New York (0-0) at Memphis (0-0)

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  • Game info: 8:00 pm EST Wed Nov 1, 2006
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With the league’s highest payroll, a poorly constructed group of players and an ongoing sexual harassment lawsuit against Isiah Thomas, the New York Knicks have become the laughingstock of the NBA.

It’s up to Thomas to change that—or he might finally be out the door.

Thomas will make his debut as Knicks coach on Wednesday night when New York opens the season on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies, who will begin the season without injured forward Pau Gasol.

New York hit a new low as a franchise in 2005-06 by narrowly avoiding its first 60-loss season, finishing 23-59. It was supposed to be a turnaround season under new coach Larry Brown before turning into a fifth straight losing campaign and possibly the most embarrassing in team history.

Brown, hailed as a savior in his return to his native New York, used an NBA-record 42 different starting lineups. Also, the anticipated clash between the coach and point guard Stephon Marbury quickly developed.

Brown got into a war of words with Trevor Ariza, who was traded, and veterans Steve Francis and Jalen Rose both played poorly under the demanding Brown after Thomas acquired them in separate deals in February.

Rose, scheduled to make $16.9 million this season, was waived Monday.

Thomas was sued in January by former team executive Anucha Browne Sanders, a matter that is still pending. And Brown and the team had a messy separation which resulted in the coach suing the Knicks for the $40 million left on his contract.

As a result, Thomas—the team president and general manager—named himself coach. It’s his second coaching stint after he went 131-115 in three years with Indiana from 2000-02, but suffered three straight first-round losses in the playoffs.

“I don’t know how good we can be,” Thomas said. “But I do know this: We’re going to try really, really hard.”

Marbury is considered to be the major beneficiary of the coaching change after clashing with Brown. He averaged 16.3 points—his lowest average since his rookie season—along with a career-low 6.4 assists per game.

Whether he can coexist with Francis also remains to be seen. They are all part of a crowded backcourt situation that includes Jamal Crawford—the Knicks’ best player last season—and Nate Robinson.

Thomas will also have to coax some good work out of underachieving center Eddy Curry. The 6-foot-11 Curry led Chicago in scoring with 16.1 points per game in 2004-05 for a Bulls team that won 47 games before regressing to average 13.6 points last season with New York.

Curry also never saw eye to eye with Brown and is hoping that Thomas can help revive his disappointing career.

“You definitely look at all of that and you want to go out and play hard for him because you realize that he didn’t have to make those moves,” Curry said. “He did that because he believes in you and you want to show that he made the right moves.”

The Knicks will be without their lone major offseason acquisition, forward Jared Jeffries, who is out with a broken left wrist.

That injury pales in comparison to the situation facing Memphis, which will be without its leading scorer and rebounder in Gasol. The power forward, who averaged 20.4 points and 8.9 rebounds last season, broke his left foot playing for Spain in the world championships in the summer and is out indefinitely.

Grizzlies forward Mike Miller has also missed time in the preseason due to a toe injury and forward Stromile Swift, who is back with Memphis after being acquired from Houston in the offseason, has been out with knee problems.

“It’s going to be hard to tell right now how good we can be without Pau because we’ve had so many other guys out and haven’t played yet for us or sparingly before they got hurt,” coach Mike Fratello said. “But we’ve got great energy and enthusiasm with the young kids.”

Fratello will be counting on youngsters like second-year forward Hakim Warrick and rookie Rudy Gay to try to help Memphis to a fourth straight playoff berth.

“Rudy’s coming along little by little. I think I can honestly say that each of the young guys has showed progress,” Fratello said. “They feel a little more confident, a little more comfortable and have a better feel for what we’re trying to do here.”

Memphis has lost a league-record 12 straight postseason games after being swept in the first round three straight years. The franchise faces an unclear future since the team is on the verge of being sold as well.

The Grizzlies swept the Knicks last season for the first time, although they still trail 12-8 in the all-time series.

New York has dropped four straight season openers since winning 93-91 over Washington in 2001. Memphis, meanwhile, has lost its last five openers.

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Wednesday, Nov 1