Since Howard Beck's article in the New York Times ran on January 31 detailing the uncertain future for Knicks GM Donnie Walsh most of the team's fans have crossed their fingers hoping he is awarded an extension. Walsh has an option on his contract that would extend his role with the team through the course of the 2011-12 season, but that option must be exercised by April 30 of this year.
The team's owner Jim Dolan must eventually make a decision on the future of the now 69-year old Walsh. However with the shadow of Carmelo Anthony looming over the team it is unlikely that any extension would be exercised until after the trade deadline when the picture clears.
Today SB Nation's Tom Ziller made his case that while many Knicks fans and New York media are clamoring for Dolan to act quickly and extend Walsh's tenure with the franchise, that he has done nothing spectacular to warrant such a reward. This could only be the opinion of somebody who is not familiar with the ungodly mess that Walsh was forced to clean up when he took over a franchise in 2008 devoid of any clear plan in its construction.
But it speaks to the wide and heavy reverence toward Walsh that Knicks observers have. Given the years that preceded this moderately successful campaign, the reverence is understandable. But when you look at the situation from a wider angle, it's hard to understand why Walsh's future is such an enormous flashpoint.
I mean, has he even done that good of a job?
In comparison to Isiah? Of course. Isiah was the worst NBA decision-maker since Ted Stepien. Isiah's tenure was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was truly, truly awful. But it turns out that's a good thing for Walsh, because he's graded against that. Walsh had to clean up Zeke's mess, yes, and that was no easy task. But the standard of success is so amazingly low because of Isiah's failures. You know how some professors grade on a curve? That's what's happened with Walsh. Scott Layden was so bad, Isiah was so bad ... even "average" -- which is what the Knicks are in the strictest definition of the word -- is a raging success.
When Walsh stepped into his role as Knicks' president of basketball operations on April 2, 2008 his mandate was clear; get rid of the bloated, long-term contracts plaguing the team and get far enough under the cap to sign two max free agents in 2010. Seems a simple enough task until we take a look at the roster that Walsh inherited.
Roster inherited: Zach Randolph, Jamal Crawford, David Lee, Nate Robinson, Wilson Chandler, Quentin Richardson, Jared Jeffries, Renaldo Balkman, Eddy Curry, Stephon Marbury, Jerome James, Malik Rose, Mardy Collins, Fred Jones and Randolph Morris.
Randolph and Crawford had bloated deals that ran through the 2010-11 season and neither was capable of being franchise cornerstones that the team could build around. Randolph and Crawford were traded in separate deals to the Clippers and Warriors respectively and in return the Knicks received Al Harrington, Cuttino Mobley and Tim Thomas all who had contracts set to expire in 2010.
Marbury, James, Rose, Collins, Jones and Morris are no longer in the NBA, while Balkman, Richardson and Jeffries have gone on to become little used reserve players elsewhere in the league. Robinson's immature behavior and inability to perform the duties of a point guard such as running an NBA offense or not shooting at your own hoop saw him traded to the Celtics and Lee was moved to the Warriors last summer in a sign and trade after Amar'e Stoudemire signed with the Knicks.
Out of all the players that Walsh inherited only Chandler has remained with the team and has flourished this season with career highs in points, field goal percentage, three point percentage, rebounds and blocks.
Walsh took over a team with a dearth of attractive young talent, that was going to be over the cap until the summer of 2011 and did not have its 2010 first round pick courtesy of Isiah Thomas. He has since transformed the roster and franchise into what it is today.
What is that you ask? This is what Ziller believes Walsh has done.
This is a team hovering around .500 (currently 26-24), a team whose saving grace in the 'Melo sweepstakes is location only. The Knicks might not rank among the top 10 teams in terms of a potential trade package to offer for Anthony. But the fact that 'Melo apparently won't sign an extension anywhere but New York has us seriously considering whether Wilson Chandler, Anthony Randolph and Eddy Curry will be enough to get the star. Seriously. Wilson Chandler, Anthony Randolph and Eddy Curry. The Nets couldn't pry 'Melo from Denver for Derrick Favors and 47 draft picks because Anthony didn't want to rent in Newark for 18 months. Walsh, essentially, had lucked into prime geography. If the Knicks do get 'Melo for that package, leading the team to a full revival and honest-to-Mozgov contention, we'll know the Heavens do shine on Walsh, and he should be made premier for life.
But until then, the option is not one between Walsh and the old days. It's between Walsh and any potential replacement -- like Mark Warkentien, the team's newly hired director of player personnel. Or any number of young risers like Kevin Pritchard, David Griffin or Tom Penn. Would any of those guys do a better job than Walsh? Walsh, after all, did strike out on the very best 2010 free agents. It was reported that his presentation to LeBron James was the worst the King saw. The Knicks quickly grabbed Stoudemire, offering more guaranteed money than it seems anyone else would have, with the hopes of leveraging Amar'e to summon another free agent. Instead of another top-tier FA, Walsh grabbed Raymond Felton, a nice point guard with very obvious limits.
If you look at this season in a vacuum then you would be perfectly justified in questioning how deserved an extension would be. Since when is it a knock on a general manager to run an organization in a city that players want to play in? If anything he has made the Knicks an attractive destination after a decade as the league's laughingstock and he's done that in less than three years. I doubt Carmelo was dreaming of New York back in 2006 when he signed his extension with the Nuggets.
Did the Knicks accomplish their ultimate goal of the 2010 offseason and acquire the services of LeBron James? No, but Walsh was prepared for that possibility all along and rather than spend all his money for the sake of spending it he's been patient in reinvesting that money back into the team.
