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NBA / Aug 9, 2010 / 5:00 pm

Isiah Thomas, NBA Draft Genius: One of the League’s biggest myths

Amidst all the confused looks, raised eyebrows and exasperated questions being asked after the Knicks announced they’d hopped back in bed with Isiah Thomas — the majority sounding much like, “The f*** are they doing?” — my biggest query had nothing to do with potential NCAA violations, NBA conflicts of interest, or what dirty photos Isiah may or may not have on Knicks owner James Dolan:

My question: What does Isiah do so well that the Knicks need him to do this job and nobody else?

From everything I’ve heard, Isiah has been given a part-time Draft and free agency consulting position, which will also involve some free-agent recruiting. And since the info Isiah would share with a recruiting target isn’t any different than the info Donnie Walsh or Mike D’Antoni would share, I’m assuming Isiah’s biggest draw is that he’s a Hall of Fame player with name recognition and star power who is associated with the Knicks and whom players identify with. They can’t get John Starks to do that? Larry Johnson? Isn’t Allan Houston being groomed for a high-ranking front office position?

Then there’s the Draft. The idea that Isiah is a drafting genius has become widely accepted by fans and media alike, but if you really look at the history, it’s questionable:

* In 1995, when Isiah worked for the Toronto Raptors, he took Damon Stoudamire with the franchise’s first-ever draft pick. In two and a half seasons with the Raps, “Mighty Mouse” was good for about 19 points and 8.5 dimes a night. But was he such a gamble as a pick? After Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett were already gone in the Top-5, then Big Country Reeves went 6th, the only players on the board at No. 7 that any GM might chosen ahead of Stoudamire were Shawn Respert and Ed O’Bannon. Isiah went with the senior point guard who’d led his team to the Final Four. Not really a tough pick.

* In ’96, Isiah snagged Marcus Camby with the No. 2 pick after Allen Iverson. Camby was a 6-foot-11 quick, athletic junior who put up 20 points, 8 boards and blocked about 59 shots per game at UMass. Again, pretty much a no-brainer pick. Genius not required.

* In 1997, Isiah did take a risk, selecting high schooler Tracy McGrady with the 9th pick. But similar to the Stoudamire pick, who else was available? Danny Fortson, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Austin Croshere, Derek Anderson and Mo Taylor were the next five picks after T-Mac.

* When he ran the Pacers, Isiah was involved in drafting Fred Jones 14th overall.

* In New York, he took Channing Frye in the Top-10 (ahead of Andrew Bynum and Danny Granger), Mardy Collins in the first round (ahead of Paul Millsap), and drafted Renaldo Balkman one spot ahead of Rajon Rondo.

And if you look at where the Knicks made their picks during Thomas’ reign, they never had enough Lottery choices, considering how bad they were. That’s because Isiah traded most of them away for veterans who didn’t fit on his team.

Not that he’s been all bad. Isiah landed Trevor Ariza in the second round with New York, and while Ariza didn’t really blossom until he’d bounced to a couple different teams, he turned out to be a second-round steal. Isiah picked David Lee 30th overall, Wilson Chandler 23rd overall, and took a chance on Nate Robinson in the first round when a lot of critics doubted he could be an impact player in the League.

So it’s not like Isiah Thomas is terrible at drafting players. And I’m sure he’s pretty good at recruiting free agents. But it’s not as if he landed the Knicks LeBron James this summer, or stole Manu Ginobili late in the second round of the Draft. He hasn’t done anything so great that somebody else would be incapable of doing — somebody else who wouldn’t simultaneously alienate New York’s fan base and make negative headlines nationwide.

Which makes it look even more like this “part-time” job is really just the beginning of a process that will result in Isiah taking his old seat as Knicks GM and/or President of Basketball Operations. And when that happens, the questions are going to be even louder and angrier.

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  • Dagger

    There’s a logical problem in this article. It’s always almost impossible to know how top prospects will perform in the NBA, unless they’re someone like Lebron out of high school. Isiah drafted well because he chose the names we all know today – a Tmac, a Camby – rather than the guys who faded into obscurity. With the benefit of hindsight that choice seems obvious, but only with the benefit of hindsight. And let’s not forget that Isiah helped recruit Amare, as well.

