Francis Is an Unlikely Answer

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

Steve Francis, the New York Knicks' newly acquired guard, was preparing to throw the ball inbounds in the third quarter of the Washington Wizards' 110-89 victory last night when a heckler shouted, "Hey, Stevie, where you going next?"

Francis looked over his shoulder and shot back nonchalantly, "To the bank."

He has been with the Knicks just four days, but Francis has already summed up his new team in just three words. The highest-paid team in basketball -- with a payroll around $125 million -- doesn't have much else to play for this season, as it dropped to 15-40 -- the second-worst record in the NBA. In his return home with his fourth team in seven seasons, the former University of Maryland star scored just nine points with four rebounds and two assists and didn't speak to reporters after the game. What more could he say?

Francis, a native of Takoma Park, was acquired on the day before the trade deadline from the Orlando Magic, a team that is also likely headed for the draft lottery this season, but was pleased to replace the three-time all-star with Penny Hardaway's expiring contract and little-used Trevor Ariza. Francis has moved up a notch in profile, playing on Broadway, but dropped considerably in the standings as the newest member of the most dysfunctional team in the league.

Unhappy in Orlando, where he received a two-game suspension for refusing to enter a blowout loss in Seattle, Francis has joined an overpaid collection of underachievers that surrendered 71 first-half points to the Wizards and allowed point guard Gilbert Arenas to score 46 points in a little more than 30 minutes.

The Knicks are bottoming out while team president Isiah Thomas continues to rework the roster on numerous occasions without an obvious plan; each time acquiring the next franchise savior. So far, Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Coach Larry Brown, Eddy Curry, Quentin Richardson and Jalen Rose haven't come close to solving the Knicks' problems. Francis would be considered the missing piece to the puzzle, except the Knicks are a collection of individual puzzles that don't appear to fit together.

"I guess maybe I'm going to have to figure out a way to coach better," Brown, the Knicks' $10 million coach, said after the game. "We weren't very good. We haven't been good all season. Don't look any further than me."

Francis, who will earn $13.7 million this season and is owed $49 million over the next three years, averaged career lows in points (16.2), rebounds (4.8) and assists (5.7) through his first 45 games in Orlando this season. Until he finds his role with the Knicks, his production could continue to decline. He has gone from Stevie Franchise to Steve-O to Stevie Knicks and has yet to resemble the player who dazzled fans in the area while playing for the University of Maryland, Houston Rockets or the Magic.

In his home debut at Madison Square Garden on Friday, Francis scored 16 points and didn't get through an entire game before he heard the Knicks' fans boo the team, punctuating their displeasure with a chant of "Fire Thomas" for about 10 seconds in the second half.

Last night, Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury, playing in his third game since missing the previous 11 with a left shoulder injury, aggravated the injury in the first half in a collision with Wizards forward Antawn Jamison. He had a game-high 15 points but watched the second half from the sideline. The Francis-Marbury backcourt lasted just 1 1/2 games and the results have been lukewarm at best. They haven't exactly dribbled the air out of the basketball or taken too many shots. If anything, Francis has been overly passive while trying to get acclimated to his new surroundings.

"I wish we had a little more practice time, but we don't," Brown said. He said Francis is "going to have to learn on the fly."

Francis has learned enough already.

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