“Fire Isiah” chants can be heard from the rafters, can be read in newspapers, and are daily fodder for talk radio. But what has gotten far less discussion in mainstream media is any thoughtful separation between “Isiah-the-coach” and “Isiah the GM”. Such a discussion might mess up the only existing narrative put forth by our media which is: "Isiah Thomas (and James Dolan) are the worst executives in the history of sports". But a close look reveal that in 2007 Isiah the GM is not the problem, Isiah the Coach is.

 

Isiah the GM: Not counting Isiah himself, but counting his mother and sister, this author is now officially one of three people left who believes that Thomas has been a decent GM for the New York Knicks. Why? Here is abridged version: 1) Isiah inherits a historically bad roster in Dec. 2003; 2) When that roster is compared to other similar ones in NBA history, you will not find a turnaround in anything less than 5 years; 3) With freak exception[1] point #2 seems to be an ironclad rule; 4) Isiah succeeds in bringing in young talent despite trade chips named Othella and Doleac; 5) Isiah is now in position to solve chemistry issues and structurally-flawed roster with a couple more trades. …For more GM explanation see the recent “How Can You Defend Isiah” and this multi-part series on Isiah’s 4 year GM tenure. If virtually no other GM in history turned around a similar roster in less than 5 years, shouldn’t Thomas receive that evaluation period? A revised Isiah-as-GM assessment will just have to wait at least another year as I don’t want to render a final verdict on the future potential of guys like Curry, Lee, and Balkman as quickly as the Chicago Bulls, fans, and media rendered one on Tyson Chandler.

Isiah-the-Coach: He performed well last year. Knick fans will tell you that wins were scarce, but the effort and energy was there every single night. The year brought optimism for this year because in between the terrible opeming adjustment period (pre-Denver fight) and before the major injuries hit in March, the Knicks played .500 ball for more than two months and was on course for the playoffs. This year was supposed to be the next step. So what went wrong? Didn’t Isiah buy all the ingredients?  As such shouldn’t he know how to cook this meal? Yeah he should… but he didn’t, and here is why:


So Where Did Isiah-the-Coach Go Wrong?

1) Death by “White Chocolate”:  November 11, 2007 might very well might be the day the Knicks 2007 season died. The Knicks were 2-2 and played all four games quite hard. Then the following surreal sequence occurred: 1) Knicks beating Miami entire game; 2) With less than two minutes left, Miami steals a victory away from the Knicks; 3) Why? Stephon Marbury’s atrocious defense allows a broken down Jason Williams to reach back into his Sactown “White Chocolate” glory days; 4) an incensed Thomas overreacts and tells Marbury that he will not start the next game; 5) An incensed Marbury overreacts and goes AWOL after allegedly issuing threats to Isiah; 5) A gleeful New York media overreacts and goes buck wild in widening the chasm between the two; 6) Marbury comes back to team after missing a game; 7) team allegedly takes straw poll to see if Marbury should play; 8) Allegedly, the poll answer is “no”; 9) Isiah plays Marbury anyway; 10) Because of benching fiasco, Isiah’s influence over Marbury may be permanently lost; 11) Because Thomas ignores straw poll, his influence over entire team may be permanently lost.  …Damn that Jason Williams! It is quite possible that this article should have ended right here.


2) The Starting Line-Up: The Knicks start Eddy Curry, Zach Randolph, Quentin Richardson, Jamal Crawford, and Stephon Marbury. This combination of players simply cannot remain competitive. Consider this: the Knicks have ended the first quarter down by 5 or more points THIRTEEN times – more than half their games! How many games were they up by 5 or more after the 1st quarter? Only ONCE in 24 games – against the Kidd-less Nets. Third quarters weren’t much better (only two +5 periods). So how did the Knicks even win 7 games? No less than 5 of those wins were fueled by key contributions of back-up players who participated in 2nd quarter comebacks (T-Wolves; Bulls; Nets-2) or 4th quarter comebacks (Denver & Milwaukee). The Knicks play from a deficit every other night and Thomas inexplicably will not make permanent adjustments to his starting line-up no matter how many losses pile up. Isiah doesn’t need to go all Larry Brown on us, but a little bit tinkering would be nice. Our friends at KnicksDefense have also long been discussing the line-up issue while reminding Isiah of Einstein’s famous definition of “insanity”:  doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.  
 2A) Offense:  Most good teams have three legitimate scorers in their starting line-up and two others happy to  defer while they focus on other aspects of basketball (4-1 ratio at most). The Knicks essentially cancel each other’s strengths out by starting five players who all need the ball to be effective.  Even worse, having too many scorers breeds more selfishness and less passing. Of course, the Knicks are last in the league in assists (hat tip Basketbawful). Last year the nice storyline was that “The Denver fight brought the Knicks together” so the Knicks started winning. The truth is that the suspensions depleted the bench, forced line-up changes, and allowed guys like Marbury and Curry to find a rhythm and Lee and Balkman to shine after getting additional minutes.
2B) Defense:  Both the perimeter AND interior defense of the starting line-up is atrocious. Guys likes Jared Jeffries, Balkman, and Fred Jones all bring a defensive presence, and David Lee brings rebounds and doesn’t need the ball to be effective. While I don’t know the definitive combination, why hasn’t Thomas even ATTEMPTED to mix-up the starting line-up 24 games in (besides the ill-advised Marbury benching)? This roster, although obviously structurally flawed, does have defensive options. And of course, defense often creates fast-break offense and easy buckets, something that is non-existent in Knick first quarters.


