Posted: Thursday January 5, 2006 6:30PM; Updated: Friday January 6, 2006 6:32PM
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Give Seattle credit. They didn't take the bait this time. After getting burned on McIlvaine (and again a few years later with Calvin Booth), the Sonics refused to offer James the multimillion-dollar deal he was looking for. In fact, virtually no one was willing to match James' contract demands. No one, of course, except Thomas and the Knicks, who handed James $30 million for what was effectively two weeks worth of work.
Which brings us back to the question: why would Thomas, who has been a shrewd judge of talent when drafting, make such an inexplicable move? During a preseason press conference, a reporter asked Thomas and coach Larry Brown that very question.
"I think Jerome can play a very important role with this ball club," said Brown.
But are you worried, the reporter pressed, that James could turn into another McIlvaine or Booth, big men with flashes of potential that are overshadowed by their complete lack of talent?
"I don't like to think like that," said Brown, before adding, "I'm sure Isiah did his homework."
And Isiah, did you speak to some people about Jerome?
"Yes," he responded without elaborating further.
The name Pete Carrill was bandied about and it was a fair reference. Carrill was an assistant in Sacramento when James was starting out in '98 and is said to have thought highly of the former Florida A&M star. But that was more than seven years ago. What about asking Nate McMillan, the ex-Sonics coach who at times was rumored to be less than enamored with his former starting center? Or Ray Allen, a beacon of professionalism in the league who once called James "the most important person on the team"? By the end of their run together, Allen was criticizing James for inconsistent game performances and practice habits.
Spend five minutes with James and you will instantly like him. He's personable, amiable and quotable. Ask him about his time in Seattle and he will readily acknowledge his rift with Allen but deny any dissension with McMillan. Ask him about his new team bringing in Eddy Curry to play ahead of him and he'll look you in the eye and tell you he's in favor of any move that helps the team. His personality is not the problem. His contract is.
James has become dead weight on a roster desperately trying to trim the fat. His suspension has brought the issue to the forefront but his diminishing role with the team has been building for a while. James has started only eight games this season and has never played more than 16 minutes in a game, all while continuing to battle weight and conditioning problems. He has yet to post double-figures in scoring and upon his return will likely lose his spot in the rotation to Jackie Butler, an undrafted 20-year old who played for the Lakers last season; no, not those Lakers -- the Great Lakers Storm of the CBA.
The truth is, none of this is James' fault. No one turns down $30 million unless they are sure they are going to get $50 million. The fault lies with the people who thought he could be something he's not. Now those same people are stuck with a disgruntled player and an almost untradeable contract. Make no mistake: no one in the NBA will touch James unless the sweetener includes a first-round pick. Not Memphis' Jerry West, who tried to recruit James several years ago. Not center-starved Phoenix. And not the free-spending Mark Cuban in Dallas. James is a Knick and will be one for the foreseeable future. It's a fact the Knicks should learn to live with. And, hopefully, learn from.