As a player, Isiah Thomas’s resume is impeccable. Not only is he the best Isiah Thomas in NBA history, but he’s one of the greatest players to ever step onto the hardwood. He won a national championship at Indiana and was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. Then with the Pistons, Thomas claimed two NBA titles, was a Finals MVP, and was selected to 12 All-Star teams. He was inducted into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000 and it was none other than the great Dr. J that had this quote about Thomas: “Pound for pound, inch for inch, Isiah is the best ever.”
However, none of Thomas’s playing accomplishments mattered one lick once he traded in the sneakers for wingtips. He’s been everything from a part-owner of the Raptors to the head coach of the Pacers to President of Basketball Operations for the Knicks. He also was the owner of the Continental Basketball Association in between his NBA stints. While that adds up to an impressive resume; his misfortunes at each stop have been less than impressive. Questionable free agent signings, boneheaded draft picks, and head-scratching personnel moves have seemed to follow Thomas at every stop. It’s amazing how people like Thomas and Elgin Baylor can be in complete control when playing but appear utterly clueless when it comes to running a team. You may have forgotten some of the dumb moves that Thomas has made at his various stops, but that’s where we come in! Here are the 15 moves that made Isiah Thomas look like an idiot:
15 Botched The 1995 Expansion Draft
The incoming Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies alternated picks in the 1995 expansion draft with Toronto holding the first overall pick. Thomas plucked B.J. Armstrong from the Bulls with the first overall pick even though Armstrong had stated that he would not report to Toronto. That forced Thomas to trade him to the Warriors for pennies on the dollar as they netted five replacement-level players who wouldn’t stick in the league. In all, six of the Raptors’ first seven expansion picks would never play a game for the team including longtime Trail Blazer Jerome Kersey who was waived right after being drafted.
Why waste a pick on someone you have to intention of keeping on your roster? Of the 7 players drafted by the Raptors who did end up playing for the team, only three played for the Raptors for more than one season.
14 Trading Away Future Assets For Eddy Curry
Thomas had always been a fan of Curry ever since he was dominating Chicago high school basketball and was named Illinois’ Mr. Basketball. He thought Curry, whose nickname was Baby Shaq, would blossom under his tutelage in New York and, thus; he made a trade for Curry. Thomas sent three players (including Tim Thomas) as well as three future draft picks, including two first rounders, to Chicago for Curry, a 37-year-old Antonio Davis, and a future first round pick. Those picks that New York sent away would only produce 7 All-Star appearances in the form of LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah.
Yes, Knicks fans, you could have had the frontline of Aldridge and (a young) Noah for the past decade if Thomas hadn’t mortgaged the future for “Baby Shaq.” Curry would struggle with weight problems and injuries during his time in New York and the Knicks never made the playoffs or had a winning record in his five seasons in the Big Apple.
13 Staffing The Raptors With Too Many Ex-Teammates And Coaches
Usually when you see a person go to a new job where they have the authority to hire whomever; they often turn to the people they know best. There’s nothing wrong with that approach but Thomas went a little overboard when he became the GM and part-owner of the fledgling Toronto Raptors. The first two head coaches he hired were Brendan Malone, a former Pistons assistant, and Darrell Walker, a former Pistons teammate who also grew up with Thomas in Chicago. He also hired a former teammate at Indiana, Glen Grunwald, as assistant GM despite him having no personnel experience.
He then drafted his former teammate, John Salley, in the expansion draft of 1995 and to finish things off; Thomas picked local Michigan player (and Fab Five member), Jimmy Key, in the second round of the 1995 NBA Draft. Of those Thomas cronies, only Grunwald lasted more than three seasons with the team and that’s because he replaced a fired Thomas as the team’s GM.
12 Overhauled A Roster That Went To The NBA Finals
In the 1999-00 season, the Pacers had their first Finals appearance since joining the NBA. That team was a veteran-laden team coached by Larry Bird who would resign after the season. Bird was replaced by Isiah Thomas and Thomas would replace much of the roster. Despite just making the Finals, Thomas opted for a youth movement, so gone were veterans like Dale Davis and Mark Jackson and they were replaced by unproven, and still developing, young players. The Pacers’ roster during Thomas’s first season as coach had four players who were drafted straight out of high school (Jermaine O’Neal, Al Harrington, Jonathan Bender, Zan Tabak).
While some of those players would pan out, at the time they were too young to contribute to a team with championship aspirations. After making the Eastern Conference Finals all three seasons under Larry Bird; the Pacers would lose in the first round all three seasons under Isiah Thomas.
