James Dolan will not stand in the way of Donnie Walsh removing Isiah Thomas as the Knicks' head coach, according to a team source, but Dolan has made it clear that his "preference" is to keep Thomas on the sidelines.
As absurd as it may sound, Dolan is not prepared to completely sever ties with Thomas, whose record as an executive and head coach is among the worst in franchise history. The Knicks have not had a winning season with Thomas in charge and he was also was at the center of an embarrassing sexual harassment case that saw a jury rule in favor of a former Madison Square Garden female executive.
"There isn't a basketball executive alive who would keep Isiah as head coach, but Jim is telling whoever he interviews, 'I would prefer to keep Isiah but you do what you have to do,'" said the source, who is close to Dolan, the Garden chairman. "If Isiah isn't the coach, Jim still wants him to stay in the organization in some capacity."
Even one Knicks player said Wednesday that it's time for Thomas to go.
"If they're going to keep him here, you can't keep him as the coach," said the player, before the Knicks held on to beat the woeful Miami Heat, 103-96 in overtime, Wedmesday night. "That won't work. He can't come back and coach the team."
The Knicks have a handshake agreement with Walsh, the former Indiana Pacers CEO, to run the basketball operation. The two sides are working to finalize the deal.
Dolan's presence, however, could complicate negotiations. Dolan's business relationships with Dave Checketts, Jeff Van Gundy, Lenny Wilkens, Marv Albert and Larry Brown did not end well, and Walsh knows all five. If Walsh reaches out to Brown, that could also work against the Knicks.
Brown was fired after one season as head coach, and although he feels betrayed by Thomas, Brown blames Dolan for making the last three months of his Knicks career miserable. Although Dolan knew that he was preparing to fire Brown, he still required Brown to attend workouts for prospective draft picks.
Dolan then refused to pay Brown and used a clause in Brown's contract that made NBA commissioner David Stern an arbitrator in the dispute. Brown felt that Dolan's intention was not only to keep from paying him but to damage his reputation as well.
That Dolan would like to retain Thomas in some capacity may raise red flags in Walsh's camp. Ever since Dolan took a more active role in the day-to-day operations of the club, the Knicks have become a laughingstock NBA franchise.
Wednesday night's victory upped Thomas' record to 43-100 in two seasons as Knicks head coach. His team is regarded as one of the least prepared and worst conditioned in the NBA.
Meanwhile, Thomas has essentially stopped working. He canceled practice on Tuesday and then conducted an 18-minute game-day shoot-around yesterday. He also continued his habit of showing up later than normal for games - which he has done more than a dozen times - blaming it on traffic.Yet when Thomas finally arrived last night, he told reporters, "I love the game. I love being around it."
Thomas' questionable work ethic is rubbing off on his players. While the Heat had eight players going through drills 90 minutes before tip-off, the Knicks' end of the court was vacant. Several players, including Malik Rose, David Lee and Mardy Collins, went through pregame drills, but the contrast was startling.
If Walsh agrees to run the Knicks, he likely will make a coaching change, and the most likely candidates are former Knick Mark Jackson, former Bulls coach Scott Skiles and current Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau.
But first he will have to do something that Dolan, for whatever reason, is reluctant to do: fire Thomas. The Daily News reported last month that the Knicks spoke to former Nets assistant GM Kiki Vandeweghe and that Dolan expressed a desire to keep Thomas on the bench at that time, too. Both Vandeweghe and the Knicks have denied talking.