On April 2nd, 2008, the New York Knicks hired Donnie Walsh, a son of New York City, as President of basketball operations. For the past five years, the Knicks had operated under the cloud of the Isiah Thomas regime, a President, GM and coach who raised questions in every facet of his approach, both personal and professional. There were whispers around the league that David Stern had wrangled Walsh, and brought Dolan to heel, to replace Thomas’ regime with Walsh’s, an NBA lifer who began his tenure, coaching in Denver under Larry Brown, before moving to the Pacers in Indiana, where he worked his way up through the organization till he was CEO in 2008, when he defected home to Manhattan.
How will history remember Donnie Walsh’s brief and unremarkable time in New York? He inherited a team who had gone 23-59, tied for the worst Knicks season ever, in the history of the franchise, capping a seven year playoff drought. By 2010, the Knicks were back in the playoffs, where they’d return for three straight seasons, after he left, but his fingerprints remained. The residue of Donnie’s machinations never lead to any great success in the draft or free agency (unless you count Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo, I don’t). In 100 years, when fans tell the story of the Knicks this century, the Walsh era might not even merit a sentence on our Wikipedia page, less even than Isiah, who at least was notable for how fantastically dysfunctional, disastrous, and funny his reign was. So what’s the point in looking back with a magnifying glass now?
I’ve been thinking about Walsh because earlier in the season, I ostensibly ended my “career” by going after the sainted son of Knicks Twitter, Carmelo Anthony. I received my most well considered and objective criticism from co-worker Lee Escobedo, who had plenty of issues with my arguments against his hero, but had particular venom saved for my praise of Walsh, who we lost in the aftermath of the Melo trade James Dolan stepped in to force.
My argument was, while we fight about The Rooster’s health, and Wilson Chandler’s ceiling, and Timofey Mozgov’s miraculous discovery followed immediately by his ticking clock as a useful NBA player, the real loss of that trade was Walsh, who was so disgusted by having his hand forced by Dolan he elected not to return.
My memory of Walsh was as a savvy operator. A bean counter coming in the wake of a string of riverboat gamblers and fraudulent blood tech geniuses. He inherited an utterly miserable, hopeless cap and asset situation. The Knicks were $38.4 million over the cap going into the 2008-2009 season, with multiple years on the books for multiple bad and overpaid players, and with LeBron’s impending free agency looming, he had to clear enough space for two max contracts by 2010. But he immediately, methodically began building the Knicks to a position where they had salary space for two superstars and a package worthy of trading for a superstar in his prime, and managed to do this while improving the quality of the team, at least on a base level of wins and losses.
Part of this is an exercise in critical historical thinking, in attempting to locate and direct how I think and talk about the Knicks, their good and bad moves, how and why we ended up in the position we were in, and the key word is context. Too often, when we litigate and relitigate the recent and ancient history of this team, we fall prey to Glen from Syosset calling into Steve Somers at midnight logic. History is a zero sum game made solely of good and bad decisions, all assessed with 20/20 hindsight.
I think of Donnie Walsh in the way many of the Melo stans think about their king: he represents a respite from the jerkoffs and morons who dictated the present and future of my favorite team for twenty years. He stated, defiantly, that the Knicks did not have to live in fear of the Borscht Belt hacks writing puns for the back page of the New York Post, that you put yourself in position to sign LeBron James, and perhaps he comes through that door, and perhaps he never will, but either way there are contingencies, you don’t compromise core values and you don’t panic or make dumb mistakes to cater to that slim possibility. I’m of the opinion, had he been given more time with a longer runway, Walsh could’ve instituted the patient common sense that has returned the Knicks, in pretty stunning time, to stable relevance.
Today we love our front office. Why? Because they hired a coach, imperfect though he may be, with a style and a philosophy, a history of competent experience. Because they team-build with an eye on the big picture, on coherence, thinking about what makes sense and how players fit together rather than just grabbing wildly at names and the abstract talent those names represent. Because they trust their people and their pipeline when it comes to the draft. They find value in places other teams take for granted. They don’t flout conventional wisdom, but they aren’t slaves to it either. Because they don’t tie the future to one big, risky homerun swing that will make immediate headlines but potentially implode and take the immediate future with it. This was the Donnie Walsh playbook. The vision we never really got to see. He represents the past, present, and future of what we should be looking for as fans in a functional front office.
