Archive for Monday, March 19, 2007

Commentary: Extension justified?

Knicks’ Thomas has accomplished a lot

March 19, 2007

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It was an initially mystifying move, extending Isiah Thomas' contract after the Knicks have won just 29 games, have hardly secured a playoff spot and still have one of the more unenviable rosters in the league.

So either Knicks owner James Dolan is the most easily impressed boss in the business or Thomas actually has done some things well in his first season as Knicks head coach.

It's easy to jump all over Thomas, who was given an improve-or-else ultimatum to start the season. But if you look at the entire picture, the former Detroit Pistons Bad Boy has done a fairly admirable job so far.

First, he's in a playoff race. No matter how ugly it is at the bottom of both conferences, with teams several games below .500 in consideration for the postseason, it still is a playoff race. And it's a race that last season's Larry Brown-led Knicks were nowhere near.

Though Thomas' system is not as strict and difficult to adjust to as Brown's, part of the reason for his team's 6-13 start had to be attributed to the natural adjustment period that comes with the hiring of a new coach. The Knicks have been better than a .500 team since then, which easily would put them in playoff position had they played that way all season.

Several of Thomas' players also have taken significant strides with him at the helm.

Eddy Curry, the player who cost the Knicks two first-round draft picks and another two second-round picks, finally is looking like a player worthy of such a deal this season. He's setting career highs in points and rebounds and is shooting 58 percent from the field one year after looking like a bust for Brown, scoring less than 14 points with six rebounds a game. The Knicks would much rather have this version of Curry than Tyrus Thomas, whom the Bulls drafted last season with the Knicks' pick, and Isiah Thomas has played a role in that improvement.

Thomas also has helped turn David Lee into a quality power forward, among the league leaders in rebounding and field-goal percentage. Last season, Brown couldn't decide whether to play Lee regularly, even though he was the type of player the coach covets, one who can affect the game without demanding the ball.

Thomas hasn't exactly turned Stephon Marbury back into an All-Star, but he did make the combination of Marbury and Jamal Crawford work far better than Brown managed to do. And with Crawford now gone for the season with a stress fracture in his leg, Thomas is managing to incorporate Steve Francis back into the team without all the drama that surrounded Brown and his guards last season.

Thomas might have some trouble admitting his mistakes as the team's general manager. He still plays Jared Jeffries - an obvious free-agent bust - too much. But he has backed off Nate Robinson, hardly using the second-year guard anymore. And this season's first-round mystery, Renaldo Balkman, only sees emergency minutes.

Also, Thomas hasn't made knee-jerk moves via trade this season, despite working under the win-or-else edict with a team that appeared to be going nowhere at the trade deadline. Not only did that show some restraint on Thomas' part, but it instilled confidence in his players, who know exactly who makes the personnel decisions.

If that's not enough of an argument in favor of Thomas, there's a simpler one: Who is going to do any better?

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