Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that Isiah Thomas is still employed as the president and coach of the New York Knicks, as there are three things that those familiar with Madison Square Garden chairman Jim Dolan believe are most important to him.
So far, Thomas hasn't hurt Cablevision's stock prices.
He hasn't been disloyal.
And he hasn't killed ticket sales.
After struggling for several seasons, despite the Garden fans chanting for his firing, too, Dolan stayed with Rangers GM Glen Sather. Of course, Sather had a Stanley Cup dynasty on his résumé. In the end, brown-nosing the boss goes a long way in Dolan's organization. Those who do have a history of surviving, and those who don't tend to disappear.
"Glen was saved by the lockout and the salary cap," one former Knicks executive said. "Isiah doesn't have that luxury. Also, Jim was way more involved with the Rangers. There were side trips to Vegas and team-building chores with model race cars in Chicago and mandatory (team executive) trips to hear (Dolan's) band play."
"None of that happened with Isiah."
Yes, Dolan has strongly encouraged his underlings to drag themselves into Greenwich Village to hear (and cheer) him play with his little rock and roll band. The Knicks haven't just lost eight straight games, but have stopped playing for Thomas. Right now, the best thing Thomas has going for him is the $25 million-plus left on his contract, one that reportedly pays him between $7 and $8 million a season. Dolan has been less reluctant to part with pride than money, but that's still an unappealing buyout.
Through the years, Dolan is willing to take substantial criticism and visceral dissent because he hates being proven wrong. Of course, that's how it usually turns out for him. Garden president Steve Mills sold him on Isiah Thomas and Dolan has sided with Thomas in the tawdry fights with Larry Brown, Anucha Browne Sanders and now the New York fans and media. Most of the time, that stubbornness takes precedence over what's right for the franchise. "He will battle anyone no matter how crazy or expensive it becomes," one former official said.
Thomas’ picking of a fight with Stephon Marbury won him nothing in the win column, and nothing in public support. Worse for him, Thomas' failure to suspend Marbury after he bolted the team for 24 hours cost him a steep price in the locker room. As Yahoo! Sports Johnny Ludden reported, Thomas solicited a vote of his players on whether Marbury should've been allowed to play the next night against the Clippers, and they were unanimous in telling him no. But he played him 34 minutes anyway and lost. It's probably no coincidence that this team has largely quit on Thomas since the Marbury benching.
Because Thomas has lost this team, it probably won't be long until the losing costs him his job. For Thomas' own sanity, it can't go on like this much longer at the Garden. As long as Cablevision chairman Charles Dolan allows his son to continue overseeing the Garden, there are no saviors for the Knicks. Jerry Colangelo is intrigued with New York, sources say, but no one close to him imagines a scenario where he would run the Knicks unless his good buddy, Commissioner David Stern, could convince Charles Dolan to escort his son out of the building.
Between his runs with the Phoenix Suns and USA Basketball, Colangelo has had autonomy that largely doesn't exist under Jim Dolan. There's no way that Colangelo would allow Knicks PR people and security officials to hound reporters and eavesdrop on interviews, the way that they're instructed to do now. Dolan has fostered an unhealthy state high on fear and self-preservation, and low on productivity and results.
One league executive told me that it would take a serious level of arrogance or foolishness, for someone of Colangelo's stature to take a job running the Knicks now. "The strongest instinct in the sport is survival, and that'll thin the pool of candidates there," one league official said.
For now, the ultimate survivor, Isiah Thomas, holds on for dear life.
1. Of course, Isiah Thomas isn’t the only coach in the league who could be in jeopardy of losing his job with a sluggish start to the season.
Scott Skiles, Chicago: No, it wasn’t so long ago that Skiles was hailed as something of a savior for the Bulls. They won 49 games a year ago, but the relentless way he drives a team can be potentially his undoing, too. The Bulls have been completely lost this season, losing eight of 10, and that can’t all be blamed on the haze of the Kobe Bryant trade discussions. His abrasive, confrontational style – which includes calling out his players in the press as much as anyone in the sport – can also get a locker room to turn on you.