Like many of us, he had to deal with a dumbass boss, a difficult marketplace, and an uncaring, ignorant, bloodthirsty public in his thankless job. But he got up every morning and arranged the deck chairs on a sinking ocean liner with patient dignity, because the team and the city meant that much to him. So allow me to serve as the begotten son who speaks for Joseph Donald Walsh Jr. when no one else will.
Here lies Donnie. He was the consummate singles and doubles hitter. He conserved assets and made smart decisions using all the information available and tools he had at his disposal. He kept the field small and his goals achievable, he worked, above all other things, to minimize his opportunities to step in a pile of shit. In this way, for this franchise at the time, he was nothing short of revolutionary. In a twenty year span, he was the single wisest person to ever run the Knicks, and now his watch is done.
27. Jordan Hill selected 8th 6/25/09
So, the sad aspect of any ascending ranking is you have to start at the back, and after saying all those nice things about him, I have to shit on Donnie’s worst mistake. We’re now a year into the D’Antoni experiment, he’s a coach who we know historically needs a formula 1 worthy driver to captain his pristine offense. There are three point guards on the team, and two are Nate and Anthony Roberson.
The Knicks seemingly understood this, they had their heart set on Steph Curry, who as we know, was not on the board by the time the Knicks were up, but Brandon Jennings, Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, and Jeff Teague were still available (to show you that I’m also a moron and life is wild and unpredictable, I wanted Ty Lawson, who was actually pretty good for several years! Then flamed out and probably would’ve sunk the team with him if he wasn’t roped into the Melo trade).
But with Steph off the board, we somehow determined replacement level PF Jordan Hill was the fit? Maybe they envisioned him as the Stoudemire-styled hammer that was waiting on the right Steve Nash type to pair with, but even then, it was a swing and miss. Not even the rosiest projections of Hill foresaw that level of explosiveness. DeMar DeRozan was the next pick. Not saying we needed an unrepentant midrange gunner but he’s on his like 8th contract and many players in this draft have shuffled off the NBA coil.
Neither here nor there. Isiah Thomas had many, many, many faults, but he has a surprisingly good draft record. Not much to say besides Walsh beefed this one, and that happens, but it’s ranked where it is because of the failure of imagination, the poor team planning, rather than the simple human error of missing on the talent.
26. Isiah Thomas Reassigned 4/19/08
If you’re a Marvel person, “You should’ve gone for the head” is a phrase that resonates. The idea is, when you have the chance to decapitate your enemy, you do it. Don’t leave enough strength for as much as a final snap, or it could seal your fate. This is essentially what happened to Donnie Walsh, in his inability to finish off Isiah as a person with a voice in the Knicks organization.
Walsh came in allegedly on David Stern’s mandate, you’d imagine there was some kind of pressure being applied to Dolan to right the ship, and that the ship righter should be Walsh. He knew Isiah had to go, and they’d had a prior relationship in Indiana so perhaps he had some personal affection for him, but with the mess made, and the svengali like hold Thomas had over Dolan, I would’ve insisted Thomas was immediately removed from any and all official role from the team, barred entrance to Knicks offices, and the practice facility, drawn up a court order that he couldn’t be in public wearing Knicks merch, or use any word with the letter “k” in a sentence.
But Walsh didn’t use that leverage. There’s some question to how preventable any of this actually was, but ultimately, Walsh still bought what Dolan sold him and set himself up for what was coming. Isiah got a relatively cushy exit, and was kept around as a consultant. He couldn’t contact players directly, and reported to Walsh instead of Dolan, but he was still in the conversation. Walsh probably thought that meant he’d be relegated to the shadows, and occasionally fire off a memo regarding why the Knicks absolutely had to overpay for Sebastian Telfair everyone would ignore, and it seems like for the most part, that’s how it went.
