Regardless of what has been said about Isiah Thomas or some of his past mistakes, he remains one of the game’s all-time great point guards and his return to the television forum after a college coaching stint at Florida International has been refreshing.
Thomas has constantly sparked controversy because of his leadership of the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons as a player or his tenure as general manager of the New York Knicks —
There is brutal honesty in Thomas’s voice and a perception that nearly 20 years after playing in his final NBA game, he is underappreciated because of his clashes with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and most recently, Magic Johnson. Thomas is not a man who swims in disdain and regret.
“I live my life and do my work and not necessarily look for any kind of glory or anything,” the Hall of Famer said last week. “I love the game. I love helping people and that’s what I’ve always done. But I really haven’t thought about how people perceive me.”
Thomas has done admirable work for NBA TV but the question begs to be asked: Does he want a bigger role in the game? Thomas was a solid coach once upon a time for the Indiana Pacers, but his general manager stint with the Knicks ended miserably. Thomas has a bright mind for the game, but he has noticed that the complexion of coaching has changed. Coaches such as Lionel Hollins, Vinny Del Negro, and George Karl were each fired or not re-signed after getting their teams to the playoffs.
“The NBA is finding itself in a very interesting position right now in terms of how heavy a weight they’re putting on the numbers and the analytical side of the business as opposed to the human side of the business,” Thomas said. “Clearly, winning is not the thing that you’re judged on anymore. The criteria for the coach has changed and what the new criteria is, I think that’s being developed now. It’s unchartered territory, nobody really knows.
“It used to be cut-and-dried; you win you stay, you lose you leave. But now you can win and be gone. It’s definitely an interesting time in the NBA, and over the next five or six years you’ll see where all of this shakes out.”
Asked if he would coach in the NBA again, Thomas said: “You never say never and I’ve always said this, when I came into the NBA when I was 19, years ago. You don’t know where life is going to take you. Man makes plans and God laughs.”
Thomas also will be most recognized for being the orchestrator of the back-to-back champion Pistons teams in 1989 and 1990. Defense and toughness made up their identity and Thomas was the central figure of their great intensity.
“We took a lot of pride in that and quite honestly, the Boston Celtics should take a lot of pride in teaching us,” Thomas said. “They were our mentors. The Celtics were the team we tried to emulate and follow most, and everything the Celtics did we tried to model ourselves after even though we were competing like mad against them. I am sure they didn’t like that we won, but I am sure they took a lot of pride that we beat LA.”
Thomas said there remains a sound respect between his old rivals, however. “When we see each other today, as long as we don’t have our uniforms on, we’re all good,” Thomas said. “If we put our uniforms on, we don’t like each other. I see [Kevin] McHale, I see [Danny] Ainge and if they put the green Celtics uniform on, I don’t know if I like them as much. But if they are standing in their suit and tie, we hug each other and we have a good time.”
One of Thomas’s biggest regrets, he said, was overtraining after the Pistons won their second title in 1990. He missed 34 games with detached ligaments in his shooting (right) wrist he said were sustained when he decided to increase his offseason regimen from 300 shots per day to 500. He also acknowledged returning from surgery too quickly, essentially unable to help the Pistons overcome the charging Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals.
“I came back at the end of the season and my wrist just wasn’t any good,” he said. “And if I had to do it all over again, instead of shooting five hours, I would shoot three.”
So he has some strong advice for Rajon Rondo about attempting to come back from his torn right anterior cruciate ligament for the sake of the Celtics.
“When does player health come before the team? And we watched [quarterback Robert Griffin III] in Washington; we watched [Washington Nationals pitcher] Stephen Strasburg when they shut him down with the shoulder, and then we watched Derrick Rose take the year off. Now looking back, you have to say Derrick Rose made the absolutely right decision,” Thomas said.
“I would say to Rondo, and I’m sure Danny being a former player is also saying to Rondo, ‘Take your time, get healthy, and make sure you’re 100 percent right before you step back out on the floor again.’ I am positive Danny is delivering that message to him.”
