Amidst all the confused looks, raised eyebrows and exasperated questions being asked after the Knicks announced they’d hopped back in bed with Isiah Thomas — the majority sounding much like, “The f*** are they doing?” — my biggest query had nothing to do with potential NCAA violations, NBA conflicts of interest, or what dirty photos Isiah may or may not have on Knicks owner James Dolan:
My question: What does Isiah do so well that the Knicks need him to do this job and nobody else?
From everything I’ve heard, Isiah has been given a part-time Draft and free agency consulting position, which will also involve some free-agent recruiting. And since the info Isiah would share with a recruiting target isn’t any different than the info Donnie Walsh or Mike D’Antoni would share, I’m assuming Isiah’s biggest draw is that he’s a Hall of Fame player with name recognition and star power who is associated with the Knicks and whom players identify with. They can’t get John Starks to do that? Larry Johnson? Isn’t Allan Houston being groomed for a high-ranking front office position?
Then there’s the Draft. The idea that Isiah is a drafting genius has become widely accepted by fans and media alike, but if you really look at the history, it’s questionable:
* In 1995, when Isiah worked for the Toronto Raptors, he took Damon Stoudamire with the franchise’s first-ever draft pick. In two and a half seasons with the Raps, “Mighty Mouse” was good for about 19 points and 8.5 dimes a night. But was he such a gamble as a pick? After Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett were already gone in the Top-5, then Big Country Reeves went 6th, the only players on the board at No. 7 that any GM might chosen ahead of Stoudamire were Shawn Respert and Ed O’Bannon. Isiah went with the senior point guard who’d led his team to the Final Four. Not really a tough pick.
* In ’96, Isiah snagged Marcus Camby with the No. 2 pick after Allen Iverson. Camby was a 6-foot-11 quick, athletic junior who put up 20 points, 8 boards and blocked about 59 shots per game at UMass. Again, pretty much a no-brainer pick. Genius not required.
* In 1997, Isiah did take a risk, selecting high schooler Tracy McGrady with the 9th pick. But similar to the Stoudamire pick, who else was available? Danny Fortson, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Austin Croshere, Derek Anderson and Mo Taylor were the next five picks after T-Mac.
* When he ran the Pacers, Isiah was involved in drafting Fred Jones 14th overall.
* In New York, he took Channing Frye in the Top-10 (ahead of Andrew Bynum and Danny Granger), Mardy Collins in the first round (ahead of Paul Millsap), and drafted Renaldo Balkman one spot ahead of Rajon Rondo.
And if you look at where the Knicks made their picks during Thomas’ reign, they never had enough Lottery choices, considering how bad they were. That’s because Isiah traded most of them away for veterans who didn’t fit on his team.
Not that he’s been all bad. Isiah landed Trevor Ariza in the second round with New York, and while Ariza didn’t really blossom until he’d bounced to a couple different teams, he turned out to be a second-round steal. Isiah picked David Lee 30th overall, Wilson Chandler 23rd overall, and took a chance on Nate Robinson in the first round when a lot of critics doubted he could be an impact player in the League.
So it’s not like Isiah Thomas is terrible at drafting players. And I’m sure he’s pretty good at recruiting free agents. But it’s not as if he landed the Knicks LeBron James this summer, or stole Manu Ginobili late in the second round of the Draft. He hasn’t done anything so great that somebody else would be incapable of doing — somebody else who wouldn’t simultaneously alienate New York’s fan base and make negative headlines nationwide.
Which makes it look even more like this “part-time” job is really just the beginning of a process that will result in Isiah taking his old seat as Knicks GM and/or President of Basketball Operations. And when that happens, the questions are going to be even louder and angrier.