Outlook is bleak for Lenny
By BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun
Predicting disaster for the New York Knicks is like shooting fish in a barrel. The basketball marriage between Knicks president Isiah Thomas and new coach Lenny Wilkens will end horribly, of course. Why? Because things always end horribly in the NBA. It's incredibly rare that GMs and coaches live harmoniously for more than short periods.
But exactly when it will end horribly for the Thomas-Wilkens partnership -- which officially began yesterday with a news conference in New York -- is open to debate.
"When Isiah talked to me, I hesitated a minute," Wilkens said. "I almost wanted to say, 'Are you sure?' "
That's a question a lot of people are asking. But given the Knicks already are eight games below .500, it's tough to gauge what will be perceived as success.
Wilkens certainly inherited a more talented roster when he took over the Raptors in the summer of 2000. And while this has been wilfully forgotten by many Raptors fans, Wilkens was not an immediate disaster in Toronto. In fact, the Raptors enjoyed their best season in 2000-01.
The Raptors veterans initially responded to Wilkens' calmness, which served as an antidote to the Butch Carter regime. It was when the Raptors became less talented that Wilkens' shortcomings contributed to franchise paralysis.
Asked about his Toronto tenure, Wilkens said, "The thing I learned is, don't get that many players injured. That was the most frustrating experience I ever had."
No one asked the follow-up question, "If injuries were the only thing that went wrong in Toronto, why were you fired?"
On the day Wilkens was let go last spring, Raptors guard Vince Carter said the club needed a coach who understood today's game. Wilkens replied yesterday that he didn't "pay it any mind because many players will say things to distract from themselves."
In any event, Wilkens' most important task in New York will be to mentor, if not coddle, Thomas' first marquee acquisition, Stephon Marbury. It was amusing to see Marbury wander into the news conference yesterday. "Here comes another Brooklyn guy," Wilkens said as the two embraced.
Raptors fans will wince as they recall the last time they witnessed such an "unscripted" scene, when Carter sauntered into the news conference to announce Hakeem Olajuwon's signing. We all know how that turned out.
But being objective, there is one major organizational difference between the Raptors' hiring of Wilkens and the Knicks' hiring of Wilkens: The cash-rich Knicks won't be afraid to fire him if things go wrong. This is regardless of the fact Wilkens reportedly signed a four-year deal at about $5 million US annually, which, fortuitously for the Raptors, essentially wipes out their remaining financial obligation to him.
The mistake the Raptors made was not their decision to hire Wilkens, but rather their decision to keep him for three full seasons even though it was clear midway through the second year that things were going downhill. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., was too cheap to buy out Wilkens, so Raptors general manager Glen Grunwald's hands were tied. The Knicks will have no such monetary reservations, so they can tie the can to Wilkens -- and Thomas, too -- the split-second they don't like what they see.
Many have condemned Thomas' sloppy dismissal of coach Don Chaney on Wednesday. But, for the record, on Late Night with David Letterman on Tuesday, Thomas did not make light of Chaney's situation, contrary to what has been reported.
It was Letterman who asked Thomas about Chaney. Thomas gave a non-answer answer. Then Letterman said, "So, in other words, Chaney's finished." The audience laughed and Letterman gave Thomas a playful nudge. Thomas smiled uncomfortably.
There will be more uncomfortable moments for Thomas and Wilkens in the future. Things will fall apart eventually. They always do. That's the NBA way.
But remember, Wilkens' first year in Toronto went fairly well. So as he starts anew with yet another team, there may be more of a grace period than some observers think.