The worst kept secret in basketball is finally out: Isiah Thomas is coming back to coach the Knicks.
Garden chairman James Dolan will announce today that Thomas has earned a contract extension. The news comes about nine months after Dolan fired Larry Brown and said that Thomas needed to demonstrate significant progress to return.
At 29-34, the Knicks are in eighth place in the Eastern Conference and only a half-game out of seventh.
For weeks, Thomas has hinted that he would be returning and Dolan said as much to the players last month during a pregame meeting in Utah. Dolan met with the Knicks players after center Eddy Curry, who has blossomed under Thomas, said that he would ask to be traded if Thomas did not come back.
There is no question that Thomas deserves to continue coaching the team beyond this year. The players unanimously support him as Thomas has gotten Curry and Stephon Marbury to both play at a high level.
The timing of Dolan's decision, however, is questionable. Why make a public statement with 19 games remaining in the regular season and the Knicks having spent all of one day in eighth place. Why mess with a good thing when the players and Thomas have performed well under the pressure of having to win now.
If the Knicks were to falter down the stretch and not reach the playoffs, Dolan's decision to make the announcement today could come back to haunt him.
According to many current and former Garden employees, Dolan likes being the contrarian when it comes to making high-level decisions. His history supports that theory.
Dolan gave Don Chaney a contract extension when the Knicks' season was falling apart and just hours after a blowout loss. Dolan also fired Lenny Wilkens, the NBA's all-time winningest coach, despite a 40-41 record. Dolan made the call moments after the Knicks under Wilkens lost to the Houston Rockets on a last-second shot.
Dolan agreed to pay Brown $50 million over five years, only to fire him after one 23-win season. Throughout Brown's first year, Dolan was quick to remind reporters that Brown's teams usually struggle in Year 1 but always become winners.
But in the end Dolan went with Thomas over Brown, who eventually was hired in a front office role by the Sixers. Thomas is responsible for putting the roster together, and he and his coaching staff have gotten the players to improve each month.
The news of Thomas' extension comes one day after Steve Francis beat the Washington Wizards at the buzzer with a three-pointer. Nearly two weeks ago, the Knicks were close to reaching a buyout agreement with Francis, but killed the deal when Jamal Crawford suffered a season-ending ankle injury.
Dolan could have saved approximately $20 million on the Francis buyout. but Dolan, whose Knicks team haven't won a playoff game since 2001, was willing to give Thomas every opportunity to make the playoffs for the first time in three years.
The Knicks are alone in the eighth spot, a half-game ahead of the Magic, which lost in Houston last night. They are a game in front of the Nets and a half-game behind the seventh-place Pacers.
The Knicks have denied having had buyout talks with Francis, who has scored 26 points each in two of the Knicks' last three games.
Following Saturday's win, Thomas joked about sipping champagne, which is probably something he did yesterday after learning about the contract extension. The players also were talking about possible first-round matchups at a time of the year when the Knicks are usually making their vacation plans.
It's been a slow, painful climb from the basement to eighth place in the Eastern Conference. But you have to wonder if Dolan is being too quick to call the year a success.
"I told our team that it is good that we are in control of our own destiny," Thomas said Saturday. "Now we don't have to depend on someone else to lose in order for us to get in."
I think even the late great Ray Charles would've seen this coming.
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