2007-03-30 / Sports

Court Dreams: Knicks' Present Gives Glimpse Of Bright Future

By John J. Buro

By John J. Buro

At the moment, the postseason picture in the NBA's Eastern Conference is still a blur. Any one of four teams could qualify. With three weeks remaining, that scenario will take a while to play out.

In the interim, it is a good time to just rip a few months off the calendar, and close your eyes. It is now October 2007, and the New York Knicks are preparing for their 62nd season in the National Basketball Association.

And, although there have been varying degrees of disappointment during the past few years, the 2006-07 squad has given the organization hope for the future.

With a two-year extension in his hip pocket, Isiah Thomas has proven his mettle as a coach.

He has taken this once proud franchise-turned-laughingstock, and revitalized it within a matter of months.

Initially, he tried to implement a high-tempo offensive attack, but soon realized there would be greater success if Eddy Curry, in the post, was utilized more.

For eleven consecutive games, from November 24 to December 13, Curry tallied 20 or more points per game. Interior defenses soon collapsed on the 6'11", 285, center, so Thomas decided to spread the floor a little more.

Stephon Marbury, whose scoring average had dipped to a paltry 9.9 points after 16 games [and who didn't even attempt a shot during a 19-minute effort in Game No.15 against the Chicago Bulls], became just one of the beneficiaries when defenses forced Curry to pass the ball. With Marbury now in gear - despite continuing battles with tendinitis and turf toe- fans have seen much more of his alter ego.

At long last, 'Starbury' reawakened with six 20+ point outings over a seven-game stretch in January, and followed that with a 9-of-11 run, including a string of seven straight spanning February and March.

David Lee, a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate, had accumulated a team-best 29 double-doubles, and had averaged 10.5 rebounds and 10.3 points in the 44 games that he entered as a reserve. He gained even more national attention during All-Star Weekend, when he hit each of his 14 shots [nine ducks, five lay-ups], to win the Rookie Challenge MVP.

Lee, a 6'9" forward, had appeared in each of the team's 54 games until flu-like symptoms prevented him from playing in Philadelphia on February 21.

The following game, on the Garden floor, he stepped on the foot of the Milwaukee Bucks' Andrew Bogut, and developed both a sprain in his right ankle and a strained leg muscle; ultimately, a sore right leg evolved into a stress injury, and a brief stint against the Portland Trail Blazers proved 10 minutes too much.

Jamal Crawford, whom Curry has admitted to missing because of their chemistry, averaged nearly 18 points per game before a diagnosis, in late February, revealed a stress fracture in his right ankle.

Crawford's absence had an enormous impact on New York's perimeter game; his flash of excellence, against the defending-champion Miami Heat on January 26, resulted in a career-high 52-point game, and the first time a Knick had reached such a milestone since Allan Houston shot down the Bucks nearly four years ago.

Quentin Richardson, a 13 point scorer, is appreciated for both his defense and outside shot. He usually guards the opponent's toughest forward or deepest lethal threat, and is often taking for granted while he is in the game.

But, now, having sat out seven of eight games with a sore lower back, he is missed - particularly down the stretch, when his leadership would be welcomed.

This is the hit that New York had to absorb in the last month. It is not fair, but life goes on in the NBA. In the Atlantic Division alone, the Toronto Raptors' Chris Bosh missed 12 games, injuries to Richard Jefferson and Nenad Krstic have turned the New Jersey Nets into a sub-.500 team, on the verge of playoff extinction, and the Boston Celtics dropped 22 of 24 after Paul Pierce injured his left hip.

Still, Thomas has played the hand that has dealt to him and, to that end, the vast majority of his players have grown to respect his acumen. And that is single greatest praise a coach can ever receive.

However, Thomas hasn't fared quite as well in the dual role as Team President. The financial ledger is an absolute mess, and that cannot be fully excluded from the equation.

As there are only 15 roster spots available, there have been a multitude of buyout issues and salary-cap issues which, ultimately, resulted in luxury tax issues.

Within a 53-week period, from August 2, 2005 to August 8, 2006, he secured $30 million deals for both Jerome James and Jared Jeffries, and dealt Trevor Ariza, in part, for Steve Francis. Just last week, Thomas signed Randolph Morris -a former Kentucky Wildcat, who was considered to be a mid-to-late 1st Round pick in the June Draft- to a two-year deal. Whether that move works in the Knicks' favor remains to be seen.

There is an abundance of talent in front of Thomas. There are also an abundance of question marks. But, unlike last season, some of those questions have been answered, by both attitude and performance.

The reviews suggest that the Knicks are on the way up. They have given their fans every reason to cheer, in spite of recent home losses to the New Orleans Hornets, Portland Trail Blazers and Orlando Magic.

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