It’s a desultory Saturday evening at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. Knicks versus Celtics, preseason game four. For the second time in a week, Marbury is squared off against his younger cousin Sebastian Telfair. Marbury scores a modest twelve points, but more than once, Telfair beats him off the dribble and shames his relation into trying to do too much on offense.
That’s only part of the Knicks’ troubles. By the second half, the Celtics have pulled ahead by 30 (they would go on to win, 113-89), and the only drama is whether the dude who played Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo movies will get bashed in the face with an errant pass (almost!) and if Joan Allen is attending the game with her son or a boy toy (A fourth-quarter hand on thigh! Boy toy!). As Marbury & Co. continue to play matador defense, Celtics star Paul Pierce begins jacking up jumpers. As he works the sideline near the Knicks bench, Aguirre and backup point guard Nate Robinson ride the refs. “He’s walking!” whines Robinson. “That’s a travel!” adds Aguirre. Pierce continues dribbling to the baseline and launches a jumper that rips through the net.
As he waltzes back up court, Pierce offers a succinct “fuck you” toward the Knicks’ bench.
On the bench, Thomas and Marbury are oblivious, lost in conversation. Both men are smiling.
Unlike years past, Thomas didn’t remake the Knicks this off-season. With a one-year leash, he opted for stability, which makes sense until you remember the Knicks were the second-worst team in the NBA last year. The moves that Thomas did make hardly drew comparisons with Jerry West. With the Knicks’ first-round draft pick, Thomas took the anonymous University of South Carolina forward Renaldo Balkman. The reaction by the Knicks fans gathered at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on draft night can’t be repeated in a family magazine. Thomas also released Jalen Rose and Maurice Taylor, both costly acquisitions who bombed (Dolan shan’t forget them—they’re owed some $25 million this year—but Thomas has noted that sending veteran players away is necessary to help make the team younger). Thomas’s one promising free-agent signing was Jared Jeffries, a much-needed defense-first forward. Jeffries’s impact won’t be known for a while: He broke his wrist in October and is out for the first month of the season.
“They say it’s lonely at the top,” says Isiah. “They didn’t make that up.”
Jim Dolan said Isiah made this bed, and it’s true. For better or worse, the 2006–2007 team is all his. He acquired them, and he will coach them. The starting five, certainly younger and faster than in recent years, looks like this: Curry at center, with Channing Frye (a promising six-foot-eleven-inch power forward drafted by Thomas in 2005) and Quentin Richardson (a 2004 Thomas pickup) at forward (at least until Jeffries returns) and Marbury and Francis at guard. Jamal Crawford and second-year forward David Lee should also see substantial playing time. Thomas’s Knicks will run the offense Brown refused to implement: the fast-paced game popularized by the Suns.
Thomas has been focusing on the team’s attitude as much as its roster and strategy. He spent much of the off-season traveling to visit his players on their home turf. “I’ve never seen guys get out of New York City so quickly after the last game last year,” Thomas says. “It was like a great escape.” One of Thomas’s most important trips was down to Washington to meet with Francis. “After the way last season ended, Steve didn’t want to have any part with this franchise,” says Thomas. “But once I got pen and paper out and could show him how we were going to play, he got excited about playing again.”
Thomas’s training camp was a pleasure cruise compared with Brown’s. Isiah’s version was replete with days off and team-building exercises like watching Spike Lee’s Katrina documentary with Spike himself. Curry insists the touchy-feely stuff matters. “Basketball is fun again,” he says. “We’re going to play hard for him.” (For the record, the team went 4-2 in the preseason.)
It sounds good on paper, but if life played out the way it’s drawn on paper, Iraq would be a functioning democracy. In reality, the Knicks should be a bit better this season, if only because they’ll play harder for Thomas than they did for Brown. Still, player for player, they’re a long way from the league’s elite teams, even if some of the younger players blossom. Most NBA prognosticators figure them for somewhere around 35 wins, not enough to make the playoffs.
Whether that would constitute “significant progress” to Jim Dolan is anyone’s guess. He’s never articulated what, exactly, the metrics are. But it’s hard to imagine anything short of a playoff berth guaranteeing Isiah’s return.