Back Inside, But Still on the Outside

NEW YORK –It was early during the 2006-07 season, and the New York Knicks were an absolute horror.  Larry Brown, after all of one year, was eradicated, and Isiah Thomas, the team’s general manager, was given the added responsibility of head coach.

Don’t drop the ball, James Dolan warned.

Thomas, the Hall-of-Fame guard who -once upon a time- led the Detroit Pistons to consecutive titles, just didn’t drop the ball.  He booted it all around the Garden hardwood.

Dolan, the owner who is loyal to a fault, didn’t seem to mind.  Thomas, who was hired in 2004 to rescue a franchise, thanked his boss by trading away numerous first-round picks, spending millions on unqualified free agents, and dragging MSG, Incorporated into a sexual harassment trial which would last three weeks.  Actually, Thomas’ first significant move was the trade for Stephon Marbury which, for Marbury, turned out to be just another stop on the way to China.

I began to write at length about these Knicks and, after more than 300 pages about the franchise’s very worst era -known in some circles as the ‘Isiah Thomas Error’-, I returned to watch the 2009-10 incarnation.

Aside from the faces, not a whole lot has changed since my last game story was filed in 2008 -which, ironically, coincided with Thomas’ last game.

On the morning of January 24, Mike D’Antoni’s team was 10th in the Eastern Conference, a mere three games behind the Chicago Bulls for the eighth, and final, playoff berth.  The Knicks had opened with just one win over the first ten games, but rebounded nicely to advance in the standings.

However, after a discouraging loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday evening and an historic 50-point defeat [the worst ever at any of the four Madison Square Gardens] to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, New York has now dropped six of the last eight.  Surely, there will be other stops and starts during the second half, but in the East, the Knicks will always have a fighter’s chance.  Even when Thomas coached his squad to a 33-49 record in 2006-07, there were numerous opportunities to gain ground within the conference.

David Lee, once an untried rookie in Brown’s rotation, has emerged into a legitimate All-Star candidate.

Without question, the 6’9” forward/center from the University of Florida was Thomas’ greatest find –a pearl plucked with the final pick of the 2005 Draft.  The organization, looking for any glimmer of positive news, has routinely touted his double-digit games of points and rebounds.

“A complete player,” D’Antoni noted during a recent pre-game conference.

Even if Lee doesn’t make this elite squad, D’Antoni’s approach was refreshing when compared to his predecessor.

During one of my last visits inside the MultiPurpose Room, Thomas had spoken of “leaving a championship legacy”, which was quite an audacious statement to make en route to 108 losses in 164 games.

Yet, for Thomas, this was par for the course.

Nothing will ever, ever top this classic line, said shortly after he became coach.  “If I have to tell you [the media] the truth, I’m gonna lie to you.”

I miss that honesty.

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