A New York Minuteman
Isiah Thomas's rapid makeover of the Knicks may end with him on the bench
Isiah Thomas sure didn't waste any time. Two weeks after the Knicks hired him as team president, Thomas accomplished what his predecessor, Scott Layden, had been unable to do in 2� years: Acquire a marquee player in his prime. Thomas's deal on Monday for point guard Stephon Marbury, who was averaging 20.8 points and 8.3 assists for the last-place Suns, should not only enliven Madison Square Garden but also return New York (14-21) to the playoffs after a three-year absence.
Thomas took advantage of Phoenix's desire to create cap room and save money, sending forward Antonio McDyess, guards Howard Eisley and Charlie Ward, forward Maciej Lampe, point guard Milos Vujanic (now playing in Italy), New York's first-round pick this year, a conditional No. 1 pick and an unspecified amount of cash for Marbury, former All-Star guard Penny Hard-away and 7'2" Cezary Trybanski. With McDyess struggling after two major knee surgeries, the Knicks gave up little, but their long-term costs will be extraordinary. They now have four players with max deals—Allan Houston ($15.9 million this season), Marbury and Hardaway ($13.5 million each), and Keith Van Horn ($13.2 million)—signed through 2005-06. Thomas took on $93 million more in salary while dealing his most attractive assets in McDyess ($135 million) and Ward, who is likely to be waived by the Suns pending league approval of the trade.
The deal doesn't solve all of New York's problems. Unless the Knicks are willing to package power forward Kurt Thomas ($5.4 million), who has said he'll opt out this summer, they will be hard-pressed to acquire a dominant big man, which has been their greatest need since Patrick Ewing's departure in 2000. Then there are doubts about how Marbury will relate to Van Horn, whose toughness he has questioned since they were Nets teammates three seasons ago.
But what other options did Isiah have? He couldn't blow up the team and start over because no one would take on Houston's contract, which will pay him $20.7 million as a 35-year-old shooting guard in 2006-07. Instead Thomas added Marbury, a New York high school legend who will energize the Knicks' fans. 'You've got to be cautiously aggressive," Thomas says, "if there is such a thing."
While the trade served as a much-needed act of bold leadership for a franchise that had been adrift since the sudden resignation of coach Jeff Van Gundy in 2001, it also provided a measure of personal redemption for Thomas. He admits he is still "bruised" from his firing as coach of the Pacers in August by new team president Larry Bird, who questioned Thomas's work ethic. "I still believe that if Larry had given us a chance to work together, we would have accomplished great things," says Thomas. "You can't win NBA championships at 6'1" and not work hard. You can't go to the playoffs three straight years [as Thomas did while coaching the Pacers] and not work hard."
Count on this: When Thomas believes his new team is talented enough to contend, he will assume total control of the franchise by taking over as coach. The Knicks are under immense pressure from fans to prove themselves on a nightly basis. Now they're being led by someone with much to prove as well.
Kwame Brown's Progress
Production Low, Effort Lacking
How desperate are the Wizards to see third-year forward Kwame Brown succeed? Consider: Before a home game against the Magic in mid-December, Washington's program featured a photo of Brown dunking above the breathless title, BROWN BREAKS LOOSE.
In this case, "breaking loose" consisted of consecutive games of double-digit scoring, only the second time Brown had accomplished that all season. So there was G.M. Ernie Grunfeld before the game, putting his arm around Brown and saying, "I'm real happy for you." You'd think he'd made the All-Star team.