3) Substitution Patterns: As Michael Dunleavy put on his best Michael Jordan impression on Monday, once again I found myself yelling at my TV set: “put Jared Jeffries in the game, put Jared Jeffries in the game!”. The long-armed defensive Jeffries seemed like the perfect fit to cool off the “red-hot Dunleavy” (if I had a dime for everytime…). Jeffries did not play one minute. Was the Jeffries move the decision-maker in an eventual 27-point blowout? Not quite. Was it a moment that symbolized the entire season? Definitely. But rather than bring up every other Dunleavy-like moment where a new player gets a career high against the Knicks, let’s get to my biggest gripe:

 

4) Why can’t Renaldo Balkman get more burn? Firstly, Q Richardson’s off-season back-surgery and hyper-extended elbow seem to have drastically affected his shooting (32%!) this year. Also, the Knicks are 5-4 when Balkman gets at least 15 minutes per game. Does that small sample of a stat mean anything? I’m really not sure, but let’s find out!!! There seems to be a positive chain reaction when Renaldo is on the court. But the issue is bigger than Renaldo. It’s about…

 

5) Developing Talent: Last year Thomas did a good job at developing young talent. Eddy Curry began to develop into a low post offensive force, and for the first time in his career he started to be regularly double-teamed. Before his injury David Lee had a breakout year while averaging a double-double. Rookies Renaldo Balkman and Mardy Collins also showed budding promise. Besides Balkman, this year we were supposed to see Eddy pass out of the double-team, Lee add a jumper to his rebounding, and Collins get on the floor. It hasn’t happened. If all of these guys "hit their ceiling" then it is a GM thing. If not then it is a coaching thing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.


6) Zach and Eddy:
On paper getting Randolph and Fred Jones for Channing Frye and Steve Francis is a steal. However, unless Zach is going to regularly get 5 assists a night like he did this past Saturday, his arrival seems to have stunted Eddy’s continued growth offensively. And if he is not needed to do heavy lifting offensively, Curry should not be on the floor. Curry will never rebound and play D, but can thrive in a system where he is paired up with a defensive-minded, shot-blocking power forward. Given his rare dominant low-post offense, and reasonable contract (9M), he could be a valuable trade asset to another team that complements his weaknesses. In the short-run Zach and Eddy’s minutes really must be limited together even if it means having one coming off the bench as a super-sub. Lee might not bring you much better interior defense, but he will get some extra rebounds, put-backs, and leave more space in that post for Zach or Eddy to get into their flow.

 
7) Effort, Effort, Effort: This was the one thing the Knicks didn’t lack last year. The young exciting Knicks would always get themselves in a hole but would routinely fight back from 20 point deficits only to fall short by two points. Against Boston they even went down by 30 points and stormed back to cut it to three. No fan was surprised as they seemed ready to go through a wall for Isiah – at least from an effort point of view. But what a difference a year makes. This year, if they get behind, they seem to accept their fate. Critics say Isiah the GM imported players who don’t hustle or care. But if that is the case, then why did they hustle so much last year (Curry notwithstanding!)?  This one is on Isiah-the-COACH.

 

What now short-run? So what went wrong since the budding promise of last year? Was it the Marbury benching? The straw poll? The frozen starting line-up? His substitution patterns? The pressure from the early losses? The vicious New York media? The booing fans? All of the above? Who knows? But this team has regressed instead of moved forward. It is now reported that Isiah is FINALLY considering some line-up changes and won’t even rule out removing himself. StopMikeLupica already proposed the Isiah-the-GM remove Isiah-the-coach scenario and implement Herb Williams (see Pat Riley-Stan Van Gundy in Miami). If there isn’t drastic improvement by the end of December, we are on board with this plan. Does that mean the popular and only-media-mentioned “blow the whole team up” plan is best. No. This talented squad deserves to be coached correctly to see what it can really do. If Isiah can’t do it, someone else should.

What now long-run? One or two trades are still in order to correct the structural flaws on this roster. Despite the unrealistic "chemistry critics", the Knick’s past trade assets gave Thomas no such luxury to worry about “chemistry” while desperate for acquiring talent. Now with upcoming expiring contracts (Marbury, Rose, Jones) and a deep young roster of assets (Curry, Balkman, & Lee) there is reasonable room for improvement. Wasn’t it only last year that Danny Ainge was in the running for the worst executive in basketball?


Final Disclaimer: If the Knicks go on an 18 game winning streak, please disregard this article!

[1] The exception to this rule is when a team gets that lucky #1 pick in one of those special lucky years (i.e. Lew Alcindor to Bucks)