Opinion: Isiah Thomas’ Basketball Genius Can Re-Establish His Name In New York City

The U.S. Department of Commerce should take a master class lesson from Isiah Thomas.

Homeboy knows how to keep a job!

Over the last few days, Thomas has been the subject of criticism after being named team president and part owner of the WNBA’s New York Liberty. A former president of basketball operations and head coach of the New York Knicks from 2006-2008, Thomas was the subject of a sexual harassment lawsuit in 2007 by former Madison Square Garden executive Anucha Browne Sanders. A Manhattan jury ruled that Thomas sexually harassed Sanders, which subsequently cost Madison Square Garden $11.5 million in her suit. Thomas maintains his innocence.

The re-emergence of Thomas as a fixture at MSG in 2015 has New York talking and Thomas is responding. “If people want to continue to believe in the falsities, I can’t speak to that,” Thomas said on ESPN’s Mike & Mike on Wednesday. “I was not liable or personally held for anything so the jury found no findings. I worked in the NCAA and I have worked at NBA TV, Turner, so anyone who has vetted this has come out and found that as the jury found there were no findings in terms of Isiah Thomas.”

Character and image are slippery slopes in the 24-hour news cycle and content-consumed culture that is 2015. Without making a single excuse for Thomas’ past, the Liberty’s move in retaining Thomas’ services comes at the right time. In fact, the hiring gives him the dual ability to cement his future as a basketball executive that truly has an eye for talent, while also repairing his image in New York City.

During his four year tenure with the Knicks as president and head coach, Thomas compiled a 112-216 record. Not good. Questionable trades and signings have haunted Thomas in NYC. However, his drafting acumen was on point like a sniper on a roof protecting the president.

“I’m glad you bring up the Knicks,” Thomas told VIBE by phone. “Because everyone always says, ‘Well Isiah traded away all the picks.’ What picks did I trade?”

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He nabbed some decent draft picks actually. Those picks have become household names: David Lee (No. 30 in 2005), Trevor Ariza (No. 43 in 2004), Wilson Chandler (No. 23 in 2007) and Nate Robinson (No. 21 in 2005). A metric put together by ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh indicates that Thomas is the best draft-day GM in the NBA. The evaluation is based on where Thomas selected in the draft and the value of each player he selected.

Years later, Isiah looks like a freaking draft genius and does not get the credit. Lee is a contributor to a Golden State Warriors team that has NBA Finals potential and Ariza won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers. Drafting Knicks players was not Thomas’ only calling card. One time league star players like Damon Stoudemire, Tracy McGrady and Marcus Camby are also players that were drafted on Thomas’ watch while a GM with the Toronto Raptors.

How did those guys fair?

McGrady won a scoring title with the Orlando Magic and was a Ray Allen 3-pointer away from winning a ring in 2012 with the Spurs, Stoudamire won Rookie of the Year in 1995 and Camby has won Defensive Player of the Year in his long career. Thomas feels vindicated in knowing that those players have gone on to do big things.

“Time has a way of telling the truth,” he said. “The best friend that I’ve had has been time because all of the players have gone on to have great careers and all of them are doing quite well.”

Elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, Thomas was a member of the two-time NBA Champion Detroit Pistons during their “Bad Boy” era. He’ll again join forces with his former Pistons teammate Bill Laimbeer, now head coach of the New York Liberty.  Thomas will work on getting talent on the team, like he’s always done. He’ll also have the task of getting the community to buy into Liberty basketball. Laimbeer will focus on bettering a roster that features a young team peppered with veterans Swin Cash, Essence Carson, Tanisha Wright and Candice Wiggins. “The spotlight is on the Liberty — that’s OK by me,’’ Laimbeer told the New York Post’s Marc Berman. “People are talking about the Liberty — now it’s detrimental. But people will pay attention — how are they doing, getting better, getting worse. I’m sure some people will want us to get worse. I never ran from that stuff.’’

New York basketball could surely use something to cheer for. The New York Knicks, the Liberty’s co-tenants at Madison Square Garden are in rebuilding mode themselves after finishing 17-65 record, the second worse in the NBA under team president Phil Jackson. Here’s the good news: the Liberty will not be 17-65, that’ll never happen with WNBA teams only playing 34 regular season games. All joking aside however, the Liberty WILL make the WNBA Playoffs this season.

One of the WNBA’s original teams, the New York Liberty were competitive in the 90s during the Teresa Weatherspoon/Rebecca Lobo era, but they never sealed the deal by winning a championship trophy. The law firm of Thomas and Laimbeer have work to do. Judging by their lengthy resume of accomplishments both playing and managing, you’d have to rock with it. Despite a combined 26-42 coaching record the last two seasons and not making the playoffs, Laimbeer has championship experience. He guided the then-Detroit Shock to the WNBA postseason six times from 2003-2008. He won three championships while coaching there. Liberty forward, Swin Cash was traded to New York last season reuniting with the coach she’d won two championships with. “I’m going to do what I can to help them,” Cash told Fox News. “The East is still somewhat wide open with a lot of teams all around the same in the hunt.”

The Liberty has taken a serious approach to improve. They added Brittany Boyd and Kiah Stokes in the draft. A young team, they’re not complete, but that’s where Thomas has the task of jelling everything together. The attention it’s bringing surely helps too. “I am so pleased by everyone’s interest in the New York Liberty,” Knicks owner Jim Dolan told CNBC. “I can’t wait to see them all at the game. I know that Isiah is looking forward to putting a great team on the floor. I hope everybody comes to see that.”

The New York Liberty begin preseason on May 22 in Newark, Delaware in an exhibition game against the Chicago Sky. Their regular season opener is at Madison Square Garden on June 5.

Currently an analyst on NBA TV, Thomas was away from basketball on an administrative level, but stayed ready. Now he has his shot to get it right in New York. “The best thing about me is that I love basketball and I’m a basketball fan,” he said.

“I watch it 24/7. I watch high school basketball, I watch college basketball, I watch women’s basketball. If there’s a basketball game on I watch it.”

Brandon Robinson is a sports and entertainment writer and TV personality. Follow him on Twitter @SCOOPB and visit www.ScoopB.com.