TWO THUMBS UP
Miller, Kerr back Stevens
The consensus among NBA experts is Brad Stevens to the Celtics was a good move for both sides. The question is whether the Celtics will be competitive for a playoff spot this season. With their preseason concluded, the Celtics still don’t have a cemented starting lineup and bench, as the new coach chose to distribute playing time among a handful of players.
Yet, eventually Stevens will get it together in Boston, say former NBA sharpshooter Steve Kerr and Hall of Famer Reggie Miller when asked about the transition.
“There’s not a lot of expectations this year and probably for the next couple of years,” Miller said. “I think that’s somewhat a luxury for Coach Stevens. Having known Brad for a few years and having that Indiana connection, of all the college coaches I thought could potentially want to coach at the next level, I’m excited to see how Brad Stevens approaches this because I think he’s a wonderful coach, X’s and O’s, [and as] a motivator.
“To me, this will come down to Rajon Rondo. He’s had a surly disposition at times with his former [teammates], sometimes with Doc [Rivers]. If that relationship between those two [can flourish] because the point guard is the secondary coach on the floor, I’m excited for Brad Stevens. I think this is a great opportunity. I thought this was a smart move for him. I hope it doesn’t end up like a [John] Calipari or Rick Pitino situation.”
Kerr, the former general manager of the Phoenix Suns, said Stevens became increasingly intriguing to NBA executives as he continued to thrive at Butler University.
“The league always goes in trends and eight, 10 years ago, we had a lot of coaches come in [from college] and they were not successful,” Kerr said. “I think Brad Stevens really stood out for the last five or six years. I know there were a lot of GMs around the league that tried to get him to coach their team.
“I think he made a wise choice, getting with a rebuilding franchise with the Celtics, teaming up with Danny Ainge, who proved he would stand by his coach in Doc Rivers when Doc had a rough go to start his tenure there. Boston is going to struggle there for the next couple of years but they’re keyed up with a lot of [draft] picks and there’s a chance they could build something special there together.”
Miller, a Riverside, Calif., native, said he is all for Rivers covering up the Lakers’ championship banners with large images of his Clippers’ players during their home games. Since the Lakers and Clippers have shared Staples Center for the past 14 years, the Clippers have played with those banners hanging over them.
“I love it, I love it, it’s about time,” Miller said. “You can’t tell me that Vinny [Del Negro] or any of these other [former Clippers] coaches before have not thought about that, gone to management and actually said something. Doc Rivers actually coming here, you play in the same building, how could you not cover them up? I love it. I think it’s a brilliant move because you are telling your team, ‘No. 1 ,we’re taking over LA’ — which remains to be seen — ‘and we respect the banner, the retired jerseys but this is our time.’ I love it.”
Miller also had some suggestions for the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, who already has announced he will opt out of the final year of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. The Lakers are expected to be one of Anthony’s top suitors.
“What I would say to Carmelo is be careful what you ask for,” Miller said. “We saw what happened with LeBron [James] and right now you’re in the No. 1 media market in the world in terms of professional basketball, and what better place to be successful and hopefully try to win a championship than in New York? It would be hard for me to imagine him leaving there but I always tell people be careful what you wish for because the grass is not always greener.
“The grass was greener for LeBron because he went back-to-back [with championships for the Heat] but it was such a firestorm with what he went through to get there.”
Said Kerr: “LeBron handled [his potential opt-out with the Cavaliers] really well. He owed it to his organization not to talk about it and I thought that was the right way to go about it. Carmelo was doing really well for a long time and just couldn’t resist. Players are just better served saying, no comment. You can’t win if you even say anything about free agency, and I like the way LeBron handled it. He’ll deal with it next year.”
THE BIG PICTURE
Suns GM deals for the future
Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough, a former Celtics executive, has no issue with the fact his team will not be competitive this season. The Suns have pushed to compete in the short term far too many times in the Western Conference and have fallen short. He wants to build the Suns through the draft and free agency.
And his trade of Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown, Malcolm Lee, and Kendall Marshall on Friday for the injured Emeka Okafor and a 2014 top-12-protected first-round pick gives the Suns more draft assets and an expiring contract with Okafor. The Suns will have enough salary-cap space next summer for perhaps two maximum-salary players as they attempt to rebuild.
