactor and try to get the GM job back for himself. If that’s how Thomas treats the man responsible for his $20 million coaching contract with the Pacers – the man who treated Thomas with dignity upon replacing him in New York – what chance of loyalty would someone else have with hiring Thomas?

After his recent interview with ESPN New York’s Ian O’Connor, where Thomas described himself as a visionary, it was suggested by many that Thomas sounded delusional. There’s no delusion. He’s too sharp, too tactical. This is a plan of attack; a foolish one, but a plan nonetheless. Thomas wants to redirect the narrative of his Knicks years, revise the history and redirect blame on his failures.

Pity those poor kids at Florida International, because it’s clear Thomas sees the job as beneath him – just as he would a scouting assignment in the NBA or a player personnel position. All this tells potential NBA employers is that Thomas will never be satisfied with a low-level rehab post until he’s undercut everyone on the masthead and taken over the franchise. There are more qualified front-office executives who would offer far more trust and far less drama. Thomas is fading fast with Dolan, and the rest of the NBA is already done with him.

Now, Dolan and Walsh are cooperating fully with the league on an investigation that’s been taken out of the office of Stu Jackson, the NBA’s vice president of basketball operations and an old friend and Vancouver Grizzlies boss of Heard. Thomas hired Heard to the Knicks, and Walsh regretfully extended his contract. There are witnesses to corroborate Rush’s story of blowing out his knee as a Kansas sophomore in a Knicks workout, and witnesses to tell about the weeks that Wilson Chandler(notes) spent in private sessions with Heard prior to the Knicks drafting him in 2007.

The long arm of the NBA law is bearing down on Thomas, and the league’s most unemployable executive is digging himself deeper and deeper. Dolan had to pay $11.5 million for Thomas’ sexual harassment case, and it’s possible he’ll have to pay more in fines and draft picks for the alleged violations that started under Thomas’ regime. Here’s some advice for Isiah Thomas: Stop thinking about the jobs you’ll never get, and get to work on the one you’d better keep at Florida International.