11 Traded Trevor Ariza For Steve Francis
It was actually Ariza traded for the corpse of Steve Francis as Stevie Franchise wasn’t the same high-flying player that he was in Houston by the time he arrived in New York. At the time, Ariza was just a 20-year-old playing in his second NBA season who made the most of his opportunities even though he was stuck on a team without any leaders. Thomas gave up on Ariza midway through his second year and shipped him and a broken-down Penny Hardaway to Orlando for Francis. Francis was in the midst of the worst season of his career and had become a malcontent on a bad Magic team. Not only was the move impulsive by Thomas, but it was a terrible personnel move considering who New York already had in its backcourt.
With Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, and Nate Robinson already at the point guard position, Thomas went and added another one. Francis bombed in New York and played just 68 games in two years with the team. To make matters worse, in order for the Knicks to unload Francis in a trade to Portland, they had to throw in Channing Frye in the deal.
10 Traded 2 Draft Picks For Sharone Wright
For all of Thomas’ pitfalls in running a team; the guy hit some home runs when drafting players in Toronto. He had three 1st round picks as the Raptors’ General Manager and drafted a rookie of the year (Damon Stoudamire), a defensive player of the year (Marcus Camby), and a Hall of Famer (Tracy McGrady). With that success, you would want Thomas to have as many draft picks as possible, but there was just one problem: Thomas wasn’t a believer in that philosophy. Midway through the Raptors first season, Thomas shipped two second round picks (and two other players) to Philadelphia for Sharone Wright.
Wright made the All-Rookie team the year before but he would play a total of 78 games with the Raptors before retiring from the NBA at 25 due to injuries. It was a short-sighted trade by Thomas especially considering that the Raptors weren’t competitive at the time so those second round picks would have been early second round picks.
9 Signing Jerome James To A $30 Million Contract
The definition of a player playing for a contract is Mr. Jerome “Big Snacks” James. In the 2004-05 season James was the nominal starting center for Seattle and averaged 4.9 PPG and 3.0 RPG both of which were the worst among all starting centers. Then, right before the playoffs started it hit Big Snacks and he said, “Oh (bleep), I’m in my contract year. I need to turn things up for the playoffs!” And he did just that by averaging 12.5 PPG and 6.8 RPG across 11 playoff games. Thomas was seduced by the 11 game sample size instead of the 268 regular season games James had played and signed him to a five year deal worth $30 million.
Big Snacks was a big bust in the Big Apple and was constantly out of shape and ineffective. He played a total of 90 games (out of a possible 410) which equates to roughly $333,333.33 per game. Thomas wouldn’t even get to see the end of James’s deal as he was fired just two seasons after signing James.
8 Drafting Fred Jones In 2002
By 2002 Reggie Miller was 37 years old and the team wanted to get younger at the shooting guard position. They thought that Fred Jones, a shooting guard out of Oregon, was the heir apparent to Miller so they selected him with the 14th pick in the draft. Miller and Jones couldn’t be any more different players as the 6’8” Miller excelled coming off screens and lived on the perimeter while the 6’4” Jones was built like a running back and had a shaky outside shot. Jones would average 7.7 PPG during his four years in Indiana and even when Miller retired; Jones didn’t assume the starting SG position.
The 2002 draft was one of the worst in recent memory but there were still plenty of better available options for Thomas and the Pacers to select with the 14th pick. Carlos Boozer, Udonis Haslem, and Matt Barnes were all still available as was someone whom I’m sure Reggie Miller would have much preferred to play with rather than against: Tayshaun Prince.
7 Drafting Renaldo Balkman In The First Round
While running the basketball operations for the Knicks, Thomas drafted such players as Trevor Ariza, Channing Frye, and David Lee. However, one pick that Thomas would like to have back is the first round selection of Renaldo Balkman in 2006. Thomas had compared Balkman to Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest, but the former USC Gamecock ended up being nothing more than an 8-10 minute-a-night energy player. You can draft those types of players in the second round or even pluck from the D-league but Thomas thought he was worthy of being a first round selection. One pick after Balkman some guy named Rajon Rondo was drafted and three picks later; Kyle Lowry was selected. Balkman would never average more than 4.9 points per game during his time in New York.
6 Instigating A Brawl With The Denver Nuggets
In 2006 while coaching the Knicks, the Nuggets were en route to blowing out New York when Thomas told then-Nugget, Carmelo Anthony, to not come into the paint. Thomas wasn’t happy that the Nuggets starters were still in the game despite the lopsided score so he directed his Knicks team to aggressively foul whichever Nuggets came into the paint. That Nugget ended up being JR Smith who was fouled when he was grabbed by the neck and pulled down on a layup attempt. All hell would soon break loose with two different fights taking place including a sucker punch by Anthony.
