Donnie Walsh’s home stand:The New York Knicks, 2010 Free Agency, the 2011 CBA, Lebron James and ‘The Art of War’ (Part 2)

The summers abutting the Knicks 2010-2011 Season represent a confluence of league altering events. In an effort to revive the Knicks’ moribund franchise, ownership has turned to Donnie Walsh a seasoned NBA executive. Donnie Walsh has in turn moved fervently to clear cap space in anticipation of the Summer of 2010 Free Agency signing period. Under the lenses of the Art of War, Walsh’s maneuverings may be understood as a daring (perhaps desperate) series of moves that appears to have anticipated a unique opportunity presented to NBA Franchises as the terrain of the leagues salary cap structure shifts before both players and franchises alike. Yet, Walsh’s and the Knicks’ franchise failure to adhere to one of the Key principles of Sun Tzu’s classic may prove to be the Knicks Waterloo as rival franchises from the Knicks recent and distant past move to obstruct the Knicks ambitious bid at resurrection.

As discussed previously ‘The Art of War’ prescribes that Five factors be taken into account in assessing the conditions before the field of battle/engagements. As part 1 discussed, the factors of Heaven and Earth are in flux in the NBA and as a result may produce a new landscape under which management and players negotiate the terms and conditions of contracts. Presumably the Knicks management team has anticipated the onset of a shifting NBA landscape. As a result the franchise has maneuvered to reduce its salary obligations prior to the onset of the 2011-12 season. Under the Generalship of Walsh, the Knicks have gone a step further and moved to get under the 2010 Salary Cap to pursue the field of 2010 free agents who have made themselves available to secure one more favorable long-term contract prior to the 2011-12 season.

In ‘The Art of War’ the other three factors to be assessed include: The Moral Law[1], The Commander[2], and lastly Method and Discipline[3]. The Moral Law is analogous to the morale, demeanor or spirit of an organization/nation. The Commander represents the virtuous qualities of a leader/general before the field of engagement. Method and discipline refers to the means and ordered adherence by which a force is organized and brought together. An assessment of the Donnie Walsh and the Knicks franchise under these three factors produces a mixed bag, which may be taken into context under the history of prior management regimes.

a. Franchise’s Morale

Depending on which fan one talks to the morale of the Knicks organization either has never been better or continues in a moribund march towards futility. From a pessimistic point of view, the manner in which the organization has approached clearing cap space stands as a black eye to potential free agent suitors. Some argue that the manner in which former players, such as Stephon Marbury, Nate Robinson, Eddy Curry and even Jordan Hill were handled by the Knicks management and coaching staff will surely warrant a proceed with caution sign from desired free agents. Critics will direct specific criticism to the coaching staff’s failure to better develop the players traded. They will also point to management’s failure to deal fairly and honestly with the players such as Marbury and Robinson and Milicic about what role they would have with the team.

On the other hand supporters of the current regime will point to the negative culture players such as Marbury, Robinson, James and Curry represented as the reason why many were isolated, traded and or failed to receive playing time. Supporters will also point to 2010 free agency as the more promising objective pursued by a new Knicks management regime that followed prior regimes that had been saturated with overpriced and questionable acquisitions that failed to turn the franchise’s fortunes. The end result of Knicks fans and critics debate over the morale of the organization may well be decided by which crop of free agents they acquire. If the crème de la crème sign with the organization supporters of the current regime will point towards the current purge of former malcontents. If the Knicks come up empty handed or over pay for players not worth the deals they obtain, critics will point to the Knicks handling of past players as one of the reasons better talent spurned the Knicks’ free agency bid.

b. Walsh as the Commander

The Knicks General (Commander) on the march to 2010 free agency is Donnie Walsh, a person many would describe as a basketball lifer. Walsh’s has been involved with player management since the mid 80’s. One of Walsh’s accomplishments include the building of the Indiana Pacers into an Eastern Conference Contender during the 1990s, which produced one NBA Finals appearance in the 1999-2000 season. Walsh’s hand in building the 90’s Pacers involved the drafting of Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Dale Davis, Antonio Davis and later Austin Croshere. Walsh also acquired (via trade) players such as Detlef Schrempf, Sam Perkins, Derrick Mckey and Chris Mullin that sustained the Pacers playoff runs during the 90s. Larry Brown and Larry Bird (both acquired by Walsh) were the coaches at the helm during the Pacer’s playoff runs in the 90s. With the Pacers, Walsh also oversaw the transition of that franchise to a successful rebuilding period in the mid 21st century. Walsh transitioned the 90s Pacers seamlessly into the 21st century by acquiring players such as Jermaine O’Neal, Brad Miller and Ron Artest via trade. Under Walsh the Pacer’s transition into the 21st century transpired without the Pacers missing the playoff. Walsh role with the Pacer diminished after the 2003 season when Larry Bird became that organization’s President of Basketball operations but the foundation for the strong (but short lived) Pacers powerhouse team of the mid 21st century was laid in part by Donnie Walsh.