Until, during the Melo negotiations, Isiah re-entered through the left open door and inserted himself into Dolan’s ear, bringing with him a philosophy that amounted to bidding on a Park Slope apartment. Always come 50% over ask even when you’re negotiating against yourself. Walsh was rightfully incensed when he was overruled by Dolan and had to flush two years of progress down the toilet (to Denver). What I’d ask Donnie, is who are you really mad at? Dolan, Isiah, or yourself?
25. The Jamal Crawford Trade 11/21/08
Something we’ll be discussing again later in this list, is how transitions function, when you move from old regime to new. It happens in government, in business, and in sports. I think the human impulse when you assume power, particularly if outgoing leadership was ineffectual and bad, is to wipe the slate clean. It’s understandable, you want “your guys” installed in the decision making process and eventual success, you want freedom from the tainted reputation, the toxic cloud left behind.
But in my opinion, it’s an egocentric approach, particularly in sports. It can lead to poor decision making and bad team building. The end of Jamal Crawford’s time in New York is case in point. Crawford was a wizard, one of the most talented and dynamic scorers I’ve ever seen, who specialized in spontaneous combustion, with a vocabulary of impossible shots in dead languages that become higher percentage as the plausibility of any human being obeying the laws of physics hitting the shot in question decreases. And crucially, he was Shooting on a team coached by Mike D’Antoni.
And yet, on his first “real” day as Knicks GM, 11 games into the season (the same day he’d trade Zach Randolph), Walsh sent him packing to Golden State for a disgruntled Al Harrington. Crawford was the scoring focal point early that season, and he was efficient, at 43% from the field and 45% beyond the arc. He wasn’t even really overpaid (set to make 9.3 and 10 mil over the next two seasons when he was shopped out). Even at the time, some viewed him as one of the few assets Walsh inherited that we should’ve kept.
But the Crawford deal is a great example of the type of WFAN thinking we fall prey to often on Twitter. You can’t understate how real many in New York viewed the LeBron chatter. Walsh had an absolute mandate to clear cap, with what was seen at the time as four untradeable contracts in Crawford, Randolph, Eddie Curry, and Jared Jeffries. When Al Harrington came on the market, Walsh allegedly went to Golden State with the simple request they pick one of those four, unfortunately for us, Jamal was who Don Nelson wanted.
But there’s also the player himself. Today, we remember Crawford as the platonic ideal of a microwave scorer, the guy who was a perennial 6th Man of the year contender and played a vital role in the success of those 2010s Clippers squads that were always in contention.
But Jamal was a different player, viewed differently by the league in 2008-2009. He had come off the bench briefly for Larry Brown in New York, but by the time of the trade he was back to starting, and thought of as an empty-calorie player who gets stats, but doesn’t necessarily contribute to winning basketball. Despite fitting well with Don Nelson’s Warriors, he was traded to the Hawks the next season for Acie Law and Speedy Claxton, far less than what the Warriors gave up to acquire him. In Atlanta, there’s foreshadowing of what he’d become in LA, but they let him walk too. He signed as a free agent in Portland, for 2.5 mil a year, before finally landing what ended up being the defining role of the second half of his career.
My point is, Walsh may have been guilty of throwing out baby with bathwater, but it was a mistake several other teams continued to make with Jamal for years. It’s easy to sit back and wonder, “Why didn’t Walsh just follow the blueprint Larry Brown laid out and re-reconceive his role”, but I’d also point out Jamal found that role on an established team where he was an easy, natural fit, not the razed city the Knicks were during that period.
We didn’t get LeBron, and a few years later Walsh was gone as Jamal thrived in Los Angeles, but it’s more complicated than that.
24. The Zach Randolph Trade 11/21/08
A trade that looks bad in the wake of Randolph’s subsequent maturation and realization of his incredible talent as a core member of Grit N Grind in Memphis, but requires some contextualization to properly assess.
