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It?s been several months since the champagne drenched the Miami Heat locker room. In that span the word ?potential? was uttered several hundred times by Jay Bilas at the NBA draft, Allen Iverson survived another summer of trade rumors in Philly, and an Indiana Pacer is facing a legal battle. All of these events suggest things stay the same year-in year-out; however, Knicks? fans and Isiah Thomas better pray some things change.

After a disgraceful 23-59 season for a once-proud franchise, team president and new head coach Thomas faces an ambiguous mandate from team owner James Dolan: show significant progress or get out. Part of the reason the Knicks failure last year was so heavily scrutinized was because it was so unexpected. After the acquisitions of a young force in the middle in Eddy Curry, a sharpshooter in Quentin Richardson, and three energetic rookies to their talent-laden but mishandled roster, coupled with the addition of coach/miracle-worker Larry Brown to make the team gel, the Knicks were expected to at least reach the playoffs.

A new season brings a fresh start, but in the back of Isiah Thomas?s mind looms the fact that his performance this year will be a benchmark to judge his once-regaled career. In order to have any hope of success as the coach of the Knicks, Isiah must meet two important team challenges and two player-specific goals.

Perhaps the most enigmatic aspect of the Knicks? bizarre campaign last year was Larry Brown?s inability to settle on a starting lineup and consistent rotation of players. While it is understandable that a new coach would need time to find his guys, it is unforgivable that Brown broke the all-time NBA record for most starting lineups used in a relatively injury-free year. The highlight of the season was a six-game winning streak where Brown settled on a rotation, but what followed were more trial-and-error lineup experiments that drove the Knicks to the bottom of the league standings. In the constant media battle between Brown and his team last year, every player begged for a consistent rotation and an understanding of roles within the team. This season Thomas needs to enter the regular season with a named lineup and stick with it even through an initial setback. Further, Isiah needs to play the right guys. While this might sound like a difficult task to meet, what is meant by that is minutes should be given based on merit, not contract size or veteran experience. Brown too often benched performers for preventors. When David Lee was playing like the steal of the rookie class, Brown would bury him in the rotation behind an inept Antonio Davis or Malik Rose, or when Eddy Curry needed time to get in a consistent groove Larry would bench him as a way of ?motivating? him.

Isiah?s challenge of building a set lineup, and more importantly building a cohesive unit out of his individual pieces, fully depends on developing a team identity. One thinks of the Pistons as slow-paced and defensively oriented much in the same way one thinks of the Suns as a run-and-gun team. The only connotation inspired by the Knicks last year was loser. Isiah seems to be addressing this problem in training camp and pre-season by installing a free-moving, fast-paced offense that calls on dynamic roles that fit within the theme of everyone on the court being a playmaker. The Knicks don?t have a traditional distributor at point-guard, or a defensive force in the middle; however their strength lies in their depth in talent at every position. By focusing on this strength, Isiah seems to be installing the idea that anyone on the court can beat the opposition, and the flow of the game will determine who that is on any given night. Not to make a comparison to the balanced championship Knick teams of the 1970s, but this similar approach could translate to success if Isiah can get his players buy into the system.

Even though Isiah is intentionally shrouding his real thoughts on the Knicks? prospects this season, it isn?t hard to figure out which players need to step-up for him to keep his job. It was only last year that Isiah described his newly-acquired big man Eddy Curry as a franchise cornerstone, and a once-in-a-generation combination of size, strength, athleticism, and talent After a disappointing season last year marred by foul-trouble and conditioning problems with flashes of dominance in the low-post spliced between, it?s time for Eddy to show this potential. Eddy?s performance seemed to follow a pattern last season; he would be the focal point of the offense in the first quarter and delivered results until picking up a few offensive fouls or running out of energy and disappearing for the rest of the game. It was when the Knicks could re-establish Curry later in the game that they pulled out a rare victory. Isiah has largely remained silent on Larry Brown?s performance last year, except for consistent subtle jabs about Curry being an all-star when given enough playing time. Curry will be on the floor more than he can handle this year; Isiah will give him ample opportunity to become the best center in the East. If Curry performs, the Knicks will be a playoff team.

While Eddy Curry may have a lot on his plate this season, he will have help from two former all-star guards in Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis. No two players suffered more under Larry Brown than these ball-dominating, shoot first point guards. Even though Larry described them as the next Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe after Francis?s arrival last season, it soon became clear that he couldn?t work with them. Marbury and Francis seem to have formed a bond this past off-season, both understanding that their ability to gel in the backcourt will be essential to both of their careers. While they look like a scary tandem in a Rucker Park game, whether they can be cohesive in the NBA is a big challenge for the former point-guard Isiah Thomas. If the Knicks can get them to work together in an inside-outside balanced offense with Curry, supported by promising second year man Channing Frye, off-season acquisition Jared Jeffries, and supporters Jamal Crawford, David Lee, and Quentin Richardson, then Knicks fans might have a lot to look forward to this season. On second thought, if Isiah doesn?t meet these challenges, then Knicks fans will still get to look forward to something: a new coach.