All 10 players on the court at the time would be ejected and a total of 7 players were suspended a combined 47 games. The NBA investigated Thomas for his role in the melee but ultimately did not discipline him. However, the Nuggets coach, George Karl, said the intentional hard foul was premeditated and the brawl ‘was directed by Isiah’.
5 Angled For More Power In Toronto
Not only was Isiah Thomas the first general manager in Raptors history, but he was also one of the team’s minority owners. When he signed up to become GM, he also was given the option to purchase part of the team for under market value. Thomas took up the offer from the team’s ownership group and his share of the team was 9%. However, after the team’s first two seasons, and a 51-113 record, Thomas thought he deserved more than the 9% so he tried to buy majority control of the team from its owner. That didn’t work out, and as a result, Thomas decided to walk out on the team just weeks into the 1997-98 season.
He resigned from his GM position and sold his shares of the team back to the majority owner only to become a broadcast for the NBA on NBC. After Thomas left, the Raptors would experience their best success with the acquiring of Vince Carter, Charles Oakley, and Antonio Davis as the team would make the playoffs from 2000-2002 after not making it once under Thomas’s tenure.
4 Waived All Of Indiana’s Veteran Players
When Thomas became the Pacers’ coach in 2000, one of the first things he did was waive Chris Mullin. While Mullin was on his last legs and would return to the Warriors for just one more season, some felt that the move was in retaliation for the Dream Team. Thomas was, of course, kept off the team due to various players not wanting to play with him and while Mullin was never confirmed as one of those players; some thought this was Thomas getting revenge on Mullin. In addition to cutting Mullin, Thomas also cut or traded seemingly every veteran player on the Pacers not named Reggie Miller.
In 2001 both Sam Perkins and Derrick McKey were waived by Thomas which left Miller with a bunch of guys who would say, “I grew up with posters of Reggie Miller on my wall.” Add to the fact that Rik Smits retired whether than play for Thomas and Miller was part-shooting guard, part-babysitter during his final years in Indiana.
3 Traded 2 Draft Picks For John Wallace
The last trade that Thomas made as general manager was like so many of his previous ones: a disaster. Right before the 1997-98 season, Thomas swung a three-team deal that sent the Knicks a first round pick, the Trail Blazers a second round pick, and netted the Raptors John Wallace. Wallace had played for the Knicks the previous year and was a New York native; thus, he wasn’t too happy about leaving his hometown. But Thomas was willing to give up a first round pick to acquire him and that first round pick ended up being Quentin Richardson (who Thomas would later trade for while with the Knicks). Wallace would play two years with the Raptors which also happened to coincide with the two remaining years on his rookie contract.
As soon as his deal was done, where did he go? Yep, he returned to the Knicks but, fortunately, he would leave the team before Thomas took over in 2003. A month after trading for Wallace, Thomas would resign from his position with Toronto.
2 Gave Larry Brown The Biggest Coaching Contract In NBA History
Prior to joining the Knicks in 2005; Larry Brown had coached at 11 different places and at seven of those stops he lasted fewer than three seasons. He is a coaching vagabond in the truest sense of the word, yet Isiah Thomas somehow thought that Brown would be willing to stick in New York for 5 years. Spoiler alert: he didn’t. Thomas gave Brown a five-year deal worth in between $50 and $60 million which made him the highest paid coach in NBA history. Brown wouldn’t last to see the end of the deal and he wouldn’t even last to see the second season as he was fired after his first season. However, a contract is a contract and the Knicks had to still pay Brown for the four ensuing years, in addition to the salary they paid the actual head coach of the Knicks for those years. One of those coaches was Thomas, himself, who was appointed to coach the mess of a team that he had assembled as GM.
1 Turning Down The NBA’s Offer To Buy The CBA
The Continental Basketball Association was actually founded two months before the NBA but the CBA was always considered minor league basketball. The CBA was the pro basketball start for numerous future NBA players as well as Hall of Fame coaches, Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan. The CBA was around for 53 years before Thomas led an investment group that purchased the league for $10 million in August 1999. Eighteen months later, the league declared bankruptcy and folded. It wasn’t entirely Thomas’ fault, as he left his ownership position to return to the NBA and to coach the Pacers; but Thomas could have saved the league from going out of business. In March 2000, the NBA tried to buy the league from Thomas for $11 million plus a percentage of profits.
He turned them down and just a few months later, Thomas left the CBA for the Pacers and the NBA announced the creation of the D-League. The NBA wanted to convert the CBA into the D-League but Thomas didn’t like their offer. In the end, Thomas joined the Pacers, the NBA created the D-League, and the CBA became nothing more than a footnote in basketball history.