    It feels wrong defending Isiah, but let’s not paint him as a totally incompetent bogeyman. The big mistake in this hiring for the Knicks is not that Isiah is completely incompetent, but that it’s a PR disaster that completely undermined Walsh.

  • Big Island

    I agree with Dagger on this one. Channing Frye ahead of Bynum and Granger isn’t a terrible pick. Granger isn’t great, and Bynum is never healthy so even in hindsight it makes some sense. The draft is almost a crapshoot at this point and even for the sure things, people end up hyping them to a level that they aren’t really at (see: Rose, Derrick). John Wall is being hyped and even if he has a decent season people will be saying how he is the best. Give the guys some time.

    I don’t think Thomas has been widely accepted as a drafting genius by anyone really. More than anything he screwed the team by sending picks out of town for guys who didn’t cut it. The whole organization needs to be retooled.

  • JAY

    I love to disagree with Austin but we’re on the same page with this. Isiah Thomas is a charade.

  • sh!tfaced

    It’s Isiah, man, the dude sucks at his job. Just when they were about to recover from his bullshit, the Knicks bring him back. But, hey, even a broken clock tells the correct time twice in day.

    What does Isiah do so well that the Knicks need him to do this job and nobody else?
    -Must be something in Isiah’s cock that Dolan likes sucking so much – or vice versa. After all the damage he cost them, just too hard to think of another reason. LOL

  • LMNOP

    Zeke’s got something on Dolan, has to be… maybe he caught him bumming a 12 year old thai ladyboy or maybe just has a video of that time they gave each other hand jobs in the jacuzzi at david sterns house, who knows.

    But like Austin says, he’s been pretty average/unspectacular in the draft and we all know he was an abomination of crappyness with the rest of his personnel moves…. so how come this motherfucker got TWO jobs.

  • chris

    Dagger’s absolutely right. It only seems like the obvious choice now because they’ve become big names. If you look at it the other way, he has a knack of picking the absolute best guy left.

    And that’s a pretty good skill to have.

  • http://thesphericalstudies.blogspot.com/2010/07/lebron-james-is-not-jesus.html#more haslem

    All these choices seem obvious in hindsight, at the time were they truly no brainers?
    By your logic if he HAD chosen Danny Granger you would be saying “but who else was really available…CHANNING FRYE?” might I remind you that Channing Frye had a solid Rookie campaign.

    Furthermore you bill him as an “average talent scout” but from what I see in this article he is at the very least above average.

    Mentioning his trading away draft picks is irrelevant he can still pick talent. That’s all he’ll need to do. Given that in the NBA people mess up draft picks like it’s in the job description I think Isiah is quite good. Maybe we over hype him (probably because he does everything else so bad he seems amazing when competent) but I really don’t think you’ve made a solid case that anyone could do his job.
    Come on, Trevor Ariza? props

  • sh!tfaced

    Isiah’s skill? Shit, man, like they say, even a f’ing broken clock gives you the correct time twice in one day.

  • s.bucketz

    i think dolan brought him back on with no pay…he cost him 11.5 mil so he gotta start payin it off somehow..
    but thomas is an above average drafter..and if he is not in any capacity to be giving away draft picks or givin out checks, its alright by me..
    ooh yea..he didnt hav shit to do w/ stoudamire commin..it was when we got d’antoni a couple years ago

    ooh yea btw…apparently a couple owners bitched about it and it might not go thru..i dunno y any owner would be against it cuz it will eventually bring the knicks down

  • http://deleted dagwaller

    One problem with Dagger’s way of thinking. While I agree that at the time, picking Ed O’Bannon would’ve seemed like a no brainer…

    …these guys are supposedly so good at their jobs that they get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to do them. They need to have the ability of FORESIGHT. If every NBA GM did his job perfectly, we would look back at each draft and say to ourselves, “Yup. That’s about right.” Getting a “steal” means that you were better at your job than every other GM in the League by x spots. Drafting a “bust” means that you simply don’t have the evaluation skills necessary for your job.

