Isiah Thomastraded for another name talent with a fat contract. But will his deals for theKnicks ever pay off with victories?
As the Knicksslunk toward a 94-90 loss to the Nets last Friday for their 18th defeat in 20games, the sing-song chants of Fi-re I-si-ah! rang out from pockets of MadisonSquare Garden. Knicks president Isiah Thomas didn't hear the catcalls; he wasaway on a scouting trip. But already this season he has been slapped with asexual harassment suit by former team senior vice president Anucha BrowneSanders and vilified for assembling the most expensive ($125 million) andunderachieving (15-40 at week's end) roster in history. The heat will intensifyif the draft choice that Thomas dealt to the Bulls in October for Eddy Curryturns into the No. 1 pick--even though the 6'11" Curry is superior toanyone in this year's draft.
Fire Isiah? Don'tbet on it. The New York brass insists that Thomas has the full backing of ownerJames Dolan, who stood behind Rangers president Glen Sather through four losingNHL seasons in a row. Knicks officials say that the Rangers' return to the topof their division has vindicated Dolan while strengthening his resolve to stickwith Thomas, who presides over a team that hasn't had a winning season since2000-01.
So poisoned isthe climate in New York that Thomas was ripped last week for his trade-deadlinesteal of guard Steve Francis from the Magic for Penny Hardaway (since waived)and second-year forward Trevor Ariza, who had played once in the precedingseven games. The 6'3" Francis instantly became the Knicks' best player:He's a 29-year-old three-time All-Star with career averages of 19.3 points, 6.4assists and 5.9 rebounds. Yet the move also invited Thomas's critics to revisittwo of the most problematic issues of his 26-month tenure: his failure toassemble a balanced roster and his management of the salary cap.
Thomas andfirst-year coach Larry Brown seem to be the only people in the league whobelieve that Francis and 6'2" Stephon Marbury can thrive in the samebackcourt. After absorbing months of criticism from Brown about the makeup ofthe team, Thomas let everyone know that the Francis move was the coach's ideaby saying that he had to be talked into it. "They're too similar asplayers, how could it work?" Thomas says. "But you start listening toLarry and analyzing their skill sets, and it's one of those crazy things that'scrazy enough to work because it's so against the grain."
The Knicks aregambling that Francis and Marbury will help each other break down defenses,force mismatches and either score or create for their teammates. The reality isthat neither Francis nor Marbury has won a playoff series while quarterbackingtraditional lineups. Why would anyone think they can elevate their games whilemaking unprecedented sacrifices for each other?
New York'spayroll management is equally iconoclastic. So heavily mortgaged are the Knicksthat they are already committed to paying 10 players $87 million in 2008-09,which is more than all but one other team is spending on its 15-man roster thisseason. The problem isn't the money, though; it's that so little has beenexpected of the players. The Mavericks pay top dollar too--their $97 millionpayroll ranks second to New York's--but Dallas owner Mark Cuban puts constantpressure on his players to perform. When the Knicks flounder, Dolan doesn'tcrack down on anyone; instead he merely writes another check to bring inFrancis, Jalen Rose or Jerome James.
Look for theKnicks to take on even more payroll as they shop the expiring contracts of Rose($16.9 million) and Maurice Taylor ($9.8 million) next season. But Thomas'sstrategy of stockpiling talent is doomed to fail unless Brown succeeds in hisstruggle to raise expectations. The lack of toughness (where have you gone,Kurt Thomas?) and leadership in the locker room (ditto, Larry Johnson)threatens to stunt the growth of the 23-year-old Curry and rookies ChanningFrye and David Lee, whose value will plummet if New York doesn't turn thingsaround. "I don't think we can lose like this next year because then we runthe risk of beating the young guys down," admits Thomas.
To pull off ablockbuster trade for, say, Kevin Garnett or Jermaine O'Neal, the Knicks mustcreate a market for their players. And the only way to do that is to startwinning. That's what you call a $125 million conundrum.
Parker ShootsInto Key Role
Tim Duncan hasbeen hindered all season by plantar fasciitis of the right foot, but Spurspoint guard Tony Parker has compensated with a breakout season--if such a thingis possible for a 23-year-old with two championship rings. Previously deridedas a weak link offensively, Parker had elevated his shooting to a career-high54.7% at week's end, third best in the league. Along the way he has emerged asSan Antonio's No. 2 option, scoring 19.3 points per game, and he earned hisfirst trip to the All-Star game.
With the help ofassistant coach--shooting guru Chip Engelland, Parker has spent the last eightmonths changing his shooting motion to incorporate his right thumb more in hisrelease. While the adjustment has improved his midrange shooting, Parker saysit will take at least two to three years to extend his range out to thethree-point line. In the meantime he has developed into a more effectivedistributor for his teammates, which in turn has created more driving lanes forhim. "He finishes at the basket better than anybody since RodStrickland," says coach Gregg Popovich, whose compliments carry much weightconsidering all of the constructive criticism he has aimed at Parker over thelast five years.
Popovichinitially feared that Parker's relationship with Desperate Housewives star EvaLongoria would be a distraction. Instead Parker has devoted himself more thanever to addressing his weaknesses. "Earlier this season when I let him goto the Grammys or the Emmys or whatever it was [it was the SAG Awards] to walkdown the red carpet with her, all the talk shows in San Antonio were saying, Wecan't believe Pop let him go the day before a game," says Popovich."He's got all these different things going on, but he doesn't lose aminute's sleep, and he's always ready. He's the most mature 23-year-old I'veever seen."
• Read more fromJack McCallum at SI.com/NBA.
Want to separatecontenders from pretenders? NBA coaches and executives do so by looking at whatis key come the playoffs: the ability to protect home court and to win on theroad. Subtract home losses from road wins, and you'll find these teams ontop.
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