Maybe a point of view we wouldn't normally hear, and worth considering:
February 9, 2007
Sports of The Times
Old Celtics Are Untainted by Failure
By HARVEY ARATON
Imagine if it were Isiah Thomas’s team that since November 2004 had led the N.B.A. in behavioral lines crossed, combinations of punches thrown and shots fired from an actual gun.
That team is the Indiana Pacers, whom he formerly coached, back in the news this week for more pugilistic misadventures, notwithstanding the alleged management of Larry Bird, a state native son who remains Teflon-coated, iconic clean.
Still playing by 1980s-era rules, it is obviously so much easier to beat up on a Motown Bad Boy than a sainted old Celtic.
This isn’t to say that Thomas’s reign at Madison Square Garden as the avowed but embattled Knicks savior hasn’t set its own unsavory standards and deserved the scrutiny. But when will the dots in Indianapolis be connected by the national news media? When will those habitually hand-swiped bottoms of Bird’s sneakers be held to the fire?
While it’s true that Bird ranks under Donnie Walsh, the longtime and widely respected Pacers’ chief executive, and has not had the sole authority that Thomas has enjoyed, his three and a half seasons as president of basketball operations have, in certain respects, been as turbulent as Thomas’s.
Remember how Bird swooped into town and within weeks replaced Thomas as the Pacers coach with Rick Carlisle, one of his favorite Celtics bench cheerleaders? The Pacers’ linchpin, Jermaine O’Neal, was in Puerto Rico that summer with a group of Larry Brown-coached N.B.A. stars, trying to qualify for the 2004 Summer Olympics. O’Neal was fit to be tied, if not traded, when Thomas was canned after O’Neal had signed a long-term contract with the presumption that Thomas would be his coach.
O’Neal was every bit the loyalist, as was Eddy Curry this week when commenting on the possible exit of Thomas from New York, which confirms Thomas as a sage mentor or skilled hypnotist.
It says here that Thomas never got enough credit for the groundwork he laid with a team in transition in Indiana, especially after Carlisle took the Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals the next spring. Carlisle was anointed a genius, blessed as he was by the Larry and his leprechauns, until Ron Artest charged into the stands months later on the road against Detroit, with Stephen Jackson in raging pursuit, dragging what had been one of the league’s more stable franchises into continuous chaos.
You can argue that Bird inherited Artest, except he stuck with him after his suspension and eventually had to trade him with compromised leverage. Peja Stojakovic, acquired for Artest, called Bird his idol upon joining the Pacers, but left town as a free agent first chance he got.
You can say that Jackson is plain trouble, but Bird traded for him and held onto him long enough for Jackson to embarrass the franchise again last October in a multiplayer nightclub incident starring Jackson in an adaptation of his on-court persona as designated gunner.
To an ever-changing roster and an increasingly mediocre team Bird obtained Marquis Daniels, one of three Pacers (Jamaal Tinsley and Keith McLeod were the others) under police investigation after a melee in another Indianapolis nightspot early Tuesday morning. (Daniels and Tinsley were also involved in the October scuffle.)
Not arrested or charged, the players have denied being in a fight hours after Jackson returned with Golden State for the first time Monday night after an eight-player deal and torched the Pacers for 36 points. What symmetry. Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star surveyed the wreckage of the team’s reputation and called the Pacers “an embarrassment of an organization” in his column yesterday, adding that he would “rather be the Boston Celtics.”
Still playing by those 1980s-era rules, imagine if it were Thomas’s team that had dropped 36 of 48 games this season and 16 straight in Year 3 of a declared youth movement, and not a franchise under the direction of Danny Ainge.
Playing for weeks without their best player, Paul Pierce, better explains the Celtics’ franchise-record losing streak, but is there really any doubt that in the same period of time that Bird has been in Indiana, and a few months longer than Thomas has been in New York, that Ainge has done the worst job of the three.? Where is the national condemnation for collapsing the most storied N.B.A. franchise of all?
Ainge can only hope for enough rope to lasso one of the anticipated college draft studs, Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. The odds are he will get it because sainted old Celtics typically are given the benefit of the doubt, as Kevin McHale has proved in his home state of Minnesota.
Imagine if it were Thomas’s team that had only two playoff series victories to show for a decade with a superstar like Kevin Garnett, and not McHale’s. Imagine if Thomas had been caught circumventing the league’s salary cap and cost his team multiple first-round draft picks and $3.5 million, as McHale did in 2000.
What would be an unpardonable blunder for Thomas and probably for most became a short leave of absence for McHale, who is now one of the most tenured executives in a league in which even Michael Jordan got fired. We rest our case.
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