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Thomas needs to be a wizard in New York

We all wished Michael Jordan good luck when he stepped in to run the Washington Wizards in January 2000. By the time he left a few years later, there were a lot of new players, but not a lot of improvement. There still hasn't been a playoff game in Washington since 1997 and nary a playoff win since 1988. Isiah Thomas now faces a similar Herculean task in trying to resurrect the moribund Knicks. Like Jordan, he inherits a team low on talent and high on salaries. Like Jordan, he has been given carte blanche to make changes. But unlike Jordan, Thomas has years of management experience, ranging from his days running the Raptors to his days coaching the Pacers. (We'll forget his CBA experience, which was a disaster.)

 

We'll also wish Thomas well because, let's face it, a relevant, competitive, playoff-bound Knicks team is a lot more fun than what passes for NBA basketball in New York these days. The Celtics-Knicks playoff series of 1984 was one of the better ones in the Larry Bird era. The Knicks-Heat series with the Pat Riley subplot may not have been fun to watch, but the games were usually ultra-competitive.

The problems Thomas faces as Knicks president are well-documented. He has too many mediocre players making better-than-mediocre money. One of the criticisms leveled at outgoing boss Scott Layden was that he always proposed lopsided deals. Maybe that's because he didn't have anyone worth acquiring who was remotely worth the cost. Look at that roster. (Then again, it's a roster Layden put together.)

Thomas already made one move, releasing the never-used Slavko Vranes on Christmas Eve. That was a head-scratcher. Thomas had been on the job for two days and he cut loose a second-round draft pick who happens to be 20 years old and stands 7 feet 5 inches? Unless the kid is an outright stiff, what's the sense in that? Thomas said there wasn't enough time to develop Vranes, but Vranes is exactly the type of player who has to have time if he's going to amount to anything.

But axing Vranes was the easy part. Getting rid of some of the really bloated deals that clutter the roster is going to be the hard part. And the added spectre of Thomas taking over as head coach is looming as well. That was never an issue with Jordan, who fired Gar Heard 10 days after taking over the Wizards and eventually gave the job to Darrell Walker, Leonard Hamilton, and, finally, Doug Collins.

It took Jordan more than a year to put his stamp on that team. He made the big trade in February 2001 that sent Juwan Howard to Dallas and brought back five Mavericks, two of whom (Christian Laettner and Etan Thomas) are still with the team. He drafted Kwame Brown with the No. 1 pick four months later; Brown is struggling in his third season.

Under Jordan, the Wizards did improve -- they went from horrible to merely disappointing. Under Thomas, the Raptors amassed some young talent (Tracy McGrady stands out) and the Pacers made the playoffs while rebuilding on the fly.

His Knicks are like the Wizards that Jordan took over, a team in trouble. Jordan even tried playing to improve the product. It worked -- to a point. Everyone wanted to see the Wizards, but for all the wrong reasons. You may have noticed that the Wizards are not exactly a TV staple this season, as they were the last two years.

Thomas won't come out of retirement, although he probably is better right now at age 42 than any of the Knicks' point guards. He should demand that young players such as Maciej Lampe get some time and allow Antonio McDyess to test the waters next summer. He should let someone else coach. That might be a start.

But he also can't afford to do what Jordan did: make the product only marginally better. Sadly, that may be his only option for some time. It's an option the ultra-competitive Thomas won't like. Neither will the Knicks fans.

Coach's contention

When Celtics coach Jim O'Brien talked about the luxury of having a solid nucleus around for a couple of years -- something he hasn't had in a couple of years -- it prompted the question: What does he think would have happened had the Celtics re-signed Rodney Rogers in 2002 and kept together the team that made the conference finals that year? "I think that team had a chance to compete for the Eastern Conference championship every year," he said. "We were 18-6 over the last 24 games. We were the best defensive team in the league from a field goal percentage standpoint during that time. Our offense was going through the roof. We had a big team we could play with. We had a small team we could play with. The players bought into the defensive concepts. Antoine [Walker] and Paul [Pierce] had guys they trusted who they could pass the ball to. And we had success in the playoffs. And if it wasn't perfect, we felt we needed maybe only one more player to continuously compete at a high level." . . . There aren't many rooting harder for Jiri Welsch than the man who drafted him, Golden State general manager Garry St. Jean. Last summer, St. Jean fielded a number of calls from Danny Ainge concerning Welsch. Each time, St. Jean politely declined. Then Warriors ownership undercut the basketball people in making the big deal with Dallas, in which Welsch was more of an accessory. "I'm really pleased that he has found a comfort level in Boston," St. Jean said. "This is the first time I've seen him look really comfortable. It's so hard when you're young because you're always putting pressure on yourself." Meanwhile, Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, who saw Welsch play in Europe while coaching in Italy, said, "He just dominated over there. He ran his team from whatever position he played. He knows how to play. He makes good decisions. The knock on him in Europe was that he didn't have a shot." . . . Ainge on Layden: "I think Scott Layden has worked as hard as any general manager I know in the league to try and change the face of that team. He did have a difficult task. It's a tough challenge, the climate that we live in with salary caps and the draft getting younger and younger. He also got some tough breaks. He took a chance on Antonio McDyess and then there was the injury. I still think they should have been a playoff team the last couple years, last year for sure [if they had had] McDyess. It's a tough business. Sometimes you do the right things and they turn out wrong." Ainge noted that Layden had previous success with Shandon Anderson and Howard Eisley when the two were in Utah. And he noted that Anderson played well when Allan Houston was out with a back injury. Still, he conceded, "It has backfired to this point. When you're over the salary cap and your hands are tied, especially as much as [Layden's] are, it's really difficult to move players that aren't living up to their contracts."

