Brown Out in New YorkThe brief Larry Brown era is over in New York. Just one year after giving him a contract reportedly valued at $50 million for five years, the Knicks have not only fired the Hall of Fame coach but are asserting that he has been fired for cause and therefore should not receive the full value of his deal. NBA Commissioner David Stern will have to sort out the financial ramifications of Brown's firing. Team President Isiah Thomas will now add "coach" to his job description but this is hardly an instance where having more titles leads to more job security. As Mike Wilbon noted on "Pardon the Interruption," becoming the Knicks' coach just puts Thomas closer to being fired unless he is able to effect a huge turnaround in the team's fortunes. Thomas assembled this roster and now he will be in the trenches with this motley cast of overpaid underachievers. He will either right the ship or go down with it.
Thomas has not done much to increase his popularity or improve his reputation since the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. His associations with the Toronto Raptors and the CBA did not end amicably and his tenure as coach of the Indiana Pacers is oft criticized. The problem is that we live in a sound bite culture, so every person and situation ends up being summarized in a catch phrase that sticks like velcro. For instance, "Isiah drove the CBA into bankruptcy in less than two years after the league thrived for over 50 years." Let's think about that for a minute. One, if the league was thriving, how come Thomas was able to buy the entire operation for $10 million? Two, what does being in business for over 50 years have to do with the CBA's future prospects? When the NBA decided to put its weight behind its own minor league, the NBDL, that moved all of the other minor leagues down a notch or ten. A lot has been written about Thomas' confrontational way of dealing with his business partners in the CBA. I wasn't there, so I don't know if those things are true or not--but the CBA would have had to be reorganized and undergo significant changes whether or not Isiah got involved.
While Thomas owned the CBA he was offered the Pacers' head coaching job. He had to place the CBA in a blind trust because owning a minor league and coaching an NBA team is an obvious conflict of interest. Should Thomas have not taken the Pacers' job at that time? Maybe. Is he blameless with what happened to the CBA? Probably not. However, the suggestion that he singehandedly took down a thriving minor league is an oversimplification at best.
Thomas took over a Pacers team that had just appeared in the NBA Finals after posting a 56-26 record. Thomas led Indiana to a 41-41 mark in 2000-01. Aha, another instance of Thomas ruining everything he touches, right? Well, not exactly. Rik Smits, Dale Davis and Mark Jackson, three key veterans from the 1999-2000 team, did not return in 2000-01. What about Jermaine O'Neal? The Pacers acquired him in 2000-01 from Portland and he responded to the increased playing time that Isiah gave him by having his best season yet. The next year O'Neal was even better but injuries and a lot of roster upheaval led to a 42-40 record. In 2002-03, the Pacers improved to 48-34. That summer, the Pacers hired Larry Bird as President of Basketball Operations and his first move was to fire Thomas and hire Rick Carlisle, a former teammate of his. While Thomas took over a team in transition and helped it to improve each year, Carlisle reaped the benefits of getting a young, improving team. This is not to say that Carlisle has not done a good job, but the idea that Thomas failed as a coach is incorrect.
Similarly, Thomas' brief tenure with the Raptors, which ended when he lost a power struggle for control of the team, is hardly the unmitigated failure that some portray it to be. Thomas drafted 1996 Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire despite doubts about the 5-10 guard, then the next year he selected Marcus Camby--still a productive player a decade later--and the following year he picked Tracy McGrady straight out of high school.
It is easy to boil situations down to sound bites but reality is rarely if ever that simple. So what does all of this mean for the Knicks? At this point it is probably clear that I don't have as low of an opinion of Thomas as many other people do, particularly as a coach. The problem for the Knicks starts in the backcourt, with Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis. They may be great human beings but I cannot stand them as basketball players. Each of them exemplifies the worst of point guard play--they overdribble the ball on offense and are indifferent at best on defense. The point guard's job is to get everyone involved on offense and to be the first line of defense by harassing the other team's point guard. I will be very surprised if a team led by Marbury or Francis ever has significant success in the NBA. Specifically, unless they change the way that they play, neither will lead a team past the second round of the playoffs, at best; maybe when they are 37 years old they will be fortunate enough to be bit players on a championship team, having passes bounce off their heads while jawing at referees during the NBA Finals, but enough about Gary Payton. So, Thomas the coach will have to do something about the roster that Thomas the GM assembled. He will either have to convince Marbury and Francis to play differently or he will have to get rid of them. If Thomas resolves this issue successfully, then I think that he will do well as the Knicks coach. If not, Thomas will very soon join Brown in the ranks of the unemployed.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:12 PM