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His tenure as a Knicks executive and coach may be over. But Isiah Thomas' ability to leave audiences in utter disbelief has yet to desert him.
The former Pistons star and New York front office disaster is still ceremonially employed by the Knicks, though he has no title and has been invited to few team functions. But he seems to believe that the coming year could serve to vindicate him for his work in the Sizable Apple. The New York Post's Marc Berman reported Sunday, "He told a friend recently if the Knicks succeed this season with his cast of characters (only Chris Duhon has been added to the core), he can feel in his heart justified by many of his moves."
Perhaps in Isiah's heart this will be the case. As for those of others, highly doubtful.
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Thomas is right that the roster is fairly similar to what it was during his tenure. But that roster was relatively similar for the last three years. Sure, there were some changes over that time as is the case with every roster in professional sports, but since the summer of 2005, this has been a team built around the likes of veterans Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, Jamal Crawford and Quentin Richardson and youngsters Nate Robinson and David Lee. Jerome James' corpse has played a prominent role with regard to the team's cap space, and Jared Jeffries and Zach Randolph have been around as supposedly integral pieces for parts of that period as well.
In 2005-06, that team won 23 games with Larry Brown at the helm. When Thomas took over in 2006-07, the team won 33 games, then 23 again a year later. That's a composite winning percentage of .321 over that time. Zero playoff appearances. Countless off-court distractions. Embarrassing basketball.
The personnel moves themselves included one diamond in the rough accompanied by a large share of mediocrity and outright foolishness. With the 30th pick in the 2005 draft, Thomas found himself a steal in David Lee, one of the league's best reserves and possibly a starter in 2008-09. Jerome James has been an injury-prone $30 million bust. Eddy Curry has been an out-of-shape $60 million bust thus far. Jared Jeffries seems to lead the Knicks in plus-minus with suspicious regularity for a guy who doesn't pass, shoot or rebound well and is a decent but not superb defender. Richardson came to town with a reputation for being having health issues and has played 55, 49 and 65 games in his six seasons as a Knick. He also forgot how to shoot last year, putting up a career low true shooting percentage of 44.4 percent.
As for the draft picks aside from Lee, it's been some up and some down for a guy once hailed as a draft savant. Nate Robinson has been an interesting study so far, showing plenty of upside because of his quickness and aggressiveness, but his tendencies to be headstrong, out of control and occasionally hard to coach have limited his growth thus far. Renaldo Balkman showed some promise as an energy guy in his rookie season and had a miserable second campaign in which his minutes were jerked around and his per-minute production went down in virtually every major category. Mardy Collins has yet to consistently demonstrate a particularly marketable set of basketball skills. Channing Frye dropped off considerably from between his first and second seasons, played a style that made him appear to be a 6-foot-11 small forward and wound up dumped in exchange for Zach Randolph a summer ago.
That brings us back to the last crucial veteran: Randolph. You've heard my thoughts on him too many times before at this point, so we'll simply reiterate that he had an atrocious first season as a Knick and seems to have thoroughly earned his reputation as a problem child.
All of that adds up to a poor picture of the job Thomas did as both an executive and a coach with the Knicks. This team isn't by any stretch the sort that could contend for a championship. As Berman suggests, merely making the playoffs this season would mean the Knicks have surprised many observers and exceeded expectations for the year to come. The idea that four and a half seasons of misery and three seasons of .321 ball with a roster similar to the current one can be somehow justified with one Eastern Conference playoff berth is ludicrous.
Further, if this team does improve, it will only be a further indictment of its former leader that Thomas' removal from the picture may have been the single biggest move of the offseason. Berman talks about how Robinson may be perfect for D'Antoni's run-and-gun style and how Zach Randolph seems to be playing hard and has impressed thus far this preseason. Here's the problem: When Isiah Thomas was building this team, he wasn't employed to build it for what might happen if Mike D'Antoni were to take over the team one day. He built the team to play under Larry Brown and himself. He supposedly couldn't get those guys to play hard, and he clearly couldn't get them to play well.
At worst, Isiah Thomas brought in players who simply aren't that good. At best, he brought in players who weren't right for the system his coaches espoused. Either way, those possibilities sound several worlds away from justification for a team executive.