McDonough told the Globe in August that the rebuild will be methodical but he realizes the Phoenix fan base is eager for a winner, given it has been 20 years since the franchise reached the NBA Finals.
McDonough already has dumped overpaid Josh Childress, troublesome Michael Beasley, and moved aging Luis Scola to Indiana for younger pieces.
Marshall was never a good fit in Phoenix. The Suns didn’t help the situation by signing Goran Dragic from the Rockets to a four-year deal, but it was evident Marshall was on the trade block after McDonough sent Jared Dudley to the Clippers for Eric Bledsoe, who is expected to start along with Dragic in the backcourt.
Marshall is a good passer and facilitator but his broken jumper and inability to run an up-tempo offense made him expendable. He will serve as a backup to John Wall in Washington. As for the Wizards, owner Ted Leonsis has demanded a playoff berth and it looks as if his team has an inside edge to one of the likely three spots up for grabs in the Eastern Conference.
Miami, New York, Brooklyn, Indiana, and Chicago are locks to make the postseason, leaving three spots open for teams such as Washington, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, and perhaps even the Celtics. With Gortat, Wall, Bradley Beal, Nene, Trevor Ariza, and Otto Porter, the Wizards have a playoff-caliber roster if they remain healthy.
Okafor could miss the first half of the season with a neck injury and it’s unlikely he would garner much playing time when he returns given Phoenix drafted Maryland big man Alex Len with the fifth pick overall. The Suns also scored with draft pick Archie Goodwin, a one-and-done from Kentucky who flourished in the Las Vegas Summer League.
The Suns already own Minnesota’s first-round pick from the Robin Lopez three-team deal with the New Orleans Pelicans, Indiana’s first-round pick in the Scola deal, and now Washington’s pick as well as their own.
The 2014 draft is expected to have the most impact players since the 2003 draft that produced LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.
Washington, meanwhile, needed a productive big man to team with Nene, and Gortat, who was on the trading block for two years, is the perfect big to run with Wall and also hit the mid-range jumper. Brown is an athlete who hasn’t quite found a role in the NBA, and Lee is a throw-in because of his salary.
Rarely does a trade have equal impact on both teams but it seems that while they are going in different directions, the Wizards and Suns found a deal that will help both flourish; Washington in the short term and Phoenix in the long term.
The Suns and Celtics are going through similar rebuilding projects, loading up on draft picks and cap space to improve in coming years.
The Royce White story took an unfortunate turn when the 76ers waived him last week, making his future uncertain. White, the burly, skilled swingman from Iowa State, averaged 5 points in five preseason games, showing considerable rust. White’s career has been derailed by an anxiety disorder and it’s uncertain whether he could play a full NBA season because of his fear of flying. Since Philadelphia is stashing away talent for the future and has no illusions of competing for the playoffs this season, it’s discouraging it would cut White loose . . . Former Duke guard Seth Curry is on the market after being released by the Warriors. Curry should get a look from clubs looking for young talent and hoping he develops like his older brother, Stephen Curry . . . San Antonio made another astute move by signing former Dallas Maverick Josh Howard, who has battled knee troubles, tearing the anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees over the past three years. The Howard signing is typical for the Spurs, who have no issue taking chances on low-priced veterans who will blend into Gregg Popovich’s system. The Spurs lost Gary Neal in the offseason, but added Marco Bellinelli . . . The Celtics have until Thursday to pick up the options on the contracts of Avery Bradley, MarShon Brooks, Jordan Crawford, and Jared Sullinger. Crawford is eligible for an extension but will likely be a restricted free agent next summer . . . Jerry West had some wonderful things to say after the death of former Celtic player and Lakers coach Bill Sharman: “This is a very sad day for me. Bill Sharman was, without a doubt, one of the greatest human beings I have ever met and one of my all-time favorite individuals, both as a competitor and as a friend. He was the epitome of class and dignity and, I can assure you, we find few men of his character in this world. We will miss him.” . . . Former lottery pick Ike Diogu made a bid to crack the Knicks’ roster but was waived last week along with journeyman Chris Douglas-Roberts. New York also let go big man Jeremy Tyler, who earned a training camp invitation after a strong summer league performance but didn’t play during the preseason because of an ankle injury.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.