Forget Isiah: Knicks' prez Walsh will soon feel heat, more mail
People outside of New York cannot understand why Isiah Thomas continues -- more than two years since his exit -- to dominate coverage of the Knicks.
Team president Donnie Walsh is now in his third season of cleaning up the mess left behind by Thomas. Walsh is a tough guy who has been pushing himself through a variety of serious health problems, including an upcoming hip-replacement surgery. But it has been 31 months since he replaced Thomas, and in that time, he has not been able to manufacture a roster compelling enough to knock Isiah off the back pages.
Hasn't this story reached the point where there should be more attention paid to Walsh and less to Thomas? Why is Isiah still the big story in New York even though Walsh has been running the franchise for a relatively long time now? It makes little sense to me.
For years and years there has been talk of the toxic environment Thomas is said to have created in New York. But if it was so toxic then why hasn't Walsh replaced more of Thomas' front-office staff? I've talked to Walsh about this many times since Thomas' departure. And a couple weeks ago, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski revealed that Knicks director of East Coast scouting, Rodney Heard, a Thomas hire, may have organized illegal workouts of potential draft picks on behalf of the organization over the past four years.
Thomas has been vilified in the aftermath coverage of this story, and there is nothing wrong with that criticism. Thomas should be held accountable for his staff. Yet, Walsh has avoided criticism surrounding Heard, even though Walsh chose to re-sign him to a new contract.
If I were a Knicks fan, I wouldn't care so much about Heard and Thomas. I would want to know why, after two years of free-agent buildup, the Knicks struck out in their recruitment of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Knicks were never close to signing any of those guys after dumping most of their players and draft picks to create cap space.
It is no exaggeration to say that Walsh was completely outmaneuvered by former Knicks coach Pat Riley in the pursuit of free agents, and that Thomas had nothing to do with it -- not until five days before the opening of free agency last summer, when the Knicks asked Thomas for help because their recruiting plans were such a mess.
Can you imagine if Thomas had presided over such colossal a failure of expectation? Fans were buying season tickets on faith that the Knicks would sign one or two of the top free agents. People in New York spent last season talking about LeBron as if he was theirs in a Knicks uniform already. But Walsh has evaded most of the punches, while Thomas continues to get clobbered.
But it won't go on like this forever. Eventually, fans in New York will tire of the blame-Isiah platform and they'll want to know what the Knicks are doing to build a contender and why it hasn't happened already.
Let me make clear that I'm not saying Walsh has anything to do with the anti-Isiahism. Nor is it Walsh's fault that coach Mike D'Antoni has absorbed more criticism than Walsh over the last two years. I can tell you that whenever I've spoken with Walsh, he has been entirely honorable while taking full responsibility for the Knicks' flawed roster. But it is going to be Walsh's turn to feel the heat eventually. It doesn't matter that he didn't create the climate of hatred for Isiah. When it backfires, as it surely will, it is going to backfire on Walsh.
When Thomas last week told ESPNNewYork's Ian O'Connor that he'd like to run the Knicks again, why was it such big news in New York? The answer is because the Knicks don't have a better story of their own to tell. The summer of LeBron passed them by, they are 3-5 through Wednesday and they are being outshot from the field and outrebounded on the glass. In this vacuum of excellence the only noise continues to be made by Thomas.
If the Knicks truly want to silence their former boss, then they should assemble a roster that can win 50 games. No one will be talking about Isiah Thomas then.
Their opening-week blowout loss at Miami fed into suspicions that the Magic can't compete with the Heat. But I'm sure Orlando will eventually demand respect with its defense -- it ranks No. 4 in field-goal defense despite allowing the hot Jazz to shoot 50 percent from the field Wednesday night -- and the inside presence of Dwight Howard, who can create enormous problems for Miami around the basket so long as Orlando is able to control the pace. The Magic have been turnover-prone, but that's something Stan Van Gundy will be able to fix.
San Antonio ranks fourth in scoring (106.7 points) and seventh in field-goal attempts (83.6), which are promising for a team that has tended to pace itself through the regular season. The Spurs are focused on earning a high playoff seed, and they're benefiting from strong starts by Richard Jefferson, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, who weren't able to contribute at a high level 12 months ago because of injuries or inexperience with the Spurs' system. At their best, the Spurs have been able to change their style from fast to slow based on their opponent, and I expect that trend to continue this season.
The Hornets are focusing on defense -- they've been No. 3 in field-goal defense while going 7-0 -- and Stojakovic is in the final year of his contract. He is 33 with a long history of back trouble, and I'm sure he isn't surprised that the team is heading in a new direction.
A decade ago, the trend was for players to bulk up and focus on defense, but the rules changes that created a more fluid style of play have also led to a more sleek body type for the players. The point guards are smaller and quicker, and the big men tend to be more versatile.
There is a continuing debate about whether improvements in weight training have taxed some players' bodies and resulted in injuries. On the whole, players are in much better shape than they used to be, and yet not as muscle-bound as they were 10-15 years ago.
I would be surprised to see him back in the NBA, unless he was willing to accept a limited role as a scorer off the bench. He hasn't been willing to do that, but maybe he'll gain a new perspective by playing overseas that will convince him he'd rather contribute as an NBA sub than as a European star.