Knicks go all in to claim King

When Donnie Walsh was hired as president of the New York Knicks in April
2008, his first priority was to slash a roster high on salary and low
on production.

The Knicks’ payroll had escalated to more than $130 million in 2005-06,
easily the league’s highest, under team president Isaiah Thomas. All
that cash resulted in just 23 victories.

Walsh knew of the marquee free-agent class coming this summer, headlined
by LeBron James. He had two years to get the Knicks under the salary
cap, so he took a calculated risk few others in New York have ever dared
to try — go slowly and rebuild.

”At his first press conference as Knicks president, Donnie said there were going to be some people available in 2010 and they should be part of it,” New York Times NBA writer Howard Beck said. ”That was his announcement, without ever saying his name, that the Knicks would be in the LeBron James sweepstakes.”

No one was sure how New Yorkers, famous for their abundant passion and lack of patience, would embrace a two-year rebuilding plan. It’s why the executives prior to Walsh, specifically Thomas and Scott Layden, made short-sighted deals with the intention of winning immediately. That approach hadn’t worked since Patrick Ewing retired, leaving the Knicks no choice but to clear the decks and sell the city to prospective free agents.

”They haven’t had cap space since 1996,” Beck said. ”If the Knicks’ greatest asset is their history, location and their mystique, or whatever is left of it,
you can’t leverage that unless you have cap space.”

There were two pivotal days that brought the Knicks to this point: Nov. 21, 2008, and Feb. 18, 2010. Walsh traded Zach Randolph’s big contract to the Los Angeles Clippers and Jamal Crawford to the Golden State Warriors on the same day two years ago. The Knicks acquired Al Harrington, Tim Thomas and Cuttino Mobley, all of whom had deals that expire this summer. It immediately gave the Knicks enough cap space to pursue James, Chris Bosh or any other free agent who would receive a max contract.

”At that moment,” Beck said, ”they were in the LeBron hunt.”

But the Knicks had been so terrible for so long, Walsh knew no marquee free agent would sign with the Knicks without enough surrounding talent. So he kept going, unloading Larry Hughes, Jared Jeffries and Jordan Hill earlier this season in a three-team trade that brought the Knicks Tracy McGrady’s mammoth $23 million expiring contract.

Walsh sacrificed two seasons on a risk, a gamble he could lure top talent to Madison Square Garden. If not James or Bosh or Dwyane Wade this summer, perhaps Carmelo Anthony next year, when Anthony can opt out of his contract with the Denver Nuggets. Or a combination of players this year and next year.

”From where I’m sitting, they absolutely did the right thing,” Beck said. ”Even if none of the biggest names we’ve talked about come to the Knicks this summer, it was still the right move. They were going nowhere with what they had. They could’ve been competitive, but what’s that? A 40-win season and a first-round playoff exit? What would that have done long term? They needed to purge the payroll and the bad attitudes and bad karma. They needed to just start over.”

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