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The Knicks' Low Standards

Who knew significant progress was just six games? If the New York Knicks manage to lose every game for the rest of the season, it still doesn't change the fact that Isiah Thomas was given a contract extension today to be president of basketball operations and coach for an undisclosed number of years.

"Isiah Thomas' stewardship of the Knicks, both as president and head coach, has clearly resulted in the team's 'significant improvement' and I am very pleased to provide him with this well deserved extension," Madison Square Garden chairman James L. Dolan said in a statement released this morning. "The Knicks have grown tremendously, both in terms of team performance and player development, and much of the credit goes to Isiah and his staff."

The Knicks (29-34) have improved. They are a better team than last season, when Larry Brown battled with players, players battled with each other and the Knicks were just a mess. Isiah Thomas has done a great job in comparison to his predecessor but to say the Knicks have "grown tremendously" is a bit of stretch. Five games under .500 isn't cause for celebrations or extensions especially with 19 games remaining.

The crazy part about the extension is that the past 3 ½ seasons of bad trades, bumbled free agent signings, poor coach hirings and other non-basketball related mishaps could all be wiped away in just four months this season. Dolan, though, should've put a clause in the extension that limited Thomas' duties to coaching and drafting players, because those are two areas where he is best suited. No kidding.

Isiah is a good coach and probably was meant to be one - just look at the people he's played for and leans on for advice: Bobby Knight and Chuck Daly. His three-run with the Indiana Pacers really wasn't that bad. In a discussion with Indiana CEO Donnie Walsh last October, Walsh told me that Thomas is a better coach than people give him credit for. Has anyone noticed how much Jermaine O'Neal has regressed away from Thomas? And, when you look at how the Pacers have unraveled in the years since Thomas left -- and how Ron Artest continues to implode -- three first round exits in the playoffs don't look so bad, do they? Thomas also has a pretty good list of players he either drafted or was instrumental in getting picked (Damon Stoudemire, Marcus Camby, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Al Harrington, David Lee).

The Knicks would be in the playoffs if the season ended today - which is more of a statement about the shoddy Eastern Conference than it is about Thomas - and that apparently is enough for Dolan, who gave Thomas that infamous ultimatum after the Knicks dismissed Larry Brown following a 23-59 season. Putting Thomas over the fire merely inspired the players for whom Thomas put his already shaky reputation on the line. Following that infamous fight with the Denver Nuggets - a unifying macho moment if there ever was one - the Knicks became a surprisingly scrappy and resilient bunch. The Knicks have gone 20-17 since then.

They will still have a difficult time making the playoffs - unless New Jersey, Indiana and Orlando keep sinking like anvils in a swimming pool - but several players have to blossomed under Thomas this season. David Lee is the top candidate for sixth man of the year. Eddy Curry was a borderline all-star candidate and is up for the league's most improved player award after becoming a reliable - and immovable - scorer in the low post. And twisting Curry's words some, Stephon Marbury is showing flashes of that Starbury character with the fade and the part in his head. It's even more bizarre that Steve Francis (one of those bad trades, and a player who was ready to quit on the season just a few weeks ago) helped him get there with that buzzer beater against the Wizards last Saturday.

The Knicks are still finding ways to win even though they are missing two important pieces (Lee and Jamal Crawford) but is this really cause for an extension in March? What about having a winning record? Or actually making it to the playoffs? The Knicks might actually get Detroit in the first round - and that's progress, no matter how you slice it - but does mediocrity need to be rewarded so swiftly? Somewhere, Sam Mitchell, the head coach of the Atlantic-Division-leading Toronto Raptors whose contract expires at the end of the season, is saying, 'What?'

By Michael Lee  |  March 12, 2007; 12:04 PM ET
 
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