GM Report: Isiah Thomas

One of the first things we did when started the site was to endeavor to conduct comprehensive reviews of each and every GM in the NBA.  We’ve been going by team, alphabetically, over the years but have been somewhat slow going lately.  Honestly, we’ve been stuck on the New York Knicks for a while now.  The reason we haven’t really jumped into an evaluation of the Knicks is because no GM has been more examined and scrutinized then the recently fired Isiah  Thomas.  In any event, we do know that Isiah was not a good GM and that Donnie Walsh is a pretty good replacement.  Still, as a matter of duty, we should take a look at Thomas a little bit anyway.  Generally, most NBA writers looking at Thomas pretty much concluded the following: (1) he drafts pretty well, (2) he has does not properly value players as free agents or in trades, (3) he has no idea what he’s doing with the salary cap, and (4) he can be a destructive force for an organization. 

Usually, we would go through all of Isiah’s coaches, draft picks, and trades to test the veracity of most of these conclusions but they are pretty irrefutable.  (For a quick rundown, you can look at our 2006 examination of the payroll Isiah added in his tenure, to no apparent gain). We won’t go through the laundry list of follies to prove it.  The one part of the Isiah equation that really isn’t quantifiable is to what extent he created the poisonous atmosphere at the Garden.  Certainly, it seems that Thomas didn’t help the situation but NBA front offices can be crazy anywhere and James Dolan is far from the best owner at keeping thing calm. 

The funny thing is that Isiah came to New York with this reputation of wackiness but it’s hard to remember now after this bad tenure how Isiah was viewed five years ago.  I thought we’d take a look at how this reputation arose and how true it really is.  Where did Isiah’s reputation as duplicitous first arise?  Without looking back, I think it can be placed in a couple of events: (1) Isiah is remembered for leading the infamous “freeze out” of Michael Jordan, to teach the rookie a lesson at the 1984-85 All-Star game, (2) Isiah was a member of the dirty Bad Boy Pistons, who reveled in their roles as bad guys, and (3) Isiah had this crazy smile that looked either fake or manic depending upon the situation.  

There are other incidents, rumors, happenings that fill in the story but the above circumstances are essentially what Isiah is best remembered for by the casual fan.  Of course, none of these three reasons have much substancs.  Who the hell cares if Isiah decided that some rookie shouldn’t get a lot of shots at an All-Star game?  Rookies are typically the last guys off the bench at such games anyway.  As for Isiah’s role on the Bad Boy Pistons and his Chesire Cat grin…again, who cares?  There are plenty of stories that indicate that Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird aren’t particularly nice guys either.  So, where’s the substance? 

If you know Isiah’s career pretty well, you can fill in the gaps a little more than that.  Here’s the informal timeline: 

The Isiah Timeline  

1980-81:  Sophomore point guard Isiah, leads Indiana Hoosiers to the NCAA title.  He declares for the draft after the season.

-1981-82:   Isiah’s drafted second overall by Detroit Pistons and becomes a pretty good player right away (17 ppg, 7.8 rpg)

1983-84:  Isiah wins his first All-Star game MVP and has an incredible series against the Knicks, losing a mano-a-mano battle with Bernard King in a classic Game 5.

-1984-85:  Isiah has his peak season, posting 21.2 ppg and a league leading 13.9 apg (the only time he ever led the NBA in any assists).  It wasn’t really noticed at the time but Isiah is reported to have frozen out Jordan (7 pts on 2-9 shooitng) at the All-Star game. 

1985-86:  Isiah wins his second All-Star game MVP.

-1986-87:  Pistons finally become a serious contender in the NBA.  They lose a classic seven game Conference Finals to the Celtics.  The series included a crazy sequence where Isiah turned over the ball with seconds left and the team up one point versus the Celtics, which essentially lost the series.  After the series, Dennis Rodman made some bitter comments about Larry Bird and about how his being white gave him too much popularity.  The media came to Isiah afterwards and he backed up Rodman.