    That having been said, I think that Austin’s points were well made. Isiah’s “good picks” were simply doing his job adequately. Nothing sensational to the point that a sane person would say, “Yknow, I really wish I had Zeke’s ear for this decision.”

    It’s like when you hook up with the crazy hot girl, date her for a while, and then she goes out and bangs your entire crew. The potential was there, but who in their right mind would want her back after she messed you over so bad? There are other fish in the sea, James Dolan!!!

  • basa

    Another lame poorly-conceived, hate-by-numbers Zeke-bashing article.

    Why don’t you put some effort into breaking down how Larry Bird utterly destroyed the Pacers.

  • http://deleted dagwaller

    He’s not bashing Thomas.

    “Not that he’s been all bad. Isiah landed Trevor Ariza in the second round with New York, and while Ariza didn’t really blossom until he’d bounced to a couple different teams, he turned out to be a second-round steal. Isiah picked David Lee 30th overall, Wilson Chandler 23rd overall, and took a chance on Nate Robinson in the first round when a lot of critics doubted he could be an impact player in the League.

    So it’s not like Isiah Thomas is terrible at drafting players. And I’m sure he’s pretty good at recruiting free agents.”

    To me, the entire point of the article is made in one phrase: “He hasn’t done anything so great that somebody else would be incapable of doing — somebody else who wouldn’t simultaneously alienate New York’s fan base and make negative headlines nationwide.”

    Can anyone argue? Anyone even being the devil’s advocate for Thomas would wonder why he’s getting this job after being mediocre at best the last time he went through it.

  • jzsmoove

    isiah’s foresight is much much greater than austin’s hindsight or anybody else’s in the recent drafts. I disagree with the guy’s front office work ethics generally but he has good history with drafting, very bad decisions in trading.

  • http://sportspyder.com jam144

    Stop, the Thomas bashing we all know all these rants are motivated by color if its was Larry Bird we would forgive with open arms and move-on Donnie Walsh needs to be fired as he doesn’t know about the new age NBA players and can’t recruit any of the Lebron’s, CP3, Carmelo what has the Walsh amd D’antoni done except bench players and stink of the Garden last time I checked has either one won a championship? Thomas is a Hall of Famer. Stop the hate and embrace the team we have and the other players we will have in the future.

  • superfreak

    lol @ camby’s 59 blks

  • EN FUEGO

    Isiah the player is untouchable, we all know that. Although he was just another douche outside the court, just ask Magic and MJ.

    It’s Isiah the GM/executive/coach we’re bashing here. He stunk at his job and deserves the crap for most of the shit he did. He may have won COY and drafted T-Mac, Ariza, Lee, Chandler, Nate etc. But he’s done harm than good in the long run. Players like T-Mac and Ariza were gone when their careers really took off. Nate and Lee were basically traded for young unproven talent. Chandler is still with the team but there’s a good chance Eddy Curry’s fat contract might outlast him too. Jerome James, Jared Jeffries: nuff said.

    No Larry Bird bashing because he’s a local boy and a legend in Indiana. Bird will always be loved there no matter what he does.

    But Isiah? He ain’t from New York, didn’t play for the Knicks, gave away players, lottery picks and contracts, f*cked up their salary cap, f*cked up their future, got sued, and they still hire him back?

    It ain’t about race. The only ‘color’ we see here is blackmail.

  • Chise

    Just so I have this clear…

    Isiah’s Good Picks (players that turned out to be ATLEAST solid NBA contributors):

    1. Damon Stoudemire
    2. Marcus Camby
    3. Tracy McGrady
    4. Trevor Ariza
    5. David Lee
    6. Wilson Chandler
    7. Channing Frye
    8. Nate Robinson

    Isiah’s Bad Picks (Dudes who ended up being bums):

    1. Fred Jones…

    I don’t see the point of this article. It seems as if you were attempting to write an Isiah-bashing article, but in reality you just pointed out how effective of a NBA drafting mind he is. While I don’t think the Isiah-bashing that goes on has to do with his race (he did mortgage the Knicks future by trading lottery picks for bums), you still did a terrible trying to make him look bad with this article. He may not be great at running a franchise, but he’s drafted well.