Since being signed by the New York Knicks during the spring 2008, Walsh’s performance can also be described as a mixed bag by Knicks fans and critics. Strong criticisms of Donnie Walsh begin with questions about his drafting prowess since joining the Knicks organization. Fans have questioned Walsh’s election to select Danillo Gallinari and Jordan Hill over center Brook Lopez and point guard Brandon Jennings in the 2008 and 2009 drafts. The latter two players appear to be cornerstone players to their franchises while one of the former two was eventually traded and the other has had health issues, which many believed would put his career in question. Donnie Walsh’s drafting prowess with the Knicks continues to take a hit as some critics have dubbed the Knicks the biggest losers in the recent 2010 draft. Yet, in Walsh’s defense Gallinari has shown promise and last year’s rookies Toney Douglas and Jordan Hill (now with the Rockets) have shown promise when given the opportunity to play.

Where fans and critics of Walsh’s also clash are over his election to clear cap space to pursue the players (primarily the jewels) of the 2010 free agent class. Many believe that moves to clear cap space may result in a futile exercise that at worst would result in the Knicks trading away various talented yet flawed and overpriced assets such as Zach Randolph, Jamal Crawford, Jared Jefferies and Jordan Hill. Walsh’s supporters will point to the mere opportunity to play a hand and come out winners in the 2010 free agent signing period as a worthy risk. Many supporters will also indicate that Walsh’s moves to jettison former malcontents and albatrosses (Marbury and Jerome James) is wholly welcome especially were the end result to produce a tandem of Lebron, Wade or Chris Bosh.

c. Methods and Discipline

Regardless of what Walsh’s critics may say about his approach to rebuilding the Knicks, Walsh has been strict in adhering to his plan. Despite calls from some fans for Walsh to make moves during the past two summer free agent signing periods and draft day, Walsh has stood pat (for the most part) to preserve the cap space to which his plan so critically hinges upon. Walsh’s disciplined approach to reducing the Knicks’ salary cap figures has place the franchise at the head of teams with available cap space to pursue the field of 2010 free agents. The Knicks currently possess enough cap space to sign two max salary free agents.

What is questioned, however, are the methods whereby Walsh obtained the cap space flexibility entering into the summer of 2010. Critics will insist that Walsh may have obtained more value in return from the trades he made for players such as Randolph and Crawford (and possibly Robinson, Jefferies and Jordan Hill). Succeeding trades of Randolph and Crawford after they were acquired from the Clippers and Warriors respectively demonstrate that those players were still valued commodities in the league and may have yielded more value in return had Walsh’ exercised more patience. Perhaps a pair of late 1st round or early 2nd round draft picks could have been acquired for the group of players traded to clear cap space.

In the context of the Art of War, Walsh’s acts to clear cap space may be looked upon as a series of maneuvers that engaged the path of least resistance [4] and accommodated the Knicks to better use the rules to engage the rivals before them [5]. For example, the previous Knicks’ management regime engaged rival franchises to acquire speculative talent. That prior regime did so by surrendering the organization deeper into salary commitments that placed the Knicks above the luxury tax (cap space hell). Walsh on the other hand surrendered good yet overpriced talent that would provide the Knicks the flexibility to acquire talent without having to engage in compromising trades with rival franchises. But in the Art of War the path of least resistance is one that occurs in stealth [6], which requires that, a force move according to the key tenet of deception [7]. Absent such stealth the exposed movements of a general are revealed to his rivals as they assail the Generals path, transforming the generals advance into the dreaded death march [8] all Generals are advised to avoid.

Perhaps, Walsh too readily revealed his position regarding his 2010 ambitions, believing other rivals would not understand his cryptic talk about cap flexibility for the summer of 2010. By painting a bull’s eye on Knicks managements’ ambitions, Walsh rival’s bargained harder in exchange for the salary cap relief Walsh sought. Perhaps as a result, Walsh received so little value in return for players such as Randolph and Crawford. Perhaps Walsh’s non poker face also resulted in him paying a ransom to the Rockets (Jordan Hill, a 2012 restricted 1st round draft pick and a swap of picks in 2011) to jettison Jared Jefferies contract. Also, by too readily suggesting Knicks’ management’s ambitions, other rivals (Bulls, Heat, Nets) were alerted to the 2010 watershed and have moved to frustrate Walsh’s bid at 2010 free agency.

Walsh’s prescience and daring – Pursuing a change in the Franchise’s direction due to a uniquely curious opportunity in the league’s shifting soil:

Despite Walsh’s miscues, criticisms of him, like those of his predecessor Isaiah Thomas fail to take into account the context in which both current and former Knicks executives maneuvered. For Thomas, his maneuverings were undertaken in the context of an NBA landscape that had well established player salary exceptions that had not existed prior to the 1998-99 strike-out shortened season. Taken in the context of the organizations reluctance to rebuild, Thomas pursued the avenues available to him to retool the Knicks. Though, Thomas’ project failed it was a creature of the landscape afforded teams like the Knicks. A landscape where the Knicks were all to eager to trade for, sign and swallow overpriced role players and malcontents in the hopes of cobbling a team from such flotsam in order to avoid a full rebuild.