1987-88:  Pistons beat the Celtics and nearly beat the Lakers in an epic NBA Finals.  Isiah had several great moments, including a 43-point by Isiah in Game 6 in L.A., which he did on a severely sprained ankle.

1988-89:  Pistons finally break through and win their first title.  They earn a reputation as the tough “Bad Boys” who were reputed to be dirty (particularly Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, and Rodman).

1989-90:  Pistons repeat as champs.  By this point their old rivals the Celts have faded and now they are being challenged by Jordan and the Bulls, whom they eliminated for the third year in a row.  A few days after the second title, Isiah is mentioned as part of a an FBI probe of illegal high stakes gambling ring.  The accusations fade away quickly.

1990-91:  Pistons get swept by Jordan and Company in the Conference Finals.  In Game 4, Rodman goes a little crazy and pushes Scottie Pippen head first into a basket stanchion.  Most of the Pistons walk off the floor before the end of the game and refuse to congratulate the Bulls.  Isiah got some flack for this because when the Pistons finally beat the Celtics, Boston made a point of congratulating the Pistons and exhorting them to go on and beat the Lakers.

1991-92:  Pistons and Isiah both decline.  Not a great time for Isiah.  He is left off of the original “Dream Team” of professionals to play in the Olympics, supposedly because of a power play by Jordan.  Late in the season, Isiah is bludgeoned by Karl Malone in the head while driving the basket and requires 40 stitches to close the wound.

1993-94:  Isiah’s final season in the NBA.  The team is no longer even close to a playoff team and Isiah isn’t particularly happy.  He has an incident where he punches Laimbeer in the head at practice, after which Laimbeer retires unhappily.  Thomas is finally named to the international team for the 1994 Summer Games but blows out his Achilles late in the season and is unable to enjoy his finally season or play that summer.

-1995-97:  Isiah’s deal with owner Bill Davidson to run the franchise somehow fall through and he leaves Detroit to head up the expansion Toronto Raptors.  Isiah starts well, drafting Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire and Tracy McGrady the next season but leaves Toronto when he isn’t given the management shares he was promised.  In 1997, a book called “Money Players” comes out claiming that Isiah was involved in possible point shaving with the Pistons and paints a generally unfavorable picture of him as a human being.

1997-00:  Isiah buys the CBA and is determined to upgrade the minor league, with hopes of selling it to the NBA.  The project falls apart and Isiah folds the league and takes the job to coach the Indiana Pacers. 

-2000-03:  Isiah coaches the Pacers for three years.  They make the playoffs all three years but limp down the stretch in his final season.  After starting 28-10 with a very talented team, they finish up 20-24 and lose in the first round to an inferior Celtic team.  After the season, old nemesis Bird is named Pacers GM.  His first move is to can Isiah.

2003-08:  Isiah is named the Knicks GM and we all know how well that went. 

So there you have his career(s) to date.  But it would also help to see Isiah on a “tick-by-tick” basis.  What were people saying about him at his highs and lows?  Let’s take a look at some descriptions of Isiah over the years to see when and how this reputation developed.  

Isiah As A Piston

One of the better (and only) sources of player reputation is the old Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball that was put out annually by Zander Hollander.  While the book wasn’t always accurate in its conclusions, it usually nailed each player’s stock with GMs on a year-to-year basis.  The annual book provides nice snap shots from which we can watch the development. I don’t have all the guides but I do have enough to gleam some information (for a little context, the annuals were dated so that, for example, the book reviewing the 1990-91 season was called the 1992 book):

1984:  After his second season: “Respected by all…Skeptics have vanished…Always smiling.”

1985:  A very positive image of Isiah emerged.  He was described as “[p]oint guard supreme” and was described with a stream of accolades.

1986:  “Image was tarnished during playoff series against Celtics, when he blamed a subpar performance in Game 5 on a substitute jersey he was forced to wear because his regular No. 11 was missing.  ‘I never got into it (the flow of the game,’ he said.  ‘My jersey was too baggy.’…Went one-on-one too much during the playoffs after growing frustrated at lack of production by some of his teammates and was repeatedly chided by coach Chuck Daly.”  It wasn’t a totally negative entry but the focus was on his disappointing playoffs.

