All happy Knicks seasons are alike; each unhappy Knicks season is unhappy in its own way. Longtime fans of the once-proud franchise which makes its home in MSG are well aware by now that there are many different layers to a terrible Knicks season—like a bullshit parfait or the levels of Dante's Inferno, depending on how grandiose you like your metaphors.
Ask long-tenured Knicks fans to situate the 17-win 2014-15 campaign among the worst seasons of their lives, and it wouldn't even land in the bottom three. Sure, the Knicks finished with the worst record in franchise history, but there are so many other ways in which this team has crushed the souls of the people who care about it. This season was a relative blessing—no draft picks or future cap space was sacrificed, no vaseline was eaten by the team's best-paid player, and no disparaging remarks were made against the Jews. Most important, universally loathed owner James Dolan was mostly in the background.
Which, in retrospect, is not so much progress as a sign that Dolan was getting ready to strike. The Goblin King of Madison Square Garden emerged from his cave Tuesday morning, let loose a mighty blast from his war kazoo, and called upon his most trusted lieutenant to once again crush the spirits of his downtrodden serfs. This is a metaphor for the fact that, via unconscionably pissy press release, Dolan announced that he was handing his WNBA franchise, the New York Liberty, over to the worst person he'd ever hired.
Yep, Isiah Thomas is back, if only because the opportunity to hire a failed men's basketball executive who has been found guilty of sexual harassment comes but once a lifetime. The former Knicks president, who was found liable in a court of law for harassing Anucha Browne Sanders—the NBA legend who used words like "bitch" and "ho" to a female employee, and in so doing cost MSG $11.6 million in lawsuits—will be running the city's premier women's basketball team.
Please refrain from any "Isiah must have some incriminating photos" jokes—they don't do justice to Dolan's perverse worldview. This was all Dolan's idea, as was the shameful press release—complete with uncorrected spellcheck squiggles under Isiah's first name—blaming the jury that found Isiah guilty. This is the very essence of Dolanthought, a code of loyalty and cronyism befitting a floundering dictatorship. If you're a Dolan guy, you can bury his franchise under an avalanche of bad contracts from now until the rapture without even so much as a playoff win to show for it, and the big boss will ride with you forever. If you're outside the circle of trust, like former general managers Donnie Walsh (who dug the Knicks out of Thomas's disastrous GM tenure before being pushed out) and Glen Grunwald (who presided over the most successful Knicks campaign of the Dolan era), the owner will undermine every decision until the day he decides to cast you into the abyss of an "advisor position." And you don't even want to know what happens to those lowly security guards who fail to recognize him.
Say what you will about Isiah Thomas's numerous, embarrassing failures since retiring as a player, but the dude can certainly turn on the charm when he spots a rich sucker. Thomas wormed his way into Dolan's inner circle, and the owner will defend him against the ticket-buying public, the NBA commissioner, or the Dalai Lama, if need be. Dolan's sentimental need to redeem his incompetent flunkies is almost poignant, or would be if it didn't involve putting a convicted creep in charge of a women's basketball team. And there is the matter of collateral damage.
Perhaps we should have seen this move coming back in March when another notorious Dolan lackey, Herb Williams, got a job as an assistant coach with the Liberty. Williams survived myriad coaching changes during his years as a Knicks assistant thanks to his close relationship with the owner. He was fired last summer by new team president Phil Jackson, over the protestations of Dolan himself.
Say what you will about Jackson's tenure in New York so far, but at least the Knicks acted like a professional basketball franchise this past season—they were a bad team, to be sure, but not the usual MSG freak show. Jackson identified troublesome players on the roster—J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton, for example—and got rid of them, albeit in deals that presently seem to test the idea of addition-by-subtraction. Jackson did the same thing in the front office, firing Williams and exiling Allan Houston to the Knicks' D-League affiliate in Westchester County. When Houston's college buddy, Kevin Whitted, proved incapable as a coach in Westchester, Jackson actually fired his ass, further consolidating his power throughout the organization. An unfathomably terrible season was a small price to play for cleaning out the old rat's nest.
But that's the thing about rats: clear them out of one house and they'll move right into the next one. Thomas and Williams have been reunited on the Liberty. Houston could very well join them this summer, if the Zen Master completes his purge. This isn't exactly a bad thing from a purely Knicks-centric perspective, but it's pretty odious in most every other way.
James Dolan specializes in creating these absurd moral quagmires for everyone associated with the teams his daddy gave him. Nobody, least of all the women suddenly in his employ, wants Isiah Thomas anywhere near a WNBA team; it is an insult of the highest order. But Phil Jackson (rightly) fought to remove as many Dolan cronies as possible from the Knicks organization; the owner, as is his wont, did everything within his power to protect his boys while tossing up a middle finger.
Most New York fans began rooting for the Knicks before James Dolan's tenure as owner. Jackson's relationship with the franchise dates back decades further, to his days as a player on the legendary early '70s Knicks teams. The Knicks are so much bigger than one petulant, unrepentant, questionably dressed wannabe bluesman.
And yet there is only so much people can take. Tuesday was a sobering reminder just how detestably pugnacious the Knicks owner can be. He'll battle his own president. He'll battle women who were harassed by a jerk he's friends with, and the women who care about those women. He'll battle everyone that believes in tolerance and equality and accountability. James Dolan will take on the whole damn world on behalf of his sad little posse, and he will do so until they are left puttering around in the World's Most Famous Arena all by themselves.