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Better than advertised

Give Isiah -- gasp! -- credit for work as Knicks coach

Posted: Wednesday February 21, 2007 2:27PM; Updated: Wednesday February 21, 2007 3:17PM
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Isiah Thomas already has guided the Knicks to more wins than they had all last season under former coach Larry Brown.
Isiah Thomas already has guided the Knicks to more wins than they had all last season under former coach Larry Brown.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Isiah Thomas is a dunce, a failure. Isn't that the final verdict, the accepted wisdom? We declared that truth to be self-evident years ago, and once we make that call, there's no further review. In sports, the only unforgivable sin is incompetence. Commit any other offense -- drink and drive, hit a woman, snort a line -- and it is still possible to redeem oneself, to change the public's perception from negative to positive. But once you've been tagged as a boob, the stamp is pretty much indelible.

Which brings us to Thomas, who runs the New York Knicks both from the bench and the front office, but who has been more punch line than president for the last few seasons. Thomas has made some awful executive decisions, both with the Knicks and with the Continental Basketball Association, Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers before that. He took over the floundering Knicks four years ago and did what most thought was impossible -- he made them worse.

As the Knicks became a laughingstock, so did Thomas. It's as if his Hall of Fame playing career never happened. Thomas was labeled as an incompetent, a know-nothing, and with the possible exception of Detroit Lions president Matt Millen, he continues to be the most ridiculed executive or coach in professional sports. But everyone has been so busy chuckling at Thomas and his supposed blundering that most have failed to notice a remarkable thing happening this season -- Isiah is succeeding.

He and the Knicks aren't setting the NBA on fire by any means, but in his first season as coach after taking over for the disaster that was Larry Brown, Thomas has turned the Knicks into a competitive team with a reasonable chance to make the playoffs. New York won its 24th game Tuesday night, which is one more than it won all of last season when Brown ran it aground, to the tune of a 23-59 finish. To paraphrase Denny Green, the Knicks are who Thomas thought they were -- not world-beaters, perhaps, but far from the pathetic outfit that stumbled aimlessly to one of the worst records in franchise history.

Had some coach other than Thomas had directed the Knicks to their current record -- say Phil Jackson, or Brown himself -- he would be getting praise from every corner. But Thomas? He gets at best a grudging acknowledgement, from the media, from the New York fans, from everyone who had him pegged as a failure, that yes, he's done a halfway decent job this season, good enough to avoid the pink slip that owner James Dolan had threatened him with if the team didn't show "significant progress."

The truth is that there's nothing that any of those "star" coaches could have done with these Knicks that Thomas has not. He has drawn an outstanding season out of previously underachieving center Eddy Curry. He has helped point guard Stephon Marbury, lost and demoralilzed under Brown, rediscover his game while deferring to Curry as the focal point of the offense. He has helped young forward David Lee develop into one of the best rebounders in the league. Most of all, he has given the Knicks the stability they lacked under Brown and his ever-changing lineup. The Knicks have played hard and for the most part, well, and they have done it largely because they like and respect their coach.

Thomas' detractors still have their share of ammunition, from his failed free-agent signings -- center Jerome James and forward Jared Jefferies have been busts -- to the sexual harrassment lawsuit from a former Madison Square Garden employee that hangs over his head. But even his harshest critic would have a hard time finding fault with the overall job he has done as a coach.

But perception of Thomas as the bumbling basketball man seems to linger even as the Knicks improve. He has made his mistakes, but he deserves better than that now. He deserves to get as much notice for his successes as for his failures. Isiah is doing a good job. Pass it on.