1988:  This book came out right after the tough loss to the Celtics in the 1986-87 playoffs when Thomas threw away the pass at the end of Game 5 that essentially blew the series.  The book was primarily positive about Isiah as a player and as a person, noting that he won the citizenship award.  Buried beneath the accolades, it was noted that Isiah was the “sensitive type…made some stupid comments about about Larry Bird being overrated because he is white.”

1989:  This entry came off of Isiah’s heroic 1987-88 postseason, where he nearly one the title on one leg.  “Greatest munchkin ever to play the game…But ‘Pocket Magic’ sometimes gets carried away as his penetrating becomes becomes aimless kamikazi [sp] charges.  He’ll burn you at any time, or go silly with 1-on-5 drives…Seems to be loved or hated by public and media, no middle ground.”

1991: The entry describes how great Isiah was in leading his team to its second title.

1992: Isiah is described as the team’s “heart and soul” but recognizes how he “[r]efused to congratulate Bulls for Eastern Finals sweep.”

1993: Not much in Isiah’s final entry, other than mentioning Malone’s vicious assault on Isiah during a game and a wonder as to how much Thomas has left as a player. 

Okay, I had no memory of the Isiah making excuses after the 1984-85 playoffs.  My guess is that blew over when Thomas had great playoff runs.  After 1985, however, Hollander really only hints of any reputation issues with Isiah, dismissing the Bird controversy and mentioning in passing that by 1988-89, he was loved or hated by fans, without giving a reason why that was the case. 

Thomas’ rivalry with Jordan probably didn’t help.  The Pistons were bullies and Jordan was the hero.  Not only were the teams rivals but the differences were also personal.  You can always go to Sam Smith’s trusty “Jordan Rules” for details: “[Thomas] knows Jordan despises him and he doesn’t care much for Jordan being the hero in Chicago, Isiah’s hometown.  Jordan’s resentment toward the angelic-looking Thomas is deep.  Much of it stems from an alleged freeze-out of Jordan in the 1985 All-Star game when Thomas and several other players apparently conspired to keep Jordan from getting the ball–and their paths continued to cross along with their swords.”  

But Smith didn’t focus too much on the Thomas-Jordan feud and MJ’s rivalry was mostly referred to in the collective sense, except for one funny story: “[Jordan] especially enjoyed becoming a wedge between [Magic] Johnson and Isiah Thomas.  Jordan agreed to play in Johnson’s All-Star game in the summer of 1990, but he didn’t want to miss a day of golf if he could help it.  He went to Los Angeles, but played thirty-six holes the day of the game and was running late.  Johnson decided to hold up the start to accommodate Jordan.  Thomas fumed and finally went to Johnson and angrily demanded they not wait for Jordan.  Johnson ignored his pleas.  Jordan loved hearing the story.”  So, we see that Isiah’s playing career was, for the most part positive, though he left fans with a couple of tastes of an unsavory side. It did seem that this unsavory side expanded after he retired. 

By the end, however, there was a general sense that Isiah wasn’t easy to deal with.  Thomas broke his hand punching Laimbeer in practice in 1993.  Following the incident, The New York Times described Thomas as “one of the National Basketball Association’s best guards but also one of its most temperamental.” 

Isiah Controversy 

The first real concrete assassination of Isiah’s image came from “Money Players,” a 1997 book by Armen Keteyian, Harvey Araton, and Martin F. Dardis, which examined the NBA and how it had become a big and unsavory business.  Two chapters focused on Isiah and portrayed him quite poorly.  First, one chapter discussed Isiah’s retirement from the Pistons and how his overreaching estranged himself from owner Bill Davidson.  

