On June 22, Dolan bet on Thomas. The Knicks owner promoted Thomas, in fact, making him head coach as well as general manager. When asked why he made the move, Dolan said, “He made this bed.” Dolan insisted Thomas was the right man for the job—“There’s nobody better than him to make this thing go forward”—but didn’t exactly offer his new coach a long-term vote of confidence. Instead, he gave him an ultimatum. “He has one season to do that. At this time next year, Isiah will be with us if we can all sit here and say this team has made significant progress toward its goal of eventually becoming an NBA championship team. If we can’t say that, then Isiah will not be here.”
Now the question is, after three seasons of flailing, can Isiah suddenly turn the Knicks around, or are he, Marbury, and the rest of his handpicked squad doomed to another season of humiliation? Fans, meet your 2006–2007 New York Knicks!
We’re at the Knicks’ practice facility in Westchester. Thomas stands with hands on hips, whistle in mouth, and watches as Marbury leads the blue team through Thomas’s offense. It’s an up-tempo style predicated on crisp passing and cutting. There’s only one problem. Marbury isn’t passing. Guarded by a scrub, Starbury, as Marbury fondly refers to himself, dribbles and dribbles until the shot clock hits two. He then makes a desperate drive and launches a brick. Thomas’s shoulders sag. He blows the whistle and walks over to Marbury. Thomas puts a hand on Marbury’s shoulder and asks his team, “Where was the play?” Suddenly, it’s high-school algebra class, and every Knick’s eyes find the rafters intensely fascinating.
Thomas has promised to be a kinder, gentler coach than Brown, but that doesn’t mean he’s Oprah. He smiles at a sheepish Marbury and then looks around at his teammates. “Don’t make things up.”
Next time up the court, Steve Francis runs the same play (the Knicks are paying Marbury and Francis a combined $32 million this year, despite the fact that just about everyone around the league believes the two guards’ styles are too similar to allow them to play effectively together). Again, not a helluva lot of ball movement. Assistant coach Mark Aguirre, a childhood friend of Thomas’s and a former teammate in Detroit, screams at the players, “You got to cut hard.” The players continue cutting like a spoon cutting through an undercooked pork chop. Eventually, Francis launches a similar bailout jumper that misses as badly as Marbury’s. Thomas blows the whistle again. Francis runs a lap as penance.
When asked a few days later how training camp is going, Marbury’s face splits into a devilish grin. Thomas’s new team philosophy is disciplined up-tempo basketball laced with strategic doses of street ball. On occasion, Thomas has asked Marbury to shoot more, not less, yet Marbury seems to have selectively absorbed his coach’s teachings. “It’s completely different. This is the first training camp where I had to run laps for not shooting enough.”
Thomas further articulated his coaching approach before an October 14 preseason game with Philadelphia. “You will know how good we’re playing by how well we pass and cut.” That was the disciplined up-tempo side of him. But after three-plus quarters of sloppy, meaningless play (Sixers’ star Chris Webber isn’t even suited up), the teams are locked in a 100-100 tie with 26 seconds on the clock. Following a Sixers turnover, Thomas summons guard Jamal Crawford to the sideline.“Take the last shot,” Thomas tells his player. Sure enough, the ball is inbounded to Crawford, who proceeds to hold the ball for twenty seconds while his teammates stand like frozen salt pillars. Then, with four seconds left, Crawford dribbles a few times before launching a fallaway twenty-foot jumper that swishes with a second left. Knicks 102, Sixers 100. Afterward Thomas says, “Sometimes you have to let players make plays.”
Thomas’s executive career could be a Harvard B-school study in failing upward. As president of the expansion Toronto Raptors, he drafted future stars like Tracy McGrady and Damon Stoudamire, but eventually resigned after launching a failed attempt to buy the franchise. His two years as an NBA commentator for NBC were undistinguished. And in a yearlong stint as the owner of the Continental Basketball Association, Thomas overexpanded the league and turned down an offer from the NBA to buy it—the CBA declared bankruptcy in 2001. Thomas next returned to the state where he made his name to coach the Indiana Pacers. Despite compiling a solid record of 131-115, Thomas’s teams never made it past the first round of the playoffs. In 2003, the Pacers lost to a significantly less-talented Celtics team. Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh brought in Larry Bird as general manager, and the Hick From French Lick promptly fired Thomas. Having gone 0 for 4 as a GM, broadcaster, league owner, and coach, Thomas’s prospects for getting another high-powered position looked bleak.