Maurice Cheeks, Philadelphia: As long as Larry Brown is cramping him as a consultant, he’s in trouble. Brown is finding out how apprehensive most owners and executives in the league are about hiring him as head coach, and eventually could realize that returning to the sideline with the Sixers is all that’s out there for him.
Eddie Jordan, Washington: This would be totally unfair, but the losses will pile up with Gilbert Arenas gone for three months. Jordan’s tight with owner Abe Pollin, the man responsible for hiring him, which offsets his tepid relationship with GM Ernie Grunfeld.
2. It hasn’t taken long in this young college basketball season for league executives and scouts to see that the top five picks in the 2008 June Draft could come out of the freshmen class. Here are the impressions of several NBA scouts who’ve attended games and practices with several of the nation’s best freshman.
Michael Beasley, Kansas State, 6-10, power forward: “An old man’s game around the basket in an athletic specimen’s body. What you want to watch with his this kid is his past immaturity. He’s got some growing up to do, but most of us will take some immaturity if it comes with a kid who gets 20 rebounds a night.”
Eric Gordon, Indiana, 6-3, shooting guard: “He’s such an explosive athlete. He’s just a freak that way. He’s interesting in that he plays from either 25 feet out, or at the rim. He doesn’t do much in the middle yet. But I don’t know where his range ends yet, it’s almost limitless. I’ve tried to think of a shooter who could shoot like this right away, and I can’t think of that guy.”
Derrick Rose, Memphis, 6-3 point guard: “Like Gordon, I love that he defends. He has great size, strength and speed. He reminds me some of a young Jason Kidd, but he hasn’t racked up the assists early that Kidd always has. He’s a classic point guard, but he can score it, too. It helps to see a kid like this on a such talented college team, because you can really see how other good players play off him.”
3. Here’s something for Cleveland fans to ponder as the stalemate between Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry and Anderson Varejao, the unsigned restricted free agent, continues: What would’ve happened had Ferry done the deal for the Rockets’ forward Luis Scola last summer?
Rivals executives agree that Ferry would have far more negotiating leverage with Varejao had he decided to complete a trade with his old boss, San Antonio general manager RC Buford, for the Argentinean forward. Buford was motivated to ship Scola to Cleveland because dealing him to division rival Houston was a last resort. Still, the Spurs had no use for Scola with Fabricio Oberto alongside Tim Duncan and needed a taker for Jackie Butler’s contract.
Ferry loved Scola, but balked at taking Butler’s and the $2.5 million left on his contract.
Houston did. Now, Scola just dropped 20 points on the Spurs, and Varejao knows the Cavaliers are desperate to get him back. For the Cavaliers, it sure seemed like a modest price to pay considering the straits they’re in without LeBron James’ favorite running mate.
4. As for Duncan, it was surprising to hear how angry he was over getting listed as a center instead of a forward on this year’s All-Star ballot. Clearly, Duncan knows it’s impossible to beat Yao Ming with that immense Chinese internet vote, but it’s an All-Star game and, well, Duncan has four NBA titles. If there was ever an anti-All Star game star in the NBA, it’s him.
The NBA changed course on the initial media panel’s decision to make Duncan a center on the ballot, but you wonder if Spurs coach Gregg Popovich might have better served in the doldrums of December and January to have an angry Duncan on the floor.
5. Stan Van Gundy meets Pat Riley on Saturday for the first time as opposing coach, and please, please don’t listen to the Magic coach insist that there is nothing personal here. Yes, he’s grateful to Riley for giving him his break in the NBA as a Magic assistant (when the Knicks wouldn’t let younger brother, Jeff Van Gundy, out of his contract to join Riley in Miami), but it wasn’t burnout, or family, that caused Stan to resign as Heat coach 2½ years ago.
It was Riley’s deep desire to take the coaching job back with Shaquille O’Neal on his roster. Van Gundy was hung out by Riley after losing to the Pistons in seven games three seasons ago, refusing to confirm his coach’s return to the sidelines for weeks and crippling his locker-room strength as a result. The Magic are one of the league’s most improved teams, and if Van Gundy has a chance to take it to Riley Saturday night, don’t be surprised if he does.