Knowing he had to emerge with a prize in hand, the Knicks made the first splash in free agency signing Amar'e Stoudemire to a 5-year, $99.7 million contract.
Skeptics questioned whether Amar'e could physically hold up, but more importantly if he could replicate his production without Steve Nash playing provider. All Amar'e has done so far this season is average over 26 points a game, lead the league in fourth quarter scoring and get named as a starter to the Eastern Conference All-Star team. Meanwhile he's also filled the leadership void the Knicks desperately needed to address and has his team playing above .500 ball for the first time in a decade with the fourth youngest roster in the league.
Following LeBron's move to Miami, Raymond Felton was signed to a 2-year, $15 million deal. Felton has done an excellent job of pushing the tempo in head coach Mike D'Antoni's speedball offense and after suffering through a slump in January while dealing with injuries has rounded back into form over the past week. Felton has also set career marks in points, assists and steals and successfully quarterbacked one of the league's most potent offenses.
Walsh has demonstrated an ability to recognize another team's trash as potential treasure for the Knicks.
Bill Walker a little used reserve for the Celtics was acquired in the Nate Robinson trade and emerged as a member of the Knicks' rotation off the bench, capable of scoring in bunches with enough versatility (a key in D'Antoni's system) to play both wing positions.
The Knicks added former first round flameout, Shawne Williams, to their training camp roster and he beat out Patrick Ewing Jr. for the final spot on the roster. Williams has become a vital cog in the rotation with the ability to defend both forward spots while stretching stretch the floor, posting a ridiculous 50.6% clip from three point range.
Walsh has also flashed his eye as a talent evaluator in the draft.
In 2008 with the No.6 pick the Knicks selected Danilo Gallinari. Gallinari is one of the most efficient scorers in the league with a true shooting percentage of .609 good for 14th best in the league.
Gallinari is fourth on the Knicks in possessions -- times shooting, turning it over or going to the free throw line (we calculate free throw attempts by 0.44 to factor in three-point plays and technical fouls). But he is No. 2 in the NBA in free throws made per possession and sixth best in free throw attempts per possession -- despite his team-high jumper rate of about 84 percent. So when he goes to the hoop, the whistle tends to provide the soundtrack.
Gallinari has also shown an ability to create for others and has proven himself to be a competent defender. Still 22, Gallinari is not the finished product but his unique ability to maximize his efficiency on the ball makes him an extremely valuable commodity.
In 2009 the Knicks bought the Lakers' first round pick for cash considerations and drafted back-up point guard Toney Douglas. Douglas struggles at times to run the offense being more of a natural scorer, but defensively he is a pest and gives the Knicks an elite ball hawk something they desperately need.
In that same draft the Knicks also selected Jordan Hill with the No. 8 overall pick. Hill struggled to find minutes in his time in New York and was included in a deadline deal with the Rockets along with Jeffries that cleared enough cap space for the Knicks to sign two max free agents in 2010. Hill has struggled to find his niche in Houston as well, but as a young player still has time to turn things around.
Perhaps Walsh's shrewdest move since moving to New York was drafting Landry Fields out of Stanford with the 39th pick in last June's draft. Fields locked down a starting spot in the rotation out of training camp and now leads all guards in rebounding in the league. He was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in both November and December.
In the summer he also signed 7'1 Russian center, Timofey Mosgov one of the top big men prospects in Europe and after struggling to look like an NBA player early in the season Mosgov has adjusted nicely to the speed of the game and added much needed size and length to the frontcourt and a presence on the boards.
Here is the Knicks' current roster: Amar'e Stoudemire, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Landry Fields, Timofey Mosgov, Toney Douglas, Ronny Turiaf, Bill Walker, Shawne Williams, Anthony Randolph, Kelenna Azubuike, Andy Rautins, Roger Mason Jr and Eddy Curry (financially speaking).
The oldest player on the roster is Stoudemire who is 28 and in his prime. Felton and Turiaf are both 27 and everybody else on the roster is 25 or younger. The roster also has depth at every position and the talent is complementary rather than redundant, a recurring theme in both the Layden and Isiah eras.
Most importantly the Knicks remain under the salary cap and with Eddy Curry's expiring contract due to come off the books this summer, Walsh has the Knicks in a position of strength.
Something that has gotten lost in the Carmelo saga has been how well Donnie Walsh has played his cards. He was never tempted to give up the farm even when the Nets looked to be closing in on Anthony. Instead he allowed the Nets to make a mockery of themselves in their desperate chase to land a star all the while knowing that the Knicks ultimately had the upperhand as long as Anthony stuck to his original desire to play in the Big Apple.
Everybody in the league knows that Melo wants to play in New York and that if he doesn't get traded their this year he'll simply sign in the offseason, something that is only possible because Walsh didn't rush to spend all of the franchise's cap space last summer.
I wrote earlier in the season about my belief that the Knicks would be better off moving forward with their core rather than trading away all their assets for him. Well the Knicks have positioned themselves to acquire Carmelo for a price that is unlikely to rid them of either Fields or Gallinari, the two players that would complement a Carmelo-Stoudemire duo best.
There are a number of viable front office candidates on the market such as Kevin Pritchard or Tom Penn, but Walsh has done more than any of them in a career in the NBA that started in the 70's as an assistant coach to Larry Brown in Denver. Experience cannot be taught and in the high stress environment that comes with managing an NBA roster patience and calm are priceless virtues. These are all traits that Walsh has exhibited from Day 1 in New York.
Donnie Walsh deserves another year not because the Knicks are fighting this season for a lower seed in the East, but for how he has transformed a directionless, moribund franchise into one with a long-term goal and purpose.