Lord Jim (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday February 6, 2007 10:55AM; Updated: Friday February 9, 2007 3:14PM
Curry has been a revelation, ranking fourth in the league in shooting percentage and getting better each day at passing out of double-teams. "He's our all-star," Marbury says. "We're basically piggybacking off of him." And compared with the dour and egocentric Marbury, Curry is by all accounts humble and happy, a personality to build around -- "the foundation," Thomas says, "of everything we have moving forward."
The team Thomas took over is essentially the same one Brown coached, but Thomas stabilized the lineup and made it clear he'd make no drastic changes, and the players instantly felt less threatened. "Last year the guys weren't really in the mood to do anything -- talk, hang out, catch a movie, play a video game, anything," says Malik Rose. "This year we're friends."
One other way that Thomas cemented the squad was with a simple message: The league, the teams, the refs, the media, the other coaches all want to see you fail, so lean on each other. "He's made us aware of all the powers that are against us, top to bottom," Rose says, "and it was an eye-opener." The fallout of the brawl with Denver, of course, was a perfect us-against-the-world teaching moment; since that game the Knicks have played .500 ball, second-year forward David Lee has emerged as a force and the team has shown more heart and resiliency than it ever did last season. If this keeps up, Dolan may well look at the disgraceful black eye as a plus when mulling his decision on Thomas's future. He certainly doesn't mind his coach's pugnacity with the rest of the league. "That's part of what I like about him," Dolan says.
Another thing he likes is next year's big drop in payroll. With four high-priced contracts, including Houston's, coming off the books at season's end, the Knicks will still be far over the salary cap, but Thomas will be able to point to that decline -- the first for the Knicks in more than a decade -- as evidence of fiscal sanity. "New York has turned the corner," Pat Riley says. "It's not [going to be] a $130 million payroll anymore, it's going to keep getting down. They have a lot of good young players. They've just got to be patient now. So embrace it."
Dolan isn't there yet. He says he'll make no decision on Thomas until season's end. But sitting in his office before a game against New Jersey in late January, he says he likes the team's "build." He likes Thomas. "I think he's grown quite a bit," Dolan says. "He really feels he has control of his destiny. I think he's learning just how good he can be, and I think he's better than even he might have thought he was going to be -- as a person, as a coach, as a basketball professional. I've enjoyed watching him, particularly this year, apply himself. I don't enjoy watching him suffer. But I suffer too. We do it together."
Not quite. Dolan knows he will be here next season. He doesn't, as Thomas does, daily face the same half-dozen reporters who've roasted him plenty over the past three years, called into question his every move, his ability -- and now monitor each utterance, each pause, for signs of cracks in his composure. In mid-January, right after Philadelphia 76ers forward Chris Webber had become a free agent, Thomas was giving a postpractice briefing and was being pressed on possible deals, on whether he'd stand pat or shake things up. He tried to make it clear that he isn't interested, that he's staying with youth. The questions kept coming, though; stories had to be written. "A lot of back pages to fill," said one reporter. Thomas nodded and tried to explain: He doesn't want to rule out some unforeseen move, either, and then be called a liar a month from now. More questions, but he was smiling, patient -- Isiah at his best. Finally, the pack surrendered. "Ahh," said one beat writer, "we're just trying to make chicken salad out of chickens---."
Everyone went quiet. The word hung out there. Thomas shrugged, turned to leave, but stopped. He turned back, and for a split second a flash of Zeke crossed his face. Everyone leaned in. Was this the moment he lashed out at last?
"Are you calling me chickens---?" Thomas asked.
But then his eyebrow rose, and he laughed deep and loud, and then the writers laughed, too. The next day's back pages would say nothing about the Knicks. It was a nice little win. Extra! Extra! Jim Dolan's team survives another day.