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Sunday, August 8, 2010
Commish should nix Knicks-Isiah pact

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

The New York Knicks are paying a college basketball coach to help them recruit players, and there are 29 competing NBA teams that likely see this arrangement as an unfair competitive advantage -- in their favor.

Executives from those 29 competing NBA teams might've popped a hammy or two racing for the champagne when word came that Isiah Thomas is back as James Dolan's not-so-secret weapon in the ever-escalating arms race for talent.

Thomas is good for business, if you happen to be in the business of outsmarting the Knicks.

But what happens tomorrow when the Miami Heat want to hire John Calipari as a paid consultant? What happens the following day when the Boston Celtics want to reach a similar arrangement with Mike Krzyzewski, and the day after that when the Chicago Bulls want to sign up John Thompson III?

Why can't every NBA team buy its own Division I middleman, and ask him to manipulate the amateur market to serve its own agenda?

David Stern needs to annul this unfathomable second marriage between Dolan and Thomas, and sooner rather than later. Before that first marriage died a slow and painful death, the commissioner said this of the Knicks and their $11.6 million defeat in a sexual harassment case: "It demonstrates that they're not a model of intelligent management."

Isiah Thomas and David Stern
Isiah Thomas and David Stern -- long before that "not a model of intelligent management" comment.

Nothing's changed, David. The $850 million renovation of the Garden doesn't include a refurbishing of Dolan's priorities, not when the owner still seems far more interested in enraging his fans and defying news media demands than in actually winning a few basketball games.

But this isn't about ordering Dolan to sack Thomas in the best interests of the Knicks and their battered fan base. This is about protecting the integrity of the sport and the process by which NBA teams acquire young talent.

For starters, as head coach of Florida International, Thomas will be in constant contact with high school players who are ineligible for the draft, players who aren't even allowed to be scouted by NBA teams. Lord knows what Isiah Lord Thomas might whisper to those recruits to get them to choose FIU over other interested schools.

OK, that's largely an NCAA problem. And yes, the fact the NCAA would allow a college coach to work as a de facto general manager for an NBA team (Dolan listens to Thomas as much as he listens to team president Donnie Walsh, those in the know say) is almost as hard to believe as the Knicks' appointment of Thomas itself.

Truth is, Stern can't do much about the NCAA spraying graffiti all over the spirit of its own rules. But the commissioner can stop NBA franchises from polluting the tributaries feeding into the draft.

Consider this scenario: FIU has a first-round prospect, and the Knicks want to pick him. The New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors, both Atlantic Division foes, are interested in the same player and, of course, want to talk to that young man's coach, who happens to be Thomas, who happens to work for the Knicks, who happen to be hoping the Nets (picking at No. 5) and the Raptors (picking at No. 6) don't select this player before he can be grabbed by the Knicks (picking at No. 7).

Does Thomas give the Nets and Raptors a less-than-ringing endorsement in an attempt to move them off the kid, even if a slide in the draft would cost that kid a truckload of money? Does Thomas ask his assistants and acquaintances in the college game to deliver the same bogus scouting report to inquiring minds?

FIU has produced Raja Bell and Carlos Arroyo, but no, it's not exactly Kentucky or North Carolina, a truth that makes little or no difference. Thomas will be afforded greater access to opposing Division I players than any fellow NBA executive. He can talk to them when others can't. Before these players declare for the draft, Thomas can praise them in news conferences when others aren't even allowed to speak their names.

"There are a thousand ways a college head coach working for an NBA team can try to manipulate the draft," said one well-placed NBA source. "He can advise certain players to enter early, advise others not to enter early, and it can all be tied to the interests of the NBA team paying that coach. I can't see how this would hold up."

So Stern needs to compel Isiah to make a choice -- Knicks consultant or Florida International coach, but not both.

If Thomas were to choose a return to the Garden, the heavy favorite in that prospective two-horse derby, the commissioner couldn't do much about that.

Other than pray the Knicks one day represent a model of intelligent management.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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