Has Donnie Walsh Out-done Isiah Thomas Yet?

Isiahmiss-me-yet-billboardcopyDonnie Walsh has had the opportunity to make a lot of acquisitions and decisions up to this point in his two-season tenure.  So far much of the Knicks fan-faithful have been willing to be very Paula Abdulish in their critique of Walsh’s decisions over the past two years.  In other words, they have been selectively seeing and hearing what he has been saying and doing all along.  After he replaced the reviled Isiah Thomas, Walsh maintained that getting below the salary cap was only one of his goals.  His other was to remain competitive and put together a core of players that would be attractive to a max superstar who actually deserved the maximum salary.

To the clear frustration of Coach Mike D’Antoni, who is taking most of the blame for the team’s poor performance, Walsh has failed to field a competitive team.  The Knicks (28-51) have earned their second 50-loss season in a row, something even Isiah Thomas failed to accomplish.   The product on the court has been an epic failure as the Walsh-D’Antoni (or Walsh’Antoni) Knicks have reached a number of “worst performance” milestones.  When asked whether he thought trading all of his weapons for cap space was worth it, D’Antoni initially refused to tow the party line with an enthusiastic “yes siree Bob”, indicating that he knows the gamble to strip the locker-room bare for the Summer of 2010 may not yield the desired results.  He and Walsh know that quality free agents will probably choose the money and winning over the promise of playing in the Garden for a losing team — not only have they been in the league long enough to know that, but the proof was in the decisions of Grant Hill and Jason Kidd to reject Knick overtures last summer.  Even more compelling was Steve Nash’s, D’Antoni’s coach-maker and play-maker, decision to extend his contract with the Suns instead of becoming available to negotiate with the Knicks in free agency. This is very telling given New York is one of Nash’s homes.  Recently, that move was followed by Manu Ginobli reaching an extension agreement with the Spurs and Kobe Bryant signing a three-year extension with the Lakers quickly ending the ludicrous notion amongst some fans that the Knicks could attract him and LeBron.

Walsh made his latest risky play at the February trade deadline in a transaction involving the Rockets and Kings.  Under pressure to make room for more flexibility while under the cap, Walsh got rid of Jared Jeffries’ contract (and the Knicks’ defense) for a very hefty price — the present and the immediate future. The future which the Knicks gave away included the 2009 lottery pick (Jordan Hill), an option for Houston to switch 2011 first round picks and the 2012 first round pick if is for the 6th to 30th spots in the draft.  (The 2010 pick was traded by Isiah Thomas six years ago and because of various protections in previous years is unprotected this year and has been made significantly more valuable by the Knicks’ horrible season under Walsh). Undoubtedly, if such a surrender were executed by Thomas, he would have been tarred and feathered as opening act for Jay-Z at Madison Square Garden.

The more measurable and perhaps more painful risk was the surrender of Jordan Hill.  Trading Jordan Hill emphasized that the Knicks were disappointed with his development and that Walsh and D’Antoni have yet to be on the same page regarding the type of team they plan to build.  After being traded Jordan Hill made comments about not being given a fair shot to perform by D’Antoni because D’Antoni favored vets.  While D’Antoni responded and inferred that Hill was not good enough to play because he plays “good rookies,” Walsh has been busy suggesting that he must make up for the loss of Hill in the lopsided trade somewhere down the line of future transactions.

With the conflicting messages coming out of the Knicks camp, it is easy to wonder whether the Knicks made the right move in drafting Hill in the first place.  The Knicks have needed a quality guard since Walsh arrived and they have done nothing despite numerous opportunities including the 2009 draft to secure proven point-guard play.  Duhon was a certified back-up when signed as a free agent and   while it will be suggested that Toney Douglas is the Knicks guard of the future, that is highly unlikely despite Douglas’ throwback demeanor and capabilities.  He does not run the offense how D’Antoni desires, as demonstrated by D’Antoni’s early nod to Rodriguez and refusal to start Douglas in the last few games of the season when it is clear that Duhon does should not have a future with the Knicks.  Although D’Antoni has given Douglas considerable minutes, the guard is more likely to be a starter for a more traditional coach and team in the future.  The Knicks will look more earnestly for a starting guard this summer.  However, if the Knicks had drafted Darren Collison, Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson or Brandon Jennings, it is less likely they would have traded any of them, as they did Hill, before trying to fully develop the selection.  Hence, they would be in much better position to build a team for D’Antoni.

Fans, in the decline of this horrid season, are once again reduced to seeking nuggets of hope in the play of no-names and reclamation projects such as Bill Walker and  Earl Barren who demonstrate sufficient skill and enough significant flaws to be nice role players on a decent team.  The one shining light, in terms of acquisitions, to come from the Walsh regime seems to be Danilo Gallinari who on occasion flashes almost star potential from the offensive end of the floor.  Unfortunately, most end of season accomplishments are as deceiving as summer league honors. While Gallinari rings up points his play is bafflingly inconsistent and he loses focus easily.  Too often it seems that he needs a nudge or a slight to extract a quality performance on the offensive end and on the defensive end he is often out of position, uses his hands instead of his feet and is just plain lost out there. Yet, he will occasionally show great heart as when he approached the coach for the duty of guarding the opponent’s best offensive player and determination which gives a fan more hope since this is really his first full season in the NBA. 

