Thomas' task: lifting worm from Big Apple

ON THE NBA

Pro Basketball

January 04, 2004|By MILTON KENT

If the old saying that you have to take a step backward to make a positive step is true, then Isiah Thomas got his first indication on how far he has to go to rebuild the New York Knicks.

Thomas, who took over as president of the Knicks on Dec. 22, upon the firing of Scott Layden, was rebuffed in his first attempt to upgrade the team. He lost out to the New Jersey Nets to sign free-agent forward Eddie Griffin, who was released last month by the Houston Rockets.

In the mind of Thomas - who meant no specific disrespect to the Nets, who, after all, have been to the Finals the past two years - losing a player to another team is like a beauty queen passing over Fabio for an average Joe.

"We've got to get our franchise back to the point where players want to come play for the New York Knicks and don't give it a second thought," Thomas told the New York Daily News last week. "There was a time when we would have gotten the phone call, `Can we come play for you,' as opposed to us having to search and find and beat [the bushes]. We've got to get ourselves back to the point as a franchise where people want to come here and play and see this and view this as a very good situation, and that's what we're working on."

It won't be easy. Few franchises have fallen faster and harder than the Knicks, who were the Eastern representatives in the 1999 Finals. Of course, that was when Jeff Van Gundy, Patrick Ewing and Latrell Sprewell were key components in Gotham.

Since then, Van Gundy quit as coach 19 games into the 2001-02 season, Ewing went to two other teams, retired, and is an assistant coach with Van Gundy in Houston, and Sprewell was traded this past offseason as part of a four-team deal that brought Keith Van Horn to Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks made the playoffs for 13 straight seasons, but they haven't been close to .500 in the past two. They are seemingly hopelessly over the salary cap, with little chance to get under and have few desirable players that other teams would want in trade.

But Thomas, who was let go as Indiana Pacers coach after last season, is pledging to do whatever it takes to make the Knicks respectable again, up to and including trading forward Antonio McDyess, the cornerstone of a draft-day trade two seasons ago with Denver.

McDyess, who has missed virtually all of the past two years with a serious left knee injury, is back in the lineup, but his return has been incremental. However, his status as an unrestricted free agent at season's end and the $14 million salary slot that could be used, might make McDyess attractive in a potential trade, provided he can show that he can still play.

Thomas last week shipped veteran reserve forward Clarence Weatherspoon to the Rockets for reserve center John Amaechi and backup point guard Moochie Norris. Amaechi will likely be cut soon to clear cap space and Thomas, the first general manager of the Toronto Raptors, is expected to deal one of his other three point guards before next month's trading deadline.

Thomas' biggest task is to make the world's most famous arena hop again.

"Most definitely, you should definitely want to come play here," Thomas told the Daily News. "We have to build it back to the point where people look at this place and they drool. We have to do a lot of things. But we'll get there."

Quiz

Only four players in NBA history have averaged 15 points, five assists and five rebounds in each of their first four seasons. Name them. Here's a hint: Two of them are on active rosters this year.

Artest's personal foul

At his best, Indiana forward Ron Artest is what's known in the trade as a lockdown defender, the kind of player you can put on a talented scorer without having to bring help. And Artest is a rapidly improving offensive threat as well, as the second-leading Pacers scorer behind Jermaine O'Neal.

But if Artest has any more weeks like the one last week, it won't take much to see Indiana management shipping him off to another club before the Feb. 19 trade deadline.

Artest, who missed 12 games last season because of unsportsmanlike conduct and flagrant fouls, was benched during the second half of a Dec. 27 loss to New Jersey by new coach Rick Carlisle because of "conduct detrimental to winning."

Artest griped that he had only taken three bad shots and hinted that he would be amenable to being moved. He then skipped the shoot-around before Monday's game with Memphis, and was held out of the starting lineup.

The mercurial forward met with Larry Bird, the Pacers' new president, and Donnie Walsh, the team's CEO, for 30 minutes before Monday's game and appeared to get things squared away.

"The one thing that was made clear in that meeting is that you have to put the team first," Artest told The Indianapolis Star. "Any issues that you have during or after a game need to be handled later, after you've calmed down and gotten your composure. A lot of what happened was my mistake. Definitely. But now everybody now is on the same page and it's time to move on."

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