Dolan's 'Just Win Baby' Philosophy

Less than a year after becoming the head coach of the New York Knicks, Larry Brown has lived up to his reputation for adding drama, but perhaps the issue is that his reputation for improving teams hasn?t followed as well. In the last few days the New York media has been covering the story of Brown?s possible severance with the Knicks with as much scrutiny and fervor as it covered his hiring just last summer. For some reason when Larry Brown is mentioned, interest heightens, to the point that once again the coach?s duration with the Knicks is the hot topic. The underlying question is whether or not it would be smart for the team to buyout the remaining four years and forty million dollars of Brown?s contract.

No matter if one believes the Knicks should or shouldn?t end the Larry Brown era, seemingly before it began, one has to agree that there are some important issues to be addressed. For one, Brown has lost the confidence of management and his players with his use of the media to berate everyone but himself. With the rumors that keep flying around about the Knicks wanting to get rid of Brown one has to wonder if the relationship has been damaged too much to continue. In addition, Brown is owed forty million dollars on his contract, which is no small obstacle to overcome. Lastly, Brown has a track record that speaks for itself and that must be considered purely in a basketball operations perspective.

When Brown signed on to become a part of the Knicks, he knew he was inheriting a flawed roster with players like Stephon Marbury, Quentin Richardson, and Jamal Crawford who seemed to be the antithesis of ?Larry Brown guys.? Now with the additions of Jalen Rose and Steve Francis, and their enormous contracts, there seems to be a dilemma in that the personnel doesn?t match the system. Brown has let his opinions about his players be known quite often and quite publicly, much to the dismay of Isiah Thomas. If Brown is going to stay it must be assumed that Isiah will try his best to get him the players he wants, but there is no way Brown will be happy with the limited foreseeable results. The smarter move may be to get rid of Brown and allow Isiah himself to take over as coach and develop the system he envisioned when he assembled this roster.

In most cities with most owners Larry Brown?s job security wouldn?t be an issue if for no other reason than paying him tens of millions of dollars to leave would be a terrible financial decision. However, this is New York, and owner Jim Dolan?s spending has become a running joke. He is still paying off Isiah?s predecessor Scott Layden, and two previous coaches Don Chaney and Lenny Wilkens, why not add Larry Brown to the bunch? In Dolan?s defense though by replacing Brown with Isiah he wouldn?t incur any further costs of a new coach because he is already paying Isiah as the President of Basketball Operations.  If Dolan really believes Brown needs to go, then shouldn?t Knick fans applaud him for spending whatever it takes to improve the situation? Brown?s contract doesn?t affect the salary cap so the money is Dolan?s to waste.

Knicks fan shouldn?t be concerned with Dolan?s finances and the amount of money he would lose getting rid of Brown, rather the impact is on the team?s future performance is the number one consideration. Brown may have botched his first year in New York to the extreme, but his track record is hard to argue with; he has improved every team he has joined. He had rocky starts like this year such as in Philadelphia with another angry star guard in Allen Iverson, but just a few years later he had that team in the NBA Finals. With a few roster moves that bring in some defensive oriented role-players, Brown could work his magic again. By getting rid of Brown just one year into his contract the Knicks could be removing their main hope for the future.

In New York, situations like this tend to be blown out of proportion forcing quick resolutions. Within a few weeks the Knicks should have security in their head coach, whether it is Brown or Isiah. One thing is for certain, this choice will determine the direction of the franchise for the near future. New York might see the beginning of the real Larry Brown era, or what could become the end of the Isiah Thomas era.

What Did Brown Do For Us?

When it comes to the Knicks, I have always been the irrevocable optimist. I put a positive spin on every transaction no matter how senseless it might have been in reality, I remind myself of the on-court chemistry in a positive two minute stretch of a blowout loss, and I find possible reasons why the team might be better in the future. At this point at the end of this frustrating season I find myself all out of positive spin. Save for a few late season Jamal Crawford buzzer beaters, this Knicks team looked like it would have set the franchise mark in futility, but unlike the dark years of the mid-80s, there isn?t a twenty year old Patrick Ewing waiting in the wings.
       