  • http://deleted dagwaller

    @ Chise – no, you just completely missed the point of the article.

    The picks you listed as “good” weren’t good PICKS. They were easy picks of good players. Which Austin said a couple times and has been restated by a few posters.

    Reading comprehension 101, dude. Take it.

    jam, no…just no. Is Bird a good GM? No. When he’s fired by the Pacers, no one will complain. If, a few years later, he was rehired after the poor streak he’s had? Then there will be complaints. Take your agenda elsewhere.

  • stefan

    so who do you think is a really drafting genius ?

  • KnicksFan84

    See this is where I need to be a writer on Dime’s site. Gosh this article is I dunno man… not cool.

    First off, going into any draft you really don’t know who’s going to turn out to be a good player vs who will be a bust. Saying that Isiah picked “no brainers” is a flat out lie.

    The best example to use would be the Damon Stoudemire, Shawn Respert, Ed O’Bannon comparison. AT the time… even as a little kid who ROCKED a T-dot Stoudemire jersey, I clearly remember Respert being an offensive undersize SG beast in the Ray Allen mold. Ed O’Bannon was a bonafied NCAA winner that had huge hype. Damon was an undersized PG who people questioned similar to Nate Robinson if he would have the ability to dominate on NBA level.

    Isiah took Damon and was lauded for it at the time as Hall Fame PG knows PG talent when he sees it.

    To say drafting T-Mac was easy isn’t true as wel. T-Mac didn’t go to college. At the time so far the only somewhat successful guy was K.G. and it was a flat out gamble. Once again Zeke did his homework at that time. Looking back now you can’t just say because of how each players turned out that omg Zeke made easy picks. Its never easy the day of the draft.

    To me he is an EXCELLENT drafter in terms of identifying NBA talent. Now telling him to identify draft talent and build a team at the sametime isn’t a good idea based on track record but then again….

    All his moves were in to make the Knicks better, not worse. The players he brought to the team in theory should have worked. Nobody would guess that:
    Marbury would implode
    Curry would become a cautionary tale
    Jerome James would provide nothing of value after being a defensive force..
    Larry Brown acting a fool
    Steve Francis being done

    In fact several times he tried to apply bandages to fix holes in the roster aka:

    Drafting Balkman, signing Jefferies to replace hole created by trading Ariza.

    Drafting Mardy Collins as a big PG to play alongside Nate due to Nate being more SG than PG.

    See nobody acknowledges these things but are quick to say omg this guy threw away picks etc.

    If I told you x player would drop 19pts 7rebs as a true Center in early 20’s, would you not trade away picks to get him…. what are the odds of those picks turning into a better player…

    So far None of those players from Eddy Curry trade turned into all-stars last time I checked let alone Tyrus Thomas isn’t even a Bull anymore himself.

    Thomas had a lot of bad luck during his Knicks tenure, ultimately he pulled the trigger so the buck is on him for that but without the extra nonsense, analyzing it at the time of the deals, they are not horrible or dumb. Dumb would be trading Lebron James to the Heat and getting nothing but trade exemption in return.

    I could go on and on but if I had a team, I’d hire Isiah as Director of Scouting end of story.

  • Andy

    I think he did rather good drafting. Let’s not forget how Michael Jordan has fared so far drafting…And the draft is indeed a crapshoot. We can comment now, in hindsight, knowing what the picks he did made it in the NBA compared to those he didn’t pick, but we neglect that the other guys he didn’t draft ( Croshere for one) were in the conversation because at the time, everybody thought highly of them. Sorry to contradict people, but it’s easy when you know what happened, but really hard when you have to make the pick, and there are many examples of failures.
    However, Isiah’s tenure as a Gm was pretty desatrous. It took a lot of effort from Walsh to really mend things, and NY still won’t be a contender, and barely a half-decent team. This shows above all else, that Isiah did a pretty bad job as a GM. Is he completely incompetent? Probably not. However, in this particular situation he did fail, and in a profound manner. He should get a new chance, but not in NY. I’m sorry, but nobody in their right mind would do this hiring.

