In the spring of 2008, Donnie Walsh met with New York Knicks owner James Dolan to discuss the miserable state of the team. Isiah Thomas, a long-time Walsh confidante and friend had run the franchise into the ground, making a series of moves that would earn him WGMOAT honors. Dolan pleaded with Walsh to join the team (some may say had his arm twisted by David Stern) and finally on April 2, 2008, Walsh agreed – becoming the Knicks’ President of Basketball Operations. At that point, Walsh and Dolan began the long road to bringing back the Knicks to respectability. This is how they did it.
On April 19, 2008, within weeks of his hiring, Walsh let go of Isiah Thomas in his first major move as team president. No turnaround process could begin without getting rid of the man responsible for acquiring Eddy Curry for 2 high draft picks that would later turn into Lamarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah (let’s leave aside the Bull’s own blunder in trading away Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas). The trade would go down as one of the most lopsided in basketball history.
Finding the Perfect System to Rebuild.
Less than 3 months later, on May 10th, 2008, Walsh found his ideal replacement in ex-Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni. This would be perhaps Walsh’s most underrated move during his time rebuilding the Knicks. Bringing in D’Antoni was a stroke of genius – what Walsh realized is that what he needed was not a championship-caliber coach, but one who could maximize the trade value of the players on the team with mediocre talent. Mike D’Antoni (whose system made Shawn Marion a top 5 fantasy player), was precisely that individual.
Gallo Becomes a Knick.
Walsh would preside over his 1st draft as Knicks President just 2 short months later on June 26th, 2008. With the #6 pick, he would select Danilo Gallinari, who had just won the Rising Star award in the Euroleague with Olimpia Milano. The draft choice was widely questioned in the New York press, but turned out to be modest winner for Walsh (though some will still criticize him for not drafting Eric Gordon, who was taken immediately thereafter by the Clippers). Gallinari, or Gallo as he is kinown, fit perfectly in D’Antoni’s shooter-oriented system and blossomed in 2011, averaging 15.9ppg over the first 48 games of the 2010-11 season. This performance would set the stage for Gallo to be a centerpiece for the Melo trade.
Unloading the Trash.
This portion of the rebuilding process was probably the most simultaneously excruciating (in the time it took) and exciting process for Knick fans. The first day of reckoning was 5 months later, on November 22, 2008. Walsh stunned the basketball world by completing 2 blockbuster trades on the same day, dumping the albatross salaries ($27M worth) of Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford for 2 year rentals in Tim Thomas, Al Harrington, and Cuttino Mobley. These moves paved the way for the Knicks to become a major player in The Summer of Lebron almost overnight.
The Purge, Part 2.
After a little over a year of treading water, Walsh was ready to clean house again. In February 2010, he again made a series of pre-trade deadline deals to clear a 2nd max salary space for the Knicks. Oft-injured Tracy McGrady arrived in return for Jordan Hill, Jared Jeffries, and several draft picks. This cleared $9MM in cap room. Minor trades followed, shipping out Nate Robinson and Darko Milicic for NBA retreads Brian Cardinal and Eddie House. The trade will also bring a little known player named Bill Walker, who would go on to find a meaningful role in D’Antoni’s rotation. Finally, the memory of Isiah had been completely purged except for one very important piece – the expiring contract of Eddy Curry.
Finding Diamonds in the Rough.
Walsh continued filling out the team with promising young players who would play above their abilities in D’Antoni’s offensive scheme. He stole Landry Fields with the 39th pick in the 2010 draft. This came one year after finding a serviceable backup point guard in Toney Douglas the year prior. Walsh would then surprise GMs around the league by wresting 7’1” Russian center Timothy Mozgov from B.C. Khimki.
The Summer of…Amare?
After two long years, the wait was over – the Knicks would sign Lebron and Spike Lee would once again pass Jack Nicholson as the most televised NBA fan….except they didn’t. Instead, Walsh had to settle on overpaying for Amare Stoudemire, an immensely talented power forward who had questions about his defensive ability, tendency to dominate the ball, and ability to stay healthy. However, Walsh didn’t have a choice. With revisions in the NBA collective bargaining agreement looming, the Knicks couldn’t afford to let the Summer of Lebron pass without at least one major free agent signing. During the same period, Walsh pulled off another master stroke, conducting a sign-and-trade with the Golden State Warriors for David Lee (who was going to leave the Knicks anyway), and getting another trade chip in the athletic, but enigmatic Anthony Randolph. The final future piece of the Melo trade came into place when Walsh signed journeyman point guard Raymond Felton just days later.
Walsh now had something to work with. He had his cornerstone big man in Amare and a team full of young, tradeable assets who were not burdened with long-term, expensive contracts. He also knew that Carmelo Anthony desperately wanted to join his friend Amare in New York. This is where the D’Antoni signing really kicked into play. Under D’Antoni’s system, several Knicks players appeared better than advertised. The biggest beneficiary was Raymond Felton, who averaged 17ppg and 9apg. Gallinari and Chandler also thrived in the run and gun system. The performance of these players made it acceptable for the Nuggets to trade one of the NBA’s superstars for what is, by all accounts, a handful of nice role players (if you’re curious how that’s going to work out, just ask the Bucks about what the Lew Alcindor trade did for them). The final piece of what happened remains a mystery. Many around the league believe that Walsh didn’t approve of the trade and that the final trigger was James Dolan’s doing. Walsh still remains a lame duck GM, with a contract expiring on April 30th. If the rumors are true, and the Knicks’ don’t intend to extend his contract (and Stern doesn’t step in again), it is more than likely teams will be lining up at his door the day after.
There are still major questions for this Knicks team. Dolan and Walsh reluctantly had to gut the current team to achieve their desired 2-star format. It is likely that D’Antoni, having been used to develop trade assets, will now be shown the door over the next 18-24 months in favor of a more defensive-minded coach (hello, Jeff Van Gundy). There is rampant speculation that Isiah Thomas will return as GM, but even in the wacky world that is New York, that seems far-fetched. Finally, there is the most important question: can Amare and Melo co-exist and win together? Both love handling the ball – almost too much. And neither plays much defense. Does Billups have anything left in the tank? Unfortunately for Knicks fans, Donnie Walsh may not be around long enough to find out.