(Long Island, N.Y.) When Donnie Walsh was brought in as president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks in April of 2008, he preached patience to the fans of the woe-be-gone franchise. The team was in salary cap turmoil due to the ineptness of his predecessor, Isiah Thomas. Not only that, but they had not qualified for the playoffs in four years and mortgaged much of their future by trading away first round draft picks for years to come.
As soon as that season came to a conclusion, Thomas was “reassigned” within the organization and Walsh named Mike D’Antoni, formerly of the Phoenix Suns, head coach. The wheels at Madison Square Garden were starting to spin after being stuck in neutral for an extended period of time.
With a roster full of long term albatross contracts left by Thomas, Walsh knew that he had his work cut out for him in stripping it down piece by piece. The first step came in November 2008 when Walsh sent Jamaal Crawford to Golden State in exchange for Al Harrington. Then he traded the team’s leading scorer, Zach Randolph, to the Clippers for Cutino Mobley and Tim Thomas. The latter was packaged with Jerome James and Anthony Roberson to Chicago for Larry Hughes. These moves cleared up much of the cap space needed for the big free agent class of 2010.
Not resting on his laurels, Walsh executed a series of moves recently that many around the league never thought possible. The executive was able to pawn off more contracts that went passed this year and did not have to take on any others that would get in the way of the big picture.
Dumping Jared Jeffries’ contract and acquiring Houston’s Tracy McGrady, the former superstar whose millions come off the books after this season, was nothing short of genius. (The Knicks also acquired guard Sergio Rodriguez as part of the three-team trade.) Walsh reluctantly had to include Jordan Hill, this year’s first round draft choice (eighth overall), as well as a protected 2012 first round pick and the Rockets having an option to exchange first rounders in 2011. But he weighed the differences and made the difficult choice.
“This trade improves our position to achieve our long-term goals, while also keeping us competitive for the remainder of the season,” Walsh told reporters. He has never been shy about admitting the ultimate plan and has said from Day One that the objective was to clear the cap.
The Knicks now have the space to go after more than one elite player and have their sights set on the likes of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. They would go from being the butt of late night television jokes to an instant contender if this happens. Even if they can get only one of these players and then add someone else such as Joe Johnson or Amare Stoudamire, that would give them a formidable roster and the flexibility to retain forward David Lee, who has been their go-to guy, is an automatic double-double every night and was named to the All-Star team for the first time in his career.
Either way, come next season, there will be a different look at Madison Square Garden. Walsh has done an incredible job putting himself in the position just to be able to talk to the likes of the big three free agents, let alone having the room to bring one or more of them aboard.
And it didn’t take long at all.