Otherwise, it should be pretty clear by now that Donnie Walsh has done little to nothing to improve the product on the floor — in fact, many, except for the loyalists, apologists and Gullibles, would argue that the team has gotten worse since Mr. Walsh took over the roster.  Others, like Newsday, would say that Walsh is not done yet and that the rebuilding really starts in July 2010.  In other words, despite what Walsh claims, this period is the demolition period and shouldn’t count against Walsh; he should not be graded until he gets the superstar that fans crave and that will lead the Knicks to the promised land.  Walsh on the other hand was clear that his job was to build the team from day one so that it would attract better talent in 2010, although he has now extended the timetable for improvement to possibly 2015.  Still Walsh, the ultimate NBA professional, has never asked for a waiver, nor has he ever made excuses about the horrible product he has put on the floor. Others do that for him.

His message was clear when he traded his two best scorers Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford in order to create cap space:

After the McGrady-Cap Space Trade, Walsh was back-pedaling from the organization’s clear support of the notion that the Knicks hoped to get LeBron. Of course, Walsh never tampered by mentioning any specific player, but for the last two years, the organization has done little to nothing to dispel the idea that LeBron was the major reason they were willing to waste two years to get under the cap. As we draw closer to the reality that LeBron will probably stay with Cleveland or bypass the Knicks, the 2010 plan has become the “Maybe Next Year or Next Year or the Next Year” Plan.

Arguably Walsh will need to do a much better job, without enough money, in 2010 in order to come close to the quality of acquisitions picked up during the Isiah Thomas era.  Contrast and compare:

Walsh v. Isiah

Walsh’s Acquisitions


Isiah’s Acquisition


Al Harrington

Danilo Gallinari

Jordan Hill

Cuttino Mobley

Chris Duhon

Tim Thomas

Jonathan Bender

Chris Wilcox

Larry Hughes

Toney Douglas

J.R. Giddens

Bill Walker

Eddie House

Tracy McGrady

Sergio Rodriguez

Darko Milicic

Anthony Roberson

Channing Frye

David Lee

Nate Robinson

Jerome James

Zach Randolph

Eddie Curry

Jared Jeffries

Trevor Ariza

Jalen Rose

Wilson Chandler

Renaldo Balkman

Mardy Collins

Steve Francis

Q.  Richardson

Fred Jones

Stephon Marbury

While Walsh has made it a practice to bring the organization disgruntled players (Al Harrington, Chris Duhon, Larry Hughes, Darko Milicic), damn near retired players (Jonathan Bender, Cuttino Mobley) and reclamation projects (Tracy McGrady), several of Thomas’ selections are playing major roles on playoff teams or contenders.  The list includes Zach Randolph (leading the Grizzlies), Jamal Crawford (finally going to the playoffs with the Hawks), Quentin Richardson (starting with the Heat), Channing Frye (starting with the Phoenix Suns) and Nate Robinson (trying to find his way with the Celtics).  Also on playoff teams but in far less significant roles are Renaldo Balkman who is still with the Nuggets but has played in only 11 games and  Randolph Morris who steals an occasional minute on the Hawks.  Thomas players who are still performing at high levels in the NBA include Knicks all-star David Lee,  recent champion Trevor Ariza who is now starting with the Houston Rockets who are out of the playoffs but have a winning percentage over .500 and to a less extent Wilson Chandler, who seems to be developing a solid NBA game with his original team.  Also sort of worth mentioning is Mardy Collins who is recently logging in major minutes and perpetually insignificant stats for the Clippers.  However, he is still around though providing less evidence than others of Thomas’ success in bringing better quality players to the Knicks than Walsh has done to date.

So far Walsh has gained cap space but his legacy includes the creation of a worse team than Isiah left him with.  Few seem to want to face the reality that Walsh had other options in developing the talent he had and commanding better players in exchange.  This would have been much easier if he truly had a multi-year plan beyond 2010, then he would have had a bit more flexibility himself and been able to provide the fans with a winning product.  The proof is his new insistence that the cap space can be good for maybe five more years of transactions.  Prolonging the agony is a position he must take because he did not build a team and an environment attractive to players who want to win.  As Tracy McGrady, only partially jokingly, pointed out the situation is exacerbated by a local media corp that is judgmental, unfair and frightening to players attempting to build a reputation or just play ball. This is not Walsh’s fault, but playing for a bad team in New York is worse for a career than playing for a bad team anywhere in the universe.  Walsh needed to build a decent team to win big in free agency.  He did not and he could have.

Walsh needs to have a good summer in order to validate his plan and recover from the mess that has been continued and created.   Will he? Will anyone less than LeBron or Wade be enough? Will Pat Riley piss Wade off enough to have him leave Miami for New York?  Are we fans ready to settle for Joe Johnson (and a wet dream starring Chris Paul 2011) when we already had Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford? Is Joe Johnson what two years of sacrificing quality was all about? Will Walsh make Isiah Thomas look more competent (as a team president not a coach) than the press was willing to by the time all is said and done?

We shall soon see, if you don’t already.


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