How Thomas was severed from the Pistons’ family was never publicly revealed but “Money Players” offered its own conclusions: “Nobody outthinks or outsmarts Isiah Thomas.  Nobody gets the best of him.  For days, Thomas is said to have begged and badgered Davidson for compensation–if not a slice of the club, then a bonus, a fat reward for all the money flowing into ‘The House That Isiah Built.’  The kind other franchise players were typically getting.  Championshipless players like Patrick Ewing in New York, for instances.  Finally Davidson agreed.  And when Thomas was sure that the money–somewhere between $3 million and $13 million, said a club source–had been wired safely into his account, the source said, he called a press conference that very same day to proudly announce he had just been hired as part owner and vice president of basketball operations for the Toronto Raptors.” 

Yikes.  That’d be a pretty bad thing if true.  The book went further to detail the gambling probe that Isiah was involved in after the 1989-90 season.  Thomas is painted as a volatile figure (he supposedly threatened a fellow gambler) and disingenuous (he publicly feigned surprise at the probe though he was previously aware of it).  The book also implies that Thomas may have been involved in point shaving in two games in late in December 1989, including a game where he claims he was concussed but no hospital records supported that assertion.  A former Pistons teammate allegedly corroborated that Isiah was involved in high stakes gambling but wouldn’t say too much more: “Listen, I hate the guy, but there are other people involved.”  The player also hinted to the point shaving issue too. 

Again, the allegations of “Money Player” didn’t stick against Isiah too much.  I don’t recall what statement the NBA had in response to the book but I believe it opened some sort of cursory investigation, though no public results were ever revealed.  Indeed, if the NBA truly believed that Thomas was a problem, it is highly unlikely that the league would’ve let him get connected with the original Raptors, the Pacers, and later, the Knicks. 

Toronto Raptors Tenure 

Thomas’ time in Toronto also did not end happily.  Thomas came in as GM but also wanted to get a majority piece of ownership.  This didn’t work out and it left people in Toronto very unhappy.  Alan Slaight, an owner of the Raptors described Isiah thusly in Chris Young’s “Drive”: “Oh, he’s a piece of work….He could look at a glass of water on the table and tell you it was something completely different.”  Isiah hired his former assistant coach with the Pistons, Brendan Malone, as his first Toronto coach.  Malone had a relatively successful inaugural season in 1995-96 (21-61) but was canned anyway, in what was considered a unfair firing.  A week after the acrimonious firing, “Thomas sat down for lunch with [Malone]….He promised Malone he’d be back coaching the Raptors in three years.  ‘I thought, what the heck, ‘that’s Isiah,” Malone remembered with a shrug.  ‘I guess he was sincere.'”

In November 1997, Isiah left the Raptors, claiming that management blocked trades for Jerry Stackhouse and Shawn Kemp, which management denied, and that he didn’t have the funds to buyout the majority owners.  Rather, “after his second and final bid to acquire control fell $25 million short, Thomas resigned his post and began selling off his stake in the Raptors.  He had financial concerns behind this move, Slaight having covered two $1-million cash calls as an eight-party arena syndication deal was reached and construction on the building sped up.  But as far as Slaight was concerned, there was more: just as the GM job grew more demanding, just as the team graduated from a no-pressure novelty act to higher stakes, Thomas was bailing.  Not surprisingly, Thomas saw it differently.  ‘I’m just a person.  I’m not a corporation,’ he told a friend as he walked into his farewell press conference. ‘I don’t have the deep, deep pockets you need to play in this game.'”

Isiah and the CBA 

Isiah bounced back quickly after failing to but the Raptors.  He next bought the Continental Basketball Association in August 1999 for $9 million, seeking to turn it into the official minor league for the NBA.  Thomas had correctly forecasted that the NBA was looking to make its own minors (which would later pop up as the NBDL) and he thought there was prophet in selling the CBA to the NBA.  He bought the CBA, via an acquisition company for $9 million ($4.5 million up forn and the other $4.5 million was to be paid out over four years).  Isiah was then reputed to have mismanaged and abandoned the league.  Thanks to Sports Illstrated’s Vault, we can look back at L. Jon Wertheim’s 2001 article on the subject.   

