GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Isiah Thomas delivered “evident progress” sooner than needed.
Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan planned to wait all season before deciding on Thomas’ future with the Knicks. But when New York fought through a few recent injuries to move into playoff position, Dolan concluded he no longer needed to wait.
So have gave Thomas a multiyear contract extension Monday, nine months after he warned the Knicks coach and team president that the team needed to show improvement this season or he’d be out of a job.
“My thinking was that it was going to go the whole season,” Dolan said. “But in the last few weeks I’ve just become absolutely convinced and I think they’ve shown, they’ve done what we asked them to do. And I felt that now is the time to do it.”
The announcement comes with the Knicks having climbed into eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Dolan said he reached his decision sometime in the last 10 days, and Thomas said he was told about it Sunday night. Neither he nor Dolan provided any contract details, other than that Thomas would keep both jobs.
“I feel good that the uncertainty about my professional situation is cleared up,” Thomas said after practice. “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.”
Thomas added the coaching duties to his other role in June after Dolan fired Larry Brown following one season. But along with the job came the ultimatum, though Dolan never publicly said what the Knicks needed to do this season to demonstrate the “significant” and “evident” progress he sought.
Turns out wins and losses weren’t the most important thing.
“The players getting better, the hard work, the heart that they showed, counted to me more than the won-loss record,” Dolan said. “We wouldn’t be sitting here today if we had the same record but the team did not show that it had the heart.”
Dolan’s announcement comes well ahead of schedule. When he met with the team’s beat writers in December, he stressed that he wouldn’t make a decision until after the season. However, the Knicks were 8-15 at the time and coming off a dismal home loss to Boston a night earlier in which they trailed by 30 points.
Things quickly got worse for Thomas, as the Knicks lost twice more that week — the second coming in the brawl with Denver that embarrassed the organization — to fall to a season-worst eight games under .500.
Dolan has since been impressed by a turnaround that has the Knicks (29-34) on pace to make the playoffs after a two-year absence. They entered Monday with a half-game lead over Orlando for the final spot in the East, already with six more victories than last season.
“All the players kind of took it upon themselves, being that he had a hand in bringing all of us here,” center Eddy Curry said. “We all felt like it was our duty to go out here and play hard and try to perform and give him some kind of security.”
Dolan praised Thomas for getting the team to play together and for the improvement in the Knicks’ young players. Second-year forward David Lee has become one of the NBA’s best sixth men, and Curry has turned into one of the top centers in the East.
Dolan said there was a “crisis at the end of last season,” referring to the poor relationship between Brown and many of the players. That contributed to New York’s 23-59 record, which tied for the most losses in franchise history.
But the players have rallied behind Thomas while having to play through injuries to Jamal Crawford and Lee, two of their top players.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Thomas has been a successful NBA coach, leading the Indiana Pacers to the playoffs in all three of his seasons. But his record as an executive hasn’t been nearly as good, and there were plenty of “Fire Isiah!” chants last season during games, as well as the night of the NBA draft.
New York is still without a playoff victory since Thomas arrived in December 2003, despite the largest payroll in the league. The free agents he signed over the last two summers, Jerome James and Jared Jeffries, have both struggled with the Knicks.
Dolan shook off the criticisms of Thomas’ work in the front office, saying “nobody’s perfect.” However, Thomas acknowledged that he had begun to worry about the reputation he built as a player, when he led the Detroit Pistons to a pair of NBA titles during a Hall of Fame career.
“I was more concerned about the respect of myself as an individual than I was job security, the what I stood for in the game of basketball and the way my basketball legacy has been,” Thomas said. “I didn’t want to have a failure here. That was my concern, not necessarily if I was going to have a job.”
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