To that end Walsh’s own ambitious cap space clearing project, reflects the times in which the current Knicks’ GM operates. That time being one in which a shift in the landscape of the salary cap structure has created a unique scenario. That scenario has compelled many players to make themselves available for free agency on July 1, 2010. That scenario has created a narrow window, which could provide the long struggling Knicks an opportunity to acquire a pair of superstars. Moreover, Walsh’s move to acquire a star tandem also perhaps anticipates a new salary cap structure intended to slow max contract player movement significantly. A hard cap may return the Knicks and the league to the era before 1998-1999 season when teams where generally built around individual stars or star tandems such as Malone and Stockton, Kemp and Payton, Jordan and Pippen etc. The seeming end of the cap exception regime, may signal the end of near super teams (like the Lakers and Celtics).

Thus, a super tandem could provide the Knicks the cornerstones of a contender before a hard cap era in the NBA emerges to possibly bring a semblance of parity and competitiveness to a top heavy league recently dominated by super teams such as the fading Celtics and aging Lakers. To that end Walsh’s early maneuverings to realize his ambitious cap space clearing project for the star studded free agent class was a move consistent with themes in ‘The Art of War’ that insist that opportunities should be seized upon [9] and the higher ground should be occupied with haste [10]. Walsh’s daring move, if successful (a big if), would bring to the Knicks a tandem of franchise players they lacked in the 90s and a return to contention that ended slightly after the 98-99 season altered the rules of the salary cap game to the Knicks dumbfounded detriment. However, the Knicks ambitious plans may be foiled by a failure to follow the key tenet of deception in Sun Tzu’s classic. That miscue may have turned a brilliant flanking action into a death march where the Knicks management’s maneuverings have been exposed only to be intercepted by rivals of the Knicks recent and distant past.

Epilogue -Catharsis:

Should the Knicks strike out on a dream scenario, this author (and many others) would suggest that the Knicks tread with caution and not too readily overdose the franchise with max offers to undeserving players such as Joe Johnson or Amare Stoudemire amongst others. Such contracts (in this authors opinion) will bring the Knicks back to the same square they occupied prior to trading Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford. In terms of The Art of War such a move could be deemed a futile siege [11]. Actually acquiring Johnson and Stoudemire may be worse in that both contracts would erase the Knicks from the cap space flexibility needed to make bids at later free agent class gems (Carmelo Anthony, Durant, Paul). A failure to hit a home run (Bosh, Wade, James) in this year’s free agency period does not justify settling for a double with no outs in the bottom of the 9th inning of the Knicks franchise’s fortunes. Rather, the Knicks may consider, starting from scratch. They may consider playing small ball. If the legion of ‘Knicks’ fans’ that claim to have patience are true to their word, then the Knicks may build anew. The may this time build via the draft, by developing and managing young assets shrewdly. They may maneuver their assets (if not impact or franchise caliber agents) for other opportunities at the draft table until the Knicks obtain a core of worthy star players (think Thunder) to lift the Knicks from a decade of chaos. A well-considered pause should be taken if the Knicks strike out on 2010’s free agent jewels. That event just may be the catharsis needed to get the organization finally going in a sound non-desperate direction.



[1] ‘The Moral Law, causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler,’
Tzu, Sun, The Art of War, Chapter I, ¶ 5.

[2] ‘The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness.’
Ibid, Chapter I, ¶ 9.

[3] ‘By Method and discipline are to be understood the marshalling of the army in its proper subdivisions,’
Ibid, Chapter I, ¶ 10.

[4] ‘Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards’
Ibid, Chapter VI, ¶ 29.
‘So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak’
Ibid, Chapter VI, ¶ 30.

[5]  ‘Walk in the path defined by rule, and accommodate yourself to the enemy until you can fight a decisive battle’
Ibid, Chapter XI, ¶ 67.

[6]   ‘An army may march great distances without distress, if it marches through country where the enemy is not.’
Ibid, Chapter VI, ¶ 6.

[7]‘All warfare is based on deception’
Ibid, Chapter I, ¶ 18.
‘Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunder bolt.’
Ibid, Chapter VII, ¶ 19.
‘By shifting his camp and taking circuitous routes, he prevents the enemy from anticipating his purpose.’
Ibid, Chapter XI, ¶ 37.

[8] ‘If you order your men to . . . make forced marches without halting, covering double the usual distance at a stretch, the leaders of your . . . divisions will fall.’
Ibid, Chapter VII, ¶ 7.

[9] ‘If the enemy leaves a door open, you must rush in.’
Ibid, Chapter XI, ¶ 65.

[10]‘Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the  enemy, will be fresh for the fight; . . .’
Ibid, Chapter VI, ¶ 1.

[11]‘The general unable to control his irritation, will launch . . . to the assault . . . , with the result that . . . . the town remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege.
Ibid, Chapter III, ¶ 5.