Haunting actions

HBO has a story Tuesday night on "Real Sports" detailing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's attempts to get a coaching gig in the NBA. Maybe the chickens are coming home to roost, for Abdul-Jabbar, much like Bill Laimbeer, could be one of the most condescending, aloof, and imperious interview subjects anywhere. "I didn't want to interact with people. I just wanted to play," he said by way of explanation. Except, of course, when he was hawking one of his books. Then he could be downright sociable. The HBO segment contains the following quote from Jerry West: "I played against him. I coached him. At times I thought I knew him. Other times I had no idea who the heck he was." Abdul-Jabbar was part of the Clippers' staff in 2000, mainly to tutor Michael Olowokandi. Not surprisingly, that didn't work. Abdul-Jabbar is quoted in the piece as saying, "Michael Olowokandi did not feel he needed to learn anything from me. Learning how to do a simple thing like set a pick. He just wasn't interested in listening to what I had to say." Abdul-Jabbar, the leading scorer in NBA history, was asked to put a percentage on his chances of getting back on an NBA bench anytime soon. "Ten," he told correspondent Bob Costas . . . The Orlando Magic received a Christmas gift of sorts from the NBA via a $1.4 million exception for injured forward Pat Garrity. That gives Orlando the option of signing someone for that amount or less -- and it was granted based on medical evidence that Garrity, who had knee surgery Dec. 1, will not play again this season. Orlando has been unable to get an injury exception for Grant Hill, possibly because Hill is still insisting he plans to come back. The Celtics have a trade exception of around $2 million from last season's Mark Blount deal, which expires Feb. 20. They also have one from the Walker deal of nearly $1.6 million that expires in October. Trade exceptions have to be used in trades; they cannot be used to sign a player . . . Lakers forward Rick Fox is pointing to a Jan. 9 return. Fox had foot surgery last May (and was missed in the playoffs) and has been rehabbing since.

Glad you asked?

Ron Mercer is struggling with his role in San Antonio -- he didn't play in a recent win in Seattle -- and has asked coach Gregg Popovich to tell it to him straight. To no one's surprise, Pop did just that, telling Mercer that he needed to be more aggressive, to be more focused on the defensive end, and to make the best of what may be his only year in San Antonio. (Mercer's contract is up at the end of the season.) "I appreciate him being straightforward," Mercer said. "Throughout my whole career, no one has really been direct with me and honest with me. I've probably had only one other coach who was direct, and that was Rick Pitino." . . . Former Lakers coach Bill Sharman is largely credited for the inclusion of the "shootaround" in today's NBA. It's basically a staple now, although coaches use it for different purposes. When Ainge was playing in Phoenix, he had shootarounds that sometimes lasted 20 minutes. Players sometimes wore clogs to the morning workout, while Gary Payton used to show up for Seattle's shootarounds wearing a robe. O'Brien uses shootarounds for practices and Ainge has told him that he thinks the Boston shootarounds are harder than a lot of teams' regular practices. "That's a shock to people when they come here," O'Brien said. "We go up and down. We go flat out, in a lather, and they're coming from a team where guys just throw up a couple of shots." Among the newer Celtics, Ricky Davis said Riley's shootarounds in Miami could be difficult. Vin Baker, however, said he's never been on a team where the shootaround has been so strenuous . . . Cavaliers GM Jim Paxson took a lot of hits after the Davis deal. But once the former Celtics got involved in the process, the Cavaliers went out and won three in a row, including two straight on the road, where Cleveland had gone winless since Jan. 12 . . . If you're still looking for that something extra that Santa might have forgotten, three life-size Shaquille O'Neal bobblehead dolls remain for sale at the Staples Center Lakers Team Store. The Los Angeles Times reports that the dolls go for $25,000 -- we kid you not. One has been sold -- we kid you not.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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