By Colin Davenport
Isiah Thomas is a two-time NBA champion with experience as an All-star player, head coach, general manager, commentator, college coach and owner/president of a professional league. He is in the basketball Hall of Fame and is still hugely popular to this day.
Under ordinary circumstances, a person with that type of resume becoming a major part of a WNBA franchise would be great news. In this case it is much more complicated. The first thing one has to look at when someone is being hired is what are the pros and cons of bringing said individual into an organization.
Let's start by examining the pros of Thomas:
He is one of the most elite players in basketball history who knows how to win on the court: Thomas is one of the few players ever to lead a team to three straight finals, winning back-to-back championships in the process. When he was drafted by the Pistons, the team was one of the worst in all professional sports.
Less than a decade later they were a legendary franchise, who are remembered to this day for their gritty, intense and sometimes vicious style of play. All of these are attributes New York sports fans love.
Re-teaming with Bill Lambeer: Thomas and Lambeer were the very core of the Bad Boy Pistons. They were the two responsible for creating the culture of win at all costs. Nobody was allowed to take a play off or to cause trouble within the locker room that could create instability within the team.
With the two legendary tough guys once again pairing up to shape the Liberty, the culture of the team would certainly be one that is likely to create teams who can compete year in and year out for titles in the Big Apple.
Marketing to Non-WNBA fans
The WNBA has long had trouble getting the attention of the average male sports fan, especially those over the age of 40. This is the demographic that has the most money to spend on tickets, memorabilia and TV/internet viewing packages, so getting them to even take notice briefly is crucial to growing the WNBA.
Having Thomas and Lambeer, the two men who were the very heart and soul of the Bad Boy Pistons running the Liberty together, could definitely help get the attention of that demographic. Men within that age group grew up watching the Pistons take on the Lakers in the NBA Finals. They dreamed of being Thomas or Magic Johnson. Now, with Magic owning the Sparks and Thomas owning the Liberty, that long ago rivalry could be reignited.
The fact that it would be between LA and New York, the two teams the WNBA has always dreamed of having meet in the finals just ups the interest level further. Imagine a WNBA Finals of LA vs. NYC. Parker vs. Charles and Thomas vs. Magic. That is marketing gold for a league that desperately needs such a rivalry to happen.
Now let's analyze the case AGAINST Thomas:
The sexual harassment/hostile work environment he created
This is by far the most talked about issue with Thomas being brought in to run the Liberty. His behavior and actions towards then Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders were unacceptable in any circumstance, and led Browne Sanders to report Thomas to the Madison Square Garden company, who then fired her for reporting the situation. She then sued MSG and its owner James Dolan eventually receiving $11.6 million.
The ways in which this ruling and entire situation are damaging to Thomas are numerous, but the list grows longer with him being put in charge of a women's franchise.
Firstly, the WNBA has just had to deal with its first major instance of domestic violence, regarding the fight that occurred between Glory Johnson and Brittany Griner. Both players have been suspended for the first seven games of the season by the WNBA as punishment for their actions. Now the franchise in the biggest media market in the world, has hired a man who was accused of sexual harassment to run the organization.
Two women are punished by the league, where as a man, is allowed to return to the scene of his crimes, and get paid to be in the highest position of authority possible. That is not a good look for the WNBA, and is an even worse look for James Dolan and MSG, as they are the ones who made the hire.
To make things even more complicated, Anucha Browne Sanders is currently the vice president of NCAA Women's basketball championships. This means that she is one of the leading people in charge of all of the college basketball tournaments. In other words, the games that Isiah Thomas would attend, in order to scout potential future talent, are run by the woman who accused him of sexual harassment. There is no way that situation can end well.
Record as the president/general manager of the Knicks
Outside of his incredible playing career, Thomas is best remembered for his complete destruction of the New York Knicks between 2003-2008. His obsession with overpaying players, with histories of attitude problems and off-court issues, lead the Knicks to have the second worst record in the NBA by 2005-'06, despite having the leagues highest payroll.
The ultimate example of how bad Thomas was as a judge of talent, was his signing of free agent center Jerome James from the Seattle Supersonics. James had been a foul prone, mediocre-at-best center, who managed to turn a single great playoff series into a five year, $30 million contract with the Knicks. James played just over 40 games each of his first two years with the Knicks and just two games in each of his next two seasons .
Record as an NBA coach
Thomas has coached five NBA seasons since retiring from playing. His first job was as Larry Bird's replacement in Indiana during the 2000-'01 season. In his first year at the helm of the Pacers, the team finished 41-41. This after going 56-26 the year before and making it to the NBA finals.
In each of his three seasons with the Pacers, the team finished with a .500 or better record, but was eliminated in the first round play-offs. Thomas' only other NBA coaching experience came when James Dolan made him head coach of the Knicks, while he was still team president.
Now fully in charge of the roster he created, Thomas proved that he was equally bad at managing personalities, as he was at assembling talent. Star guards Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis, two of the players Thomas had brought in and overpaid, feuded with their coach and teammates openly. The Knicks missed the playoffs in both seasons Thomas coached them, and won a total of just 56 games out of a possible 164.
At the conclusion of the 2007-'08 season, he was relieved from coaching duties and reassigned as a consultant, having previously lost his position as team president. In his role as consultant, he was barred from having any contact with players due to fears he would undermine the authority of the new coaching staff.
Role in the bankruptcy of the Continental Basketball Association
In 1999, Thomas and a group of investors purchased all of the privately owned teams in the CBA in an attempt to put the league under a single ownership umbrella. Up until that point in time, the CBA had been the number one source for NBA teams to find new talent that had not been selected in the draft. The CBA and NBA were partnered together, with the CBA being the premier minor league in the basketball world.
Upon purchasing the teams, Thomas immediately began making horrendous decisions. First, he cut players pay from $1,500 a week to $1,100. Then in the year 2000, Thomas was offered $11 million and a percentage of CBA profits, to sell the league to the NBA so that they could turn it into their official minor league. Thomas declined saying he expected a larger offer.
When Thomas was offered the coaching job with the Pacers, he was forced to sell the CBA, as owning the league would be a conflict of interest. He signed a deal to sell the CBA to the NBA players union. The NBA then announced that after 20 years, it would no longer use the CBA as a developmental league -- and instead would form its own minor league (the D-league).
Thomas, now unable to sell the league after the announcement, put it into a blind trust meaning their was no money with which to run the league. A year later, in February 2001 the CBA declares bankruptcy and ceases operations permanently.
All told, the hiring and pending partial ownership that Isiah Thomas is gaining with the Liberty, opens a Pandora's box of both great possibilities and horrible consequences. In a normal world, a man with Thomas' experience becoming a major part of a storied WNBA franchise, would be something to be celebrated.
In the world as it is however, Thomas' hiring is a paradox filled with contradictions -- and red flags that counteract the huge benefits he could bring to both the Liberty and the WNBA.