KnickerBlogger: Isiah Thomas started off the 2007 with a lot of pressure on his shoulders. New York had just come of a disastrous 23 win season under Larry Brown. Thomas was widely criticized for taking Renaldo Balkman in the draft. The Knicks’ owner James Dolan gave Thomas an order to improve the team or pack his bags. Thomas was forced to take over as coach of the Knicks, something he promised he wouldn’t do. His reputation as a coach and a general manager were both on the line. In mid-March the Knicks were 29-34 and held the 8th and final playoff spot. Isiah Thomas was given a contract extension as was safe for another year.
However, the team floundered down the stretch. After re-signing Thomas, the Knicks would win only 4 of it’s last 15 games and ended up in 11th place in the East. All in all were 33 wins disappointing? It depends on your expectations. Of the 79 teams in NBA history that had a winning percentage equal to or worse than the 2006 Knicks 23 win team, only 19 of them won 33 or more games the next season. The average improvement of those 79 teams was 8.7 wins, something the 2007 Knicks exceeded. Given those expectations, it’s hard to say Isiah Thomas did a bad job as coach of the Knicks.
However it’s hard to argue that he did a superlative job. Isiah’s main flaws:
- Allocation of minutes. I’m sure just about every fan quibbles with the substitutions of a coach. In fact I’d be shocked to hear that for each non-playoff team there exists one fan that agrees 100% with the minutes doled out. Nonetheless Isiah Thomas made a few poor decisions along the way. I’ll start by saying that perhaps David Lee’s playing time wasn’t the worst of them. Sure he was the best player on the team, but Thomas still found 30 minutes a night for him. Instead of quibbling over 5 minutes a night for a second year player that came from nowhere, I’d rather concentrate on more heinous crimes.
Like giving 1307 minutes to Jared Jeffries. Isiah acquired Jeffries with the mid-level exception, and to say Thomas has made bad decisions with the mid-level is like saying Barry Bonds has hit a few home runs. Jeffries followed Vin Baker and Jerome James as free agent strike outs by Isiah. Despite Jeffries’ total ineptitude, Isiah called his number for 23.8 minutes a game. Sitting on the bench behind Jeffries was a superior player in Renaldo Balkman. And Isiah Thomas could have, for lack of a better term, bitch-slapped his draft day detractors by letting Balkman shine in extended minutes.
But Jeffries wasn’t the only crime. Thomas gave 11 starts to last year’s mid-level exemption Jerome James in order to kickstart the Knicks defense. This was maybe the oddest decision of Isiah’s coaching tenure. Thomas allowed James to play a handful of minutes, only to banish him to the bench for the rest of the game, never to return. Although some of this was done with Lee injured, Thomas had better options to improve the New York defense (Cato, Balkman, Collins, etc.) Hopefully the fine summer league play of Balkman and Morris will mean the end of meaningful minutes to both Jeffries and James.
- Player development. The only Knick to improve in 2006 under Larry Brown was Jamal Crawford. Brown contained Crawford’s untamed offensive game, and got him to play smarter basketball. With Brown’s tutelage, Crawford attempted fewer wild shots from the perimeter, and drove to the hoop more often. Unfortunately it seems that Isiah Thomas undid most if not all of Brown’s good work. Last year Crawford reverted to his old self: unnecessarily heaving up off low percentage shots. Jamal’s shooting percentage plummeted (47.4 to 45.8 eFG%, 54.4 to 51.7 TS%) as Thomas gave him carte blanche to shoot at will.
Crawford wasn’t the only player to regress under Thomas. Channing Frye had a sparkling rookie campaign, but floundered miserably as a sophomore. It’s hard to believe that Thomas couldn’t find any way to increase the forward’s confidence. Frye was psychologically shaky, often passing up on outside shots that found the bottom of the net just a year ago. It’s hard to say what caused Frye’s slump, but it’s the coach’s job to motivate his players. And in this case Isiah failed.
- The defense. We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog dissecting the Knicks offense. However the Knicks’ offense was ranked 10th on March 12th (when Thomas’ contract was extended) before a rash of injuries helped to sink the team. On the other hand, the New York defense was ranked a pitiful 27th at that time and they finished 24th by the season’s end. While part of the problem is due to the construction of the team (which is the fault of Isiah Thomas the president), a share of the blame goes to the coach.
Thomas failed to make the defense better on any level. He failed to make his players defend better. Take for instance Eddy Curry. Instead of teaching him proper defensive fundamentals, Thomas instructed Curry to avoid fouls. Curry’s foul rate was the lowest of his career, and consequently his block rate was halved. On the other end of the roster, the perimeter was still porous. Knick guards had problems keeping opponents from penetrating, exacerbating Curry’s problems.
Even if Thomas isn’t to blame for the player’s inability to defend, you could fault him for not using better defenders or schemes. Balkman, who shined as a defender his rookie year, saw only 15.6 minutes per game. Cato, who was certainly no worse defensively than any of the other Knicks centers, played less than a hundred minutes on the season. Additionally Isiah fell in love with a small lineup. Just look at Nate Robinson’s top floor units. The second most frequent unit is a three guard alignment, and two others have Jamal Crawford as the small forward. Crawford played 8% of the team’s total minutes at SF, Mardy Collins played 6%. Meanwhile David Lee only spent 5% at SF. Putting out an undersized unit isn’t done to bolster the defense.
Despite these flaws, Thomas did a commendable job last year. With how much of a crapshoot getting a coach is, it’s hard to think that a random coach could have done better. In the NBA the great coaches are few & far in between, and at the bottom there is a rotating door of assistants and college coaches who fail miserably. That the Knicks improved more than the average team in their situation, shows that Thomas did a fair job.
KnickerBlogger?s Grade: C+
2008 Outlook: The Knicks added some bigger players to the roster, so it’s possible that we’ve seen the end of the small lineup. Instead, we could see lots of big lineups. David Lee could see serious playing time at small forward. Renaldo Balkman (6-8), Demetris Nichols (6-8), and Quentin Richardson (6-6) could see time at shooting guard. Isiah could improve the team by playing the Knicks’ better defenders more often. Balkman should see an extra 10 minutes this year. Collins could see some situational duty. With a poor defensive front court in Curry and Randolph, the Knicks might zone it up more next year. On offense, Isiah Thomas will have to work Zach Randolph into the playbook.
Although last year Thomas received an ultimatum to improve, he’s probably under the same sword of Damocles this year. Certainly the bar is raised again, because 33 wins isn’t going to cut it in 2008. Thomas has a lot of questions to answer this upcoming season. How will Zach Randolph fit in with this team? How many minutes will he find for David Lee? Who will play small forward? Will top summer league performers Renaldo Balkman and Nate Robinson get more playing time? How will the rookies fit in to this team? But no matter what the answers to these questions are, Thomas will be forced to improve. It’d be hard to see the Knicks not make the playoffs and Isiah keep his job.