NEW YORK — Paying off or buying out predecessors’ blunders — coaches, players and front office personnel — is acceptable standard operating procedure for newly hired sports executives.

Initially, that’s what they do best in an attempt to turn things around, public perception being the No. 1 priority.

Conversely, the first time the new guy is compelled to swallow one of his principal financial brainstorms, the first time he’s obliged to admit a major mistake was committed on his watch, is the beginning of his downfall, the perfect opening for critics to flick on the brights and intensify scrutiny on each and every questionable decision.

That’s the defenseless position Isiah Thomas finds himself in now.

Nobody really got all that bent out of shape when the Knicks president paid Don Chaney and swingman Shandon Anderson to leave; we understood completely when it was time for them to go.

Nobody took their protests of Lenny Wilkens’ hiring and his excessive salary (bidding against phantoms) to extremes, . . . after Mike Fratello’s candidacy was abruptly annulled and Willis Reed rejected the interim job.

Despite failing conspicuously in previous engagements in Atlanta and Toronto, Wilkens was given the benefit of cosmic doubt based on Hall of Fame lifetime achievements.

Consequently, Thomas was allowed to slide his last-grasp selection onto the sidelines with only a brief interlude under the microscope.

Nobody ceaselessly demonstrated in disgust or tirelessly circulated overcast opinions of the Keith Van Horn-Tim Thomas trade, because, in the final analysis, acquiring Nazr Mohammad in the deal proved worthwhile.

Yes, Thomas has been taken to task for overspending for underachievers in James Dolan’s no-budget restraint system.

Yes, he has been mocked for being unable to so much as maintain mediocrity since replacing Scott Layden more than a year ago.

But nobody, in all fairness, has regularly ripped him for purely picking up where Dave Checketts, Ernie Grunfeld and Layden left off . . . throwing ungodly money around, thus lengthening the mortgage on the Knicks’ future; their cap currently tops the NBA, a grotesque $103 million and building briskly.

Despite what you may read or hear elsewhere, the Knicks gave Wilkens the dignity to throw himself under the snow plow, as opposed to being summarily sent back to his home in Seattle by his very last NBA employer.

For agreeing to cite Hubie Brown-like health issues (his mother, indeed, is ailing) instead of causing a commotion, or quitting like Jeff Van Gundy, or faxing in his resignation like Pat Riley, the Knicks will make good on their remaining obligation, what’s left of this season’s $5 million tab as well as next, which isn’t fully guaranteed; we’re talking roughly $6 million total.

Would Wilkens have survived, you ask, had Scott Padgett not hit the game winning, coach-killing shot last Thursday night?


Win or lose to the Rockets, Isiah was prepared to offer Lenny an arrangement in upper management if he wanted to stick around; it’s almost definite he won’t.

Where does that leave the Knicks?

They are what their 17-22 record attests they are: A mess.

A different shade of lipstick on the same pig.

Where does that leave Thomas?

By paying off Wilkens so soon after recruiting him it’s now official; Isiah’s honeymoon in New York is harpooned. Even vocal supporters wind up slamming him when confronted with damning data.

I would say it’s back to square one except a solid argument can be made that the Knicks have receded to below square one.

A year ago, Herb Williams was only considered experienced and worthy enough by Thomas to coach one game in between Chaney and Wilkens. Now he’s being entrusted to lead a brood with a superiority complex out of the wilderness.

I understand why Wilkens wanted Williams to replace him; he’s a man, loyal to the foundation, not a phony bone in his body, or a skeleton in his closet.

I also understand why Thomas thinks the oldest member of the staff deserves a promotion.

At the same time, why import faithful companions like Brendan Suhr and Mark Aguirre if they can’t be relied upon to cover your assets in crisis?

Again, where does that leave the Knicks and Thomas?

Neither here nor there. Treading water. Marking time. Lost in Limbo.

Waiting for the end of the season to ask the Pistons’ permission to talk to Larry Brown.

Doing what they should have done the last time they had a coaching vacancy, kept it open and remained patient on the favorable chance Pistons’ owner Bill Davidson, for the right price, would allow his championship coach to come back to New York — where the Browns recently rebuilt a home in East Hampton.

Still, I can’t help but think, if the Knicks players had only spent as much time defending opponents as they did Wilkens, he would still have a job.

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