The Knicks? rebuilding process has taken a giant step backwards this season. If I had glimpsed into the future this past summer and seen the team?s record at 23-59, I would have been shocked. Hell, after the six-game win streak in January that had all of New York thinking first-round upset, I didn?t think it was fathomable that the team would plunge so deeply thereafter.
       
It?s a little pathetic that I am longing for the good old days of January 2006, where Stephon Marbury was ?Starbury,? Eddy Curry was ?Baby Shaq,? Jamal Crawford was a Sixth Man of the Year Candidate, and Channing Frye, Nate Robinson, and David Lee made Isiah Thomas look like the Billy Beane of the NBA draft. I find myself asking why that six game stretch was so different from the rest of the season? I have to believe it?s that Larry Brown was finally playing a set rotation, and it was the right players!  Here lies the real shame of this wasted season, that I genuinely think it could have been avoided. I can tolerate the losing; after all this was the fifth straight year with a losing record, but I cannot stand the obvious detrimental coaching decisions that ?legendary? coach Larry Brown has made since day one.
       
This past off-season I believed Larry Brown was the best thing that could have happened to a young talented Knick team that just needed to find an identity. Instead Larry Brown has given this team Multiple Personality Disorder with the games he has been playing all season. He initially stated that the first twenty games would be a test run of lineup experimentations and unusual rotations. While it pained me to watch players like Matt Barnes and Malik Rose take time away from others younger, athletic, and talented rode the bench, I reasoned that Brown would eventually settle on a lineup and make a push for the playoffs. A record setting forty-two starting lineups later, I am amazed at how poor of a coaching job Brown has done. He has started players in their hometowns like a middle-school ?B? team, benched players who showed heart and energy in favor of overpaid veterans, and embarrassed himself with his constant whining to the media. At this point Brown has me questioning his ?thirty year career? which he so proudly decided to compare to Stephon Marbury?s, igniting an embarrassing media feud.
       
I don?t want to come across as another fan/writer who thinks he knows so much more than the coach, but is it really even questionable whether Channing Frye should have been playing over Mo Taylor all season?  That David Lee should have been playing over Malik Rose? That Jerome James never should have taken off his warm-ups this year? Several times this season Brown has claimed that he would finally settle on a rotation, or that he would start playing the younger players more minutes, but then the next game eleven out of twelve players will see playing time before the end of the first quarter.
     
I distinctly remember ESPN analyst Greg Anthony describing Isiah?s signing of  Larry Brown being good for ten more wins. This season he has single-handedly LOST over ten games; one example being the third game of the season. After the Knicks started 0-2, they found themselves down double digits to the Golden State Warriors at home when Brown inserted the ?youngins? into the game; Trevor Ariza, Channing Frye, David Lee, Jamal Crawford, and Nate Robinson. This energetic and passionate squad erased the deficit and had Madison Square Garden rocking. After a time out late in the fourth quarter, Brown pulled the team and reinserted among others, Antonio Davis and Malik Rose, as the Knicks squandered the lead and lost 83-81. After the game Brown said ''It's going to take some time. We're trying to figure out who can play and who can help us.'' One would have hoped that game provided some serious evidence.
       
I understand the reluctance of an experienced coach to bench his veterans in favor of rookies, but as the season bore on and the Knicks? playoff chances diminished, wouldn?t it have been beneficial to their development had they been playing more? Channing Frye surprised everyone in the league with his play the first few months of the season, but his play since then has ushered in references to the ?rookie wall.? Frye didn?t hit any wall other than Larry Brown, who relegated the star rookie to less than twenty minutes a game. David Lee went from a starter during the celebrated win streak to the inactive list for no apparent reason. Wasn?t he a ?Larry Brown guy? who hustled for rebounds and played tough defense? The same could be said for Nate Robinson, and Trevor Ariza, who Brown pushed out the door, getting rid of one of the only true role-players on the roster.
     
If I sound confused when describing some of the general trends of the season, it is because there seems to be no common sense or logic behind them. Brown?s constant altering of the rotation, his random assignments to the inactive list, barrage of insults towards his players in the media, and preaches for specific players to be brought in have destroyed all morale in the locker room. I almost feel proud of the Knicks players when  they show emotion on the court, or when the camera flashes to the bench players (whoever they might be that game) pumping their fists after one of their teammates makes a good play. Lucky for the players, and thank god for the fans, this season is over and most likely many of them will be shipped out, away from Brown?s mind games.
       
Perhaps next year Brown will have players he can actually work with. Perhaps he will come out of training camp with a rotation of seven or eight that he will stick with for a season. Perhaps I just found a little more of that optimistic spin.

 

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