Wouldn’t you love to work for Dolan? Wouldn’t anybody want to work for a guy who gives you one year to prove your worth, then lays a multi-year deal on you barely three-quarters of the way through that year? With you still losing more often than you win?
Yep, real egg-buster, that Dolan.
Before this NBA season began, Dolan tried to play the tough guy, a role as natural to him as that of secular humanist is to Dick Cheney. Dolan declared in no uncertain terms that Thomas, the team president since December of 2003 and now the coach, would have one year to prove his mettle.
The Knicks were coming off one of the worst years in their history, a 23-win wonder forged by Larry Brown, who had come to New York as the greatest living basketball coach and had slunk out of town at season’s end, utterly defeated by a team that had no use for his theories of tight defense and controlled offense.
Thomas had hired Brown, as he had put together the team that was the definition of dysfunctional. Now, Dolan declared, he could coach them himself, and if, at the end of the year — not half a year or most of the year — the owner would decide if Thomas had showed enough progress to keep his multiple jobs and the income that came with them.
Dolan sounded like Iron Jim back then, but with just a bit less than a quarter of the season left, he turned into the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man. The Knicks’ — and Thomas’ — record stood at 29-34, five games under .500 but a half a game ahead of the Nets in the staggering race for the East’s last playoff slot.
“Great job!” Dolan told Thomas. “How ‘bout a multi-year extension?”
Say what you want about Isiah Thomas’ abilities as a G.M. and coach, but don’t ever say he’s not one of the sharpest knives in the drawer. He showed the proper amount of gratitude and asked where he should sign.
From a lame duck twisting in the wind, fighting to save his job, Thomas went to long-term job security. He doesn’t even need to make the playoffs — Dolan said that. With 19 games to go and still five wins short of .500, Thomas’ year has been declared a grand success.
Let’s not dismiss what Thomas has accomplished. He’s gotten two of the great disappointments of recent Knicks history, big man Eddie Curry and point guard Stephon Marbury, to play effectively. His team has had a better record each month than it had the month before. His team has shown resilience in the face of injuries and has shown an ability to win the tight ballgames they lost as a matter of course last year.
They’ve already won six more games than they won in all of last year. On the other hand, that’s still not a lot of games, and it’s thanks more to the endemic incompetence that plagues the NBA East that the Knicks are in the playoffs than to the team’s less-than-sterling record.
Still, they’re better, and Thomas is the biggest change between this year and last year. If he were any other first-year coach, you’d have to say he’s earned another year. And that’s not the argument here.
But what’s the point of jumping the gun? One reason the Knicks have been playing so hard is that they like Thomas — a players’ coach — and want to save his job. Why take that motivation away now, especially since no one had any expectation that Dolan would do anything before the end of the season?
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.
Even today, the Knicks, with a payroll of $120 million — more than all but a handful of baseball teams — lead the NBA in spending. The Rangers have been to the playoffs once in the past eight years, and that was last year when they lost in four straight in the first round. The Knicks have had losing records for five consecutive seasons and are going to have to rally to avoid a sixth; in those five years, they’ve been to the playoffs once. The last time they won a playoff series was in 1999.
They need stability — since 2001 they’ve had five coaches. So it makes sense to bring Thomas back for another year.
But it also makes sense to wait until the season is over to make that decision. It also would have made sense to reconsider the multi-year deal.
Thomas doesn’t have a history of long-term success, and it seems foolish to give him a longer leash than necessary.
But foolish is what Dolan does best. It’s what makes him such a great boss — and such a lousy owner.
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