Werthiem attributed Thomas’ problems to centralizing a regional league: “While Thomas’s mistakes cut a wide swath, centralizing the league proved particularly disastrous. When he took control from team owners and transferred it to the CBA’s Phoenix headquarters, he undermined long-standing relations between teams and local businesses. What’s more, for a league in which team support was regional at best—how many people outside central Washington follow the Yakima Sun Kings?—his quest for national sponsors and TV coverage was fruitless.”  

The other issue was bad spending: “Thomas, however, spent liberally. One of his first moves was hiring Don Welsh, a longtime friend and former hotel executive, as league president. Though Welsh had no background in sports, Thomas rewarded him with a salary of $250,000, or roughly $100,000 more than his predecessor’s, plus a loan of $175,000 and a performance bonus. Thomas installed eight vice presidents—only three based in cities with a CBA franchise—at an average of $125,000. He also hired his nephew Larvell Thomas as a sales rep for the Rock Island, Ill.-based Quad City Thunder. Team employees say that Larvell didn’t show up regularly for work and that he once inquired about including his girlfriend on the health plan.” 

The CBA began losing money and Isiah had to pony up capital to keep it afloat.  When the NBA coaching opportunities arose in early 2000, Isiah wanted out of the CBA.  It was hard to blame him when he could get a $20 million contract with no financial risk.  According to Wertheim: “[t]he NBA also offered to buy out Thomas. It had already announced plans to launch a developmental league, and building it around the existing infrastructure of the CBA made sense. Thomas claims that the NBA offer was for $11 million, which would have represented a handsome 22% return on a short-term investment. ([NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ] Granik says the league offered less than that but enough to make Thomas whole on the original purchase price; Thomas would also have received a share of future profits and not be exposed to future losses.) Regardless, a sale would have enabled Thomas to pay off the balance of his debt and freed him to join Indiana. Sources say, however, that Thomas declined, citing advisers who had told him that the league was worth $20 to $30 million. Shortly thereafter, the NBA announced that the developmental league would consist of new franchises in the Southeast. Thomas wouldn’t receive another offer that came close to the NBA’s.”  

Thomas eventually put the CBA in a blind trust and went to the Pacers to coach.  By February 2001, the league ceased operations and declared bankruptcy.  The league re-opened in 2001-02 and is still running.  Isiah’s name, however, is mud in the CBA. 

Isiah the Coach 

Thomas’ time in Indiana was relatively normal.  He coached there for three years, and they made the playoffs and improved all three years but never won a playoff series (they came tantalizingly close against the Nets in 2001-02).  There were implications of a bad temper, as Sam Perkins center said in “Drive” that “[he] talks congenial with you, but when he snaps he’s like a thug with a slingblade….He’s snapped several times.  You don’t want to see it.”  He also clashed a bit with Jalen Rose and was not happy with Ron Artest, though neither occurrences are particularly shocking for any coach to struggle with those two.  Isiah was fired by new GM and old enemy Bird in 2003.  Thomas left the Pacers with a reputation that wasn’t too bad.  When he was hired by the Knicks in late 2003, it was greeted with some curiosity but he was regarded by most (including myself) as an improvement over the somnolent Scott Layden.  Of course, we know now that Isiah wasn’t an improvement.  We won’t re-review the last crazy five years but Isiah leaves the Knicks in the lowest reputation ebb of his career. The CBA problems could be explained away as a speculative business deal gone awry but the Knicks were just one bad decision after another, coupled with some silly personality issues as well. 

Summing it up 

So where does this journey leave Isiah, the person?  It’s clear that Isiah’s a very unique guy.  He thinks and acts big, though his big ideas can fail spectacularly.  He’s a tough guy and he doesn’t have a good temper.  I’m not sure all the allegations portraying Isiah are true but we do know that he’ll continue to fight and claw no matter what he does in the business world.  Still, all the prior possible bad acts really were just minor atmosphere compared to the five bad years in New York.  The problems weren’t all Isiah’s fault, New York media tends to overreact and Dolan bred problems with his petulant style, but it’s safe to say that Thomas will never get a significant shot to run an NBA basketball team and really has mostly himself to blame for that fact.  Hopefully, he can rehabilitate his image but this time it’s going to be quite tough.

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