A New York Minuteman Isiah Thomas's rapid makeover of the Knicks may end with him on the bench

January 12, 2004

Isiah Thomas sure didn't waste any time. Two weeks after the
Knicks hired him as team president, Thomas accomplished what his
predecessor, Scott Layden, had been unable to do in 2 1/2 years:
Acquire a marquee player in his prime. Thomas's deal on Monday
for point guard Stephon Marbury, who was averaging 20.8 points
and 8.3 assists for the last-place Suns, should not only enliven
Madison Square Garden but also return New York (14-21) to the
playoffs after a three-year absence.

Thomas took advantage of Phoenix's desire to create cap room and
save money, sending forward Antonio McDyess, guards Howard Eisley
and Charlie Ward, forward Maciej Lampe, point guard Milos Vujanic
(now playing in Italy), New York's first-round pick this year, a
conditional No. 1 pick and an unspecified amount of cash for
Marbury, former All-Star guard Penny Hardaway and 7'2" Cezary
Trybanski. With McDyess struggling after two major knee
surgeries, the Knicks gave up little, but their long-term costs
will be extraordinary. They now have four players with max
deals--Allan Houston ($15.9 million this season), Marbury and
Hardaway ($13.5 million each), and Keith Van Horn ($13.2
million)--signed through 2005-06. Thomas took on $93 million more
in salary while dealing his most attractive assets in McDyess
($13.5 million) and Ward, who is likely to be waived by the Suns
pending league approval of the trade.

The deal doesn't solve all of New York's problems. Unless the
Knicks are willing to package power forward Kurt Thomas ($5.4
million), who has said he'll opt out this summer, they will be
hard-pressed to acquire a dominant big man, which has been their
greatest need since Patrick Ewing's departure in 2000. Then there
are doubts about how Marbury will relate to Van Horn, whose
toughness he has questioned since they were Nets teammates three
seasons ago.

But what other options did Isiah have? He couldn't blow up the
team and start over because no one would take on Houston's
contract, which will pay him $20.7 million as a 35-year-old
shooting guard in 2006-07. Instead Thomas added Marbury, a New
York high school legend who will energize the Knicks' fans.
"You've got to be cautiously aggressive," Thomas says, "if there
is such a thing."

While the trade served as a much-needed act of bold leadership
for a franchise that had been adrift since the sudden resignation
of coach Jeff Van Gundy in 2001, it also provided a measure of
personal redemption for Thomas. He admits he is still "bruised"
from his firing as coach of the Pacers in August by new team
president Larry Bird, who questioned Thomas's work ethic. "I
still believe that if Larry had given us a chance to work
together, we would have accomplished great things," says Thomas.
"You can't win NBA championships at 6'1" and not work hard. You
can't go to the playoffs three straight years [as Thomas did
while coaching the Pacers] and not work hard."

Count on this: When Thomas believes his new team is talented
enough to contend, he will assume total control of the franchise
by taking over as coach. The Knicks are under immense pressure
from fans to prove themselves on a nightly basis. Now they're
being led by someone with much to prove as well.

COLOR PHOTO: RAY AMATI/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (THOMAS) Thomas used most of his trade bait in Ward (21) and McDyess (34)for the All-Star Marbury (3) and Hardaway. COLOR PHOTO: FERNANDO MEDINA/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (WARD) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: CATHERINE STEENKESTE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (MCDYESS) [See caption above] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (MARBURY, HARDAWAY) [See caption above]

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