Isiah Thomas has taken a well-deserved bludgeoning from a lot of people over the way he has chosen to build the Knicks. Since taking over the team 26 months ago, Thomas has pulled the trigger on deals or signings that have resulted in the arrival of 29 new players. Of those 29, more than half, 15, have already been rerouted somewhere else.
The team still stinks and the Bulls own New York's first-round pick this June, courtesy of the Eddy Curry trade. It could be the No. 1 overall pick. Nonetheless, Thomas opined last week, ''We feel pretty good about the direction we're headed. Our future is bright."
Thomas appears to be on a mission to stockpile purported talent, without regard to position, age, salary, or team chemistry. If this were a rotisserie team, he might actually be on to something. But it isn't. He appears to have the OK to spend, spend, and spend some more, to the point where a lot of the more cost-conscious owners around the league (in Boston and elsewhere) have to be chuckling over Thomas's latest trade because it translates into even more money for them via luxury tax rebates.
The acquisition of Steve Francis is Thomas's latest finger-in-the-dike move and has raised eyebrows everywhere. Scottie Pippen, writing on the NBA's website, called the trade ''another in a long list of desperate moves" and predicted, ''It is not going to work for [Francis] even moving to New York." Concluded Pippen, ''I am pretty much befuddled with what New York has done."
It was hard to find anyone who liked the trade, even though Francis has demonstrable NBA skills and the Knicks gave up absolutely no one of import to get him. Penny Hardaway wasn't playing. Trevor Ariza, a onetime fave of Thomas and Knicks fans, wasn't playing. Maybe Hardaway's attractive (read: expiring) contract could have gotten someone else (Theo Ratliff and Darius Miles were mentioned) but Thomas chose to go with Francis. The added dollars don't seem to be a concern to the Knicks, so why should the vox populi care if the team payroll is closing in on George Steinbrenner's? ''We didn't have to give up any of our core young players to do it," Thomas said.
From a basketball standpoint, it is legitimate to wonder about the duplication in the backcourt with Stephon Marbury. Francis has never been known to subjugate his game or ego for the greater good. The Knicks are overloaded in the backcourt; they also have Quentin Richardson, Jamal Crawford, and Nate Robinson back there, and Jalen Rose can be a big guard as well.
The real issue going forward with the Knicks, it seems to me, is the very intriguing dynamic between Thomas and coach Larry Brown. Can they both survive? The notion of Brown being in a position to trade for players and coach them is a recipe for disaster, as any executive who has worked with Brown will attest. And Brown has no problem ripping his players, even though he may have demanded that Thomas trade for those very same fellows.
Did Brown really want Francis, his ''this deal gives us more depth and flexibility" comments notwithstanding? It's hard to see how Francis, with all his history, would be Brown's kind of guy. Ratliff (whom Brown had in Philadelphia) would seem like a more logical guy, and he would have given the Knicks something they need. Francis gives them another backcourt ball-hog.
But Francis also has undeniable skills, and if you don't care about the money involved, and you don't care that the other team is basically giving Francis away, and you aren't giving up anything remotely valuable, why not do it?
One of these days, Thomas is going to be able to say, ''I told you so." The law of averages has to figure in at some point. But more than two years into his reign, Thomas really hasn't been able to say those four words yet. He may like the Knicks' future, but, for those of us who may be results-oriented, it's worth noting that the team was only eight games under .500 when he moved into the corner office.
Right now, that qualifies as the good old days.
A Magic transformation in Orlando
Down in Hooterville, the Orlando Magic have completely retooled. With the jettisoning of Steve Francis and his onerous contract, Orlando now has nothing left from the Tracy McGrady deal. Cuttino Mobley was traded to Sacramento for Doug Christie, who is now out of basketball. Kelvin Cato, who came along with Francis and Mobley, was sent to Detroit last week for Carlos Arroyo and Darko Milicic.
With Francis out of the way, Jameer Nelson can be given more rope, and the impressive Dwight Howard, who should have been an All-Star, is now the unquestioned supernova.
''We're building around Dwight and Jameer," reported Magic assistant general manager Dave Twardzik.
They also have the rights to Spanish forward Fran Vazquez and could have decent cap room in 2007, after Grant Hill's contract comes off the books.
''That can be a big thing," said Twardzik, ''not necessarily for free agency, but for trades because you don't have to go dollar for dollar. You can take back a bigger contract."
Orlando is going nowhere this season (the Magic can join a long line in that regard) and thus it is a bit puzzling to see that Milicic got very little time in his first two games. He played 3:43 in his first game and sat for the full 48 against the Nets.
''I came to play basketball," Milicic said. ''I didn't come to watch."
So play the guy! If he's anything close to what a lot of the Pistons players said he was -- guys like Chauncey Billups raved about him in practice -- the tandem of Milicic and Howard could be terrifying down the road.
''If those guys can coexist, you have a pretty nice foundation there," Twardzik said. ''And all the research we did on Darko pointed to the fact that the guy did some jaw-dropping things in practice. But he could never get a sniff in Detroit."
Walker coming back to Boston again -- with the Heat
The Miami Heat make their first visit of the season to Boston Wednesday. That means Celtics fans will get their first look at Antoine Walker (and Gary Payton) since they were designated ''persons of non-interest" by Danny Ainge last summer.
Walker does not deny that he has had trouble adjusting to a reserve role in Miami, but his eyes brightened when he was told he might be viewed as a candidate for the Sixth Man Award.
''That'd be a nice accomplishment," he said, ''but I don't think I'm scoring enough, am I?"
Not if you go by the last five winners, who, on average, scored 14.6 points a game. Walker was at 12.2 going into the weekend.
''I think next year I'll be more comfortable in the role," Walker said. ''It has been an adjustment."
Walker should look forward to a warm reception in Boston; the only time the Celtics were any good in this millennium was with Walker playing a key role. ''That means a lot to me," he said.
When Walker made his first return to Boston as a member of the Mavericks, he had a horrible game and the Celtics won, 105-103. It remains Boston's only victory over Dallas in the last six seasons.
''That was an emotional game for me because it was the first time back," he said. ''Now, it's really another game, because I've been back there since then [with the Hawks] already. But it'll be nice to see a lot of the familiar faces."
Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.