Our long local nightmare is finally over.
Though it didn't happen as rudely or dramatically as many fans had hoped, the Knicks did dismiss Isiah Thomas as head coach on Friday and gave him a nebulous job title in the organization that reports to team president Donnie Walsh.
And now, we must contemplate who's next. The dismissals of Thomas and general manager Glen Grunwald leave the Knicks with openings on the bench and in the front office.
At the moment, the debate over who will be the next general manager appears far more interesting than that of the next coach. Knicks assistant Herb Williams had an interview scheduled with Walsh yesterday, but he has a better chance of walking on the moon than he does of getting the job. Actually, the interview is mostly to position himself for other team's openings. One wishes him luck, since unlike most recent Knicks, he's been nothing but honorable. But his big break apparently won't come in the Big Apple.
Instead, most expect that former St. John's and Knicks point guard Mark Jackson will get the gig. Certainly Walsh and Jackson have a long history, after Jackson played the point for Walsh's Pacers for several years and took them to the finals in 2000. Reports this week were that Walsh wanted to hire Jackson to coach the Pacers when Rick Carlisle was fired last year, but was rebuffed by Indiana's general manager, Larry Bird, who picked Jim O'Brien.
Walsh has spoken enthusiastically of Jackson any time his name has come up, and he hasn't appeared to reach out to any of the other top-flight candidates. In fact, one high-profile name came off the list yesterday, when Scott Skiles accepted an offer from the Milwaukee Bucks. The fact that he didn't hear so much as a whisper of interest from the Knicks adds credence to the idea that it's a done deal for Jackson.
Though Jackson has never coached in any capacity and thus would be learning on the fly, this would be par for the course for Walsh. He hired both Thomas and Bird as head coaches even though neither had coached at any level previously, with Bird working out better than Thomas.
If Jackson was the man, the key would be for him to hire an experienced staff that could help him with some of the difficult nuances — managing time-outs, fouls, and minutes, for instance — that might not come easily to a first-time coach. What appears to be more important to Walsh, however, is that Jackson understands how to motivate and communicate, and that he gets the Xs and Os.
But again, that's not the only important opening for the 'Bockers. Though Walsh has all the power as team president, he's 67 and can't be jetting off to Little Rock or Bosnia every week to look at obscure prospects. He wants a proven road warrior to fill that role while he stays in New York (mostly) and focuses on trying to trade some of these god-awful contracts Isiah collected.
So far three candidates have been mentioned prominently: Billy King, Billy Knight, and Mark Warkentien.
King is the odds-on favorite to get the gig. The former general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, he cost himself a job primarily by signing a series of horrible contracts to middling role-players. But with the Knicks, that wouldn't be his primary responsibility. Instead, his focus would be on the draft, and he's shown he has an eye for it. King picked nearly all the young, talented Sixers that are currently making the Detroit Pistons sweat in the first round of the playoffs. He drafted high-scoring guard Louis Williams in the second round, as well as starting guard Willie Green, Utah Jazz bench ace Kyle Korver, and former Nets center Todd MacCulloch: That's four decent players from a position that rarely bears fruit.
Additionally, he's done well when he's chosen higher. Thaddeus Young has proven to be an inspired pick at no. 13 overall in 2007, a potential superstar who is already a quality player at age 19. Andre Iguodala, Sam Dalembert, Rodney Carney, and Sacramento's John Salmons were other bright first-round picks by King, and it's hard to come up with a single negative to stack against it. Because of that knack for finding quality late in the draft, he'd make a great complement to Walsh at MSG.
But he's not considered a shoo-in. Another candidate is Knight, who is the general manager of the Atlanta Hawks — at least for now. Atlanta went 37–45 this year and hasn't had a winning record since he took over in 2003. Knight is on the last year of his contract and may not be retained.
He's been instrumental in Atlanta's lack of success, as a series of draft blunders have squandered the Hawks' high lottery picks. Most famously, he passed on MVP candidate Chris Paul with the second overall pick in 2005 in order to take forward Marvin Williams, but other high picks have been questionable, too — Josh Childress over Luol Deng and Iguodala in 2004, frontcourt bust Shelden Williams ahead of All-Star guard Brandon Roy in 2006, and Acie Law ahead of Pistons bench ace Rodney Stuckey this past year.
Knight has done some things well, but Walsh would primarily be looking for somebody who can help him evaluate talent. Everything in Knight's track record says he isn't any good at it, so he'd be the worst of the three choices.
Warkentien has the best resume of the three, but it's not clear why he'd take the job. The vice president of basketball operations with the Denver Nuggets, Warkentien doesn't have sole control over personnel decisions there — but he has more pull than he would with the Knicks. Additionally, he lives in Portland and commutes to Denver — a quick consultation with Rand McNally shows that setup to be a lot less feasible if he jumps to the Knicks.
If he did make the leap, though, he'd be a fantastic choice. Few execs in the league have a better eye for talent, and he's renowned for his willingness to travel far and wide to scout prospects of any stripe.
For Knicks fans, of course, any of these choices will be a monumental improvement on having Thomas run the show. But the smart money is on Jackson and King being Walsh's first two hires. As long as King stays focused on the draft and Jackson gets some experienced assistants, it could prove to be a winning combination.