In 2008, Randolph was viewed much like Crawford, a blackhole who puts up numbers for losers. Walsh inherited three years of Randolph at 48 million, a number that meant a lot more then than it does now, and if you want evidence for how toxic the asset was, Milwaukee had an opportunity to dump two of their shitty contracts for Zeebo (Bobby Simmons and Dan Gadzuric), and passed.
The Knicks managed to get the Clippers to bite on Zach for Cuttino Mobley and the great Tim Thomas. Nothing exceptional, but two functional role players. If you want further evidence the Knicks did the right thing, Randolph continued to put up numbers on court for the Clippers, but was suspended for being arrested under the suspicion of driving drunk, then again for literally knocking several of Louis Amundsen’s teeth out in Phoenix, which, you know, fair.
In the offseason, the Clipse bailed on Zach, sending him to Memphis for……. Quentin Richardson. The rest is history.
23. The Tracy McGrady Trade 2/18/2010
A tough move to evaluate without the free agents to show for it. The Knicks send out Jordan Hill and Jared Jeffries, along with a 2011 pick swap and a top 1 protected 2012 first rounder, for T Mac’s expiring 23 mil, Sergio Rodriguez, and an incredible 30 million dollars in cap space going into the 2010 offseason.
I mean folks, this is water into wine level shit. Walsh has zero leverage in the winter of 2010 because everyone on Earth knows the Knicks have to get under the cap. He’s dealing with Darryl Morey, the NBA’s equivalent of Teddy KGB, and he makes a compromised deal to achieve what seemed impossible less than two years earlier.
Basically the entire point of this exercise is not to indulge in 6 Degrees of Separation mapping, so I won’t use the fact that the real value here, that pick, ended up being Royce White matters exactly, but I’ll also mention it because fuck you, it’s my list, I’ll use whatever I need to in the interest of bolstering this argument. I’ve said my piece Schmooze. I’ll hang up and listen.
22. The Nate Robinson Trade 2/18/10
An ultimately meaningless deal Walsh had to make to shed money. Nate is another guy you can’t tell me didn’t fit into D’Antoni’s system, but they never got along. Sucks to not be able to hold onto a 25 year old instant offense bench scorer, but it was a fait accompli.
21. The Chris Wilcox Trade 2/19/09
This is another one that looks terrible in the light of day. Walsh traded Malik Rose’s expiring for Wilcox’s expiring, who I’m inclined to like as a former Terp myself, but was a complete nothing burger for the Knicks in his single season on the team. The pro argument here is he was a year removed from three productive seasons in Seattle, where he’d finally become the near double double guy befitting his draft position, before his career was derailed by injury issues.
What I hate the most about this signing, as we’ll address later, is I’m not a big David Lee guy because I couldn’t stand his inability to defend the interior. Wilcox had the exact same issue. This is like living in the East Village, having a heavy frame mountain bike with wide handle bars and thick tires you can’t take down Saint Marks without crashing into an outdoor dining area, then buying the exact same fucking bike you can’t fit into your 400 sq/ft apartment. Not great Donnie!
What has become clear to me in assessing Walsh’s moves during this period, is it’s a bit of a fool’s errand from the perspective of pure talent evaluation, because these guys were all place holders, roster fills whose real value were assets to exchange in order to free up maximum cap space.
It was a house cleaning in the truest sense of the word. Anything the Knicks may have stumbled upon would’ve been whipped cream and cherries. The fact that the quality of the team improved with this is mind, is a credit to Walsh and D’Antoni. But if you want to consider the players involved, big picture, Donnie traded age and experience for potential with a guy who could’ve had a few more years left, a front court piece to bolster a rotation. Didn’t work out that way, but not a terrible idea.
20. The Renaldo Balkman Trade 7/28/08
If you were a Knicks fan in the 2000s, you had weird attachments to marginal role players. You had to. It was the only way to stay sane and give yourself something, anything to be excited about. Over the years I loved, and lost, Frank Williams, Jerome Williams, and Moochie Norris, among others. But my least explicable affection was reserved for Renaldo Balkman, an ass and elbows energy guