After watching Isiah Thomas proceed to screw his franchise over once again with an undersized shoot-first point guard in Steve "I ain't playing for no Canadian team" Francis, I decided to pop in a little game of Tecmo NBA Basketball, circa 1991 via the original 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Back then the starting backcourt for your Detroit Pistons was Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. They won back-to-back titles in 88-89 and 89-90 (although the 88-89 title was helped by injuries to Magic Johnson and Byron Scott, while the 89-90 was legit, although beating the Trail Blazers is considered questionable, LOL), and the calling card of that team was their defense. Watching the Knicks on NBA Full Court Wednesday night, even taking into consideration the fact the team must have been in shock from losing Trevor Ariza and Penny Hardaway (I hear Anfernee is Swahili for flame-out), they don't play defense. At all. In any form. Not even a half-ass zone. Nothing! Either Larry Brown is too busy adjusting his catheter or Isaiah has put together a team of runners and gunners that fit Larry Brown's scheme as much as "Joey" fit into the NBC Thrusday night comedy block. Yet, Dumars only blackeye since taking over the Pistons was drafting Darko. Where was the fork in the road for these two great former players? Why did Dumars take the smart road, while Isaiah, in the words of Bugs Bunny, took a left at Albuquerque? Let's find out.
When Isaiah Thomas left his playing career behind in 1994, he took over the expansion Toronto Raptors as part owner and executive VP. He was basically in charge of personnel for the roster and the coaching staff. Although he drafted some excellent players, including 1995 Rookie of the Year Damon Studamire, Marcus Camby, and Tracy McGrady, supposedly problems within the organization led Thomas to resign in 1998, but if you look at his history in that organization, you see a pattern beginning. Zeke is great at picking out young players, but can't seem to get out of his own way in acquiring veteran's. He likes to spend money, and even bankrupted the CBA when he was the owner from 1998 to 2000(it has since folded). So it makes you wonder if he left Toronto because he wanted to spend money that wasn't there? After getting fired by Larry Bird in 2003 (I call it karma, you can call it something else), Isaiah waited around and finally got the call in December 2003. He was replacing Scott Layden in New York.
When Thomas took over the Knicks, the team had fallen mightily since it's 98-99 Finals appearance against San Antonio. Layden had basically filled the roster up with guys from Utah (Keith Van Horn), and had taken any aspect of excitement and athleticism out of the team. They were boring. They were bad. When Thomas took over, it didn't take him long to make a splash, trading for Stephon Marbury, hiring Lenny Wilkens as the head coach, and ending up on the front page of ESPN the Magazine three weeks later. The Knicks made it into the 8th seed of the playoffs that year, but got swept by the Nets in 4 games. Since then, Thomas has taken on bad contract after bad contract, including last year's genius moves of bringing in Maurice Taylor and Malik Rose, both of whom are only 6 9' and played a position that was already held by Kurt Thomas. Thomas believes that letting a player's contract expire without trading him first is blasphemy, as evidenced by the recent trade of Penny Hardaway's 15 million dollar expiring deal for Francis, who has 3 years left on the deal at about 15 mill a year. Top that off with questionable free agent signings of Isaac Austin,errr Jerome James and Jamal Crawford, and now the Knicks are back to being a punch line. Rumors have Thomas trying to swing a deal for Kevin Garnett in the offseason, but what the hell would Kevin McHale want on this roster? Whoever takes over this mess is going to have a tough job ahead of them. Good thing the Knicks can't go bankrupt, although I am sure if they did it might help their salary cap situation which is nothing short of brutal. Isiah is thinking about the present, let the future be damned.
When Joe Dumars took over as Pistons executive VP in 200-01, he had some problems on his roster. His first big move was to move Grant Hill in a sign and trade to Orlando, who gave Detroit Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins. Wallace is still with the team and is considered the best defensive and rebounding center in the league. He traded another soft offensive minded player in 2002, sending Jerry Stackhouse packing to the Wizards for Richard Hamilton. He signed the much moved Chauncey Billups in 2002, who is now an MVP candidate. He turned Chucky Atkins(along with Bob Sura and Zeljko Rebraca and a couple of first round picks) into Rasheed Wallace and Mike James, and the Pistons got Larry Brown his first NBA title, beating a heavily favored and star-laden Lakers team in 5 games. Yes, I know Dumars drafted Darko ahead of Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade in the 2003 draft. Name another bad move he has made. Maybe he could have held onto Mike James. Getting Larry Brown to be the head coach and sending Carlisle packing made them an instant title contender, and they have been to the Finals two straight since that move. Flip Saunders has guided Detroit to a league best 44-9 as of this morning. He just traded Darko for cap space to re-sign Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups. He has already been named NBA Executive of the Year once (2002-03).He is thinking about the present and the future. More importantly, the Pistons are in tremendous position for years to come when it comes to the cap and on-court performance.
Looking back, I would not be surprised if the fork in the road for these two came in when they left high school. Thomas was heavily recruited by Bob Knight and went to Indiana, won a national title and came into the NBA with plenty of hype. Dumars went to McNeese St and although he was a first round pick, really didn't show up on any radar screens until Michael Jordan called him "the best defender I have ever faced". Dumars has the NBA Sportsman of the Year award named after him. Thomas was kept off the original dream Team in 1992 because he was so disliked. He has made disparaging comments about Larry Bird in 1987 and helped staged and participate in a walk-off and on-court snubbing in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals against the Bulls. Thomas has been quoted threatening columnists (like ESPN's Bill Simmons) and has had sexual harassment suits leveled against him (although those are just allegations at this point). It has been a long time since Thomas and Dumars played side by side, on the same court, of equal stature. Dumars has shown us that hard work and common sense can pay off. Thomas has shown us shown us that money can't but happiness, and certainly can't buy a good basketball team. These guys were once one of the premier backcourts in the NBA. Fifteen years is a long time, isn't it?