  • Joe’s Momma

    Isiah is a good evaluator of talent. Trying to bash on the one thing that he is good at is kind of shameful. Dude is a terrible GM, but his drafts are way above normal when put up against any other person in the League not in San Antonio, and they use a computer program to help in that area.

    Isiah draft picks turned out to be very solid picks. Most where not no brainers. Balkman was a doozy, but who else wanted to pick Rondo? A pg with zero shot and poor attitude coming out of Kentucky, his own coach told him he was making a mistake.

    You are basing this on what the players did in the NBA, put yourself back in the time of the draft, when players were unknowns, then you can really appreciate the genius of Isiah. The one thing he was exceptional at was drafting, everything else he sucked.

    Plus, this NY gig will only last the next 4 weeks, then the NBA will stop it from happening for 3 reasons

    1) There is a conflict of interest
    2) Stern wants to keep the NBA and the whole Isiah mess apart, he “attempted suicide” and he harrassed an employee.
    3) Stern and Walsh are hommies, apparently Walsh aint happy with this situation so Stern will take care of it. The almighty NBA power will deploy the nuc’s if necessary, but he will just flex a little and all is done.

  • Joe’s Momma

    Knicksfan84 is spitting some truth.

    I do think the deals he made were strictly from a talent perspective. He didn’t think about how they would fit in the team scheme

    i.e. Stevie Franchise and Zach Randolph.

    I thought Randolph would be a great fit next to Curry, in theory. But didn’t work.

    The mid-level signing were horrible though.
    No one was bidding on Jeffries and Jerome James beasted in one playoff series but got killed in the reg season.

  • Ian

    hum i liked the article maybe austin for the next one should be about how great the worm really was against top pfs back in the day another of the leagues biggest myths.

  • sh!tfaced

    Okay, so then Isiah Thomas is a good GM… in theory.

  • Chise

    @dagwaller,

    Kill yourself. The “good” picks only look “easy” in hindsight you dumb fuck. Drafting the easy pick is a GREAT thing if the players pan out. That was the point of my comment. Sorry you didn’t comprehend it.

  • Bizz

    If you remember back to 1995, especially if you lived in T.Dot, you remember the hopes of the city thinking Ed O’Bannon was a no-brainer to be drafted by us, Isiah pulled out Mighty Mouse, and people booed the crap out of that pick, even at the lottery the crowd was booing, and Damon won Rookie Of The Year while Ed O’Bannon didn’t even last 3 seasons. Isiah has always been a great evaluator of talent, but a terrible GM at making deals to benefit a team. If he’s back in the role of scouting, it’s perfect for the Knicks. He’s also the same guy that went overseas and influenced them to draft Gallinari, who appears poised for a breakout year.

  • http://deleted dagwaller

    @ Chise – you said it best yourself: “I don’t see the point of this article.” That much is obvious. I was trying to help you out, even going so far as to suggest a class for you, and all you can come back with is a “kill yourself” comment…gold. Pure gold.

    What you didn’t understand was that, AS AUSTIN POINTED OUT, they were EASY picks when Thomas made them.

    Just as a for instance, we’ll take Austin’s analysis of selecting Marcus Camby. You list him as a “good pick”, but as Austin said…it’s not a good pick if he was such a beast. It’s simply the auto-selection of one of the best players in college bball. “Genius not required”. It would have been a GOOD pick if someone picked him ahead of other, better respected players, having the FORESIGHT and TALENT EVALUATION instincts required of a GOOD GM.

    You might even say the same thing about the level of intelligence required to understand this article. You, Chise, need not be a genius to understand this. Maybe the minimum of intelligence should say, “Chise”, although that seems now to be too low.