All along, James Dolan had been determined to keep Isiah Thomas. Everyone knew that. The Knicks' bumbling owner has been so wrong, so often, that he lives for validations of his vision. Those can be real, or imagined. He isn't choosy. Dolan doesn't chase success, as much as snarly, "I told you so's," to the paying public and press.
Less than halfway into the Knicks' season that he originally demanded "evident progress" to spare Isiah Thomas his job, Dolan played his hand, bemoaning that firing him would've meant starting over for this franchise.
This sounded so unappealing to Dolan, and it's clear such an act would've been nothing but a final resort brought on by complete collapse.
As soft as an ultimatum as had been delivered – simply showing progress on a program that had flat-lined a season ago under the sabotage of the deposed Larry Brown – Thomas has done a good job coaching with the Knicks. He's walked the line between tough and nurturing, and restored some confidence, some belief, to a punch-drunk roster.
Before the bids went out for the NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday, Dolan told his president and coach that he's keeping him on the job. Hey, there are worse executives running teams in the NBA, and worse coaches too. Before this season, no one wanted to believe it, but it's true. So, he stays.
"Isiah Thomas' stewardship of the Knicks, both as president and head coach, has clearly resulted in the team's 'significant improvement' and I am very pleased to provide him with this well deserved extension," Dolan said in his statement on Monday.
Significant is stretching it, but whatever. This is Dolan's Garden, where old standards of success have been stripped to the bones. So far, Isiah has given Dolan what few expected possible – a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs – and the owner was eager to use that as an opening to give him an extension. The Knicks are mired in one of the most embarrassing races in the history of the conference, looking like princes in the company of the free-falling Pacers, Nets and Magic.
Thomas has won six more games, 29, than the Knicks a year ago, when his inevitably dysfunctional relationship with Brown reduced the season to rubble. Now, young center Eddy Curry has legitimized the steep trade price that Thomas paid for him. David Lee has turned into one of the sharpest draft picks in years. Stephon Marbury conformed his game for Thomas, the way he never did for Brown.
This is still a flawed, overpriced payroll, but there is a developing young core. There are some possibilities here, and Thomas has done a terrific job nurturing them this season. In so many ways, this is a fragile group, and when the Madison Square Garden crowd was constantly booing his team early in the season, he did a good job of protecting his bunch. Thomas kept building it up when everyone else was tearing it down. At times, it looked like his team would collapse under the weight of it all.
He never let it. The way his players declared themselves loyal to Thomas' survival cause, you wonder why Dolan was so quick to eliminate the edge out of the season. When they've worked themselves into a playoff spot – partly by default, yes – why not ride whatever dynamic tension played a part?
"I feel good that the uncertainty about my professional situation is cleared up," Thomas said. "But again the most important thing is that we keep our team moving forward and we stay focused and continue to try to get into the playoffs."
Truth be told, there wasn't much uncertainty. Dolan wants to say that he's gotten something, anything, right in his disastrous run at MSG. He saw a chance with Thomas and took it. Dolan sees progress, "significant, evident progress," he insists, and so, he re-anointed Thomas as team president and coach. The Knicks are better, but still not good. At Dolan's Garden, that turns out to be a winning lottery ticket.