Changing of the Garden
Struggling Knicks fire Layden, hire Thomas as president
Posted: Monday December 22, 2003 7:18PM; Updated: Monday December 22, 2003 7:40PM
NEW YORK (AP) -- In a change of leadership that almost no one at Madison Square Garden saw coming, Scott Layden was fired Monday as president of the New York Knicks and was replaced by Isiah Thomas.
The move comes after New York missed the playoffs the past two seasons with a roster largely assembled by Layden. The Knicks are 10-18 this season, and recent speculation centered on coach Don Chaney possibly losing his job.
Instead, the man forced out was Layden, who joined the Knicks in the summer of 1999 after they were coming off an appearance in the NBA Finals.
"I don't think there's any question that everybody is underperforming. Just look at our record," said James Dolan, the chairman of the team's corporate owner, Cablevision. "This is the thing we could do right now to most help the team. That's the bottom line of it."
Thomas has been out of the NBA since being fired over the summer by the Indiana Pacers, where he was the coach for three seasons. He received a phone call from Dolan and Garden president Steve Mills on Friday, then spent Saturday meeting with them.
He was introduced at a press conference in the same Garden restaurant where Layden made his first public appearance as the Knicks' general manager 41/2 years ago.
"We've got players and coaches probably a little bit unsure of what's going on, and my job is to come here and calm the waters," Thomas said.
Calming the waters, however, could be a tough task after Thomas emphasized in several recent interviews that his desire is to return to coaching. That might not bode well for Chaney, who has been coaching the Knicks throughout their decline into insignificance.
Thomas said everyone in the organization will be evaluated, providing no assurances to anyone. Chaney did not speak to reporters after practice Monday morning.
The task confronting Thomas is a difficult one, whether he tries to tinker with or overhaul an underachieving roster with the league's highest payroll. The contracts of Allan Houston, Keith Van Horn, Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson will take up almost all of the team's salary cap space for the next three seasons.
"Everyone who looks at the cap situation, the first thing they say is, 'You can't fix this, you can't do it,"' Thomas said. "We have to be a team that's very unconventional and very creative in going out and getting players."
Layden's last major move was the four-team trade that sent Sprewell to Minnesota and brought Van Horn to New York. The deal has appeared to favor the Timberwolves during the first two months of the season. Sprewell has averaged 17.2 points for Minnesota while Van Horn has struggled, averaging 14.8 points and getting benched for the fourth quarter of several recent games.
Before the Van Horn trade, Layden's biggest move came on draft night in 2002 when he sent Marcus Camby, Mark Jackson and the Knicks' lottery pick -- which turned into Brazilian center Nene -- to Denver for Antonio McDyess.
McDyess fractured his kneecap in an exhibition game and missed the entire 2002-03 season, finally returning 11 games ago.
With the Knicks losing regularly and failing to draw the sellout crowds that were a staple during the 1990s, Layden became a lightning rod for criticism. The anti-Layden feeling was so strong in New York that when LeBron James was selected with the No. 1 pick in the draft at the Garden last June, commissioner David Stern's announcement of the selection was drowned out by a loud chant of "Fire Layden!"
"I'm going to commend Mr. Dolan because he surprised me the way he pulled the trigger," said film producer Spike Lee, the Knicks' most visible fan. "It was a cool Corleone move, straight up Corleone. It shocked me."
Layden, a native New Yorker and the son of former Jazz coach Frank Layden, spent 18 seasons with Utah before being brought to New York by former Utah executive Dave Checketts. At the behest of Checketts, Layden traded franchise stalwart Patrick Ewing to Seattle in the summer of 2000, a move that contributed to the current salary cap predicament.
Layden, who did not return a phone message, built his reputation in Utah through his ability to pluck obscure but productive players with low draft picks. But he did not enjoy similar success overseeing the Knicks, who now turn things over to an ex-player and ex-coach with a spotty record as a businessman and manager.
"I wouldn't be standing here if things were going well," Thomas said. "None of us like the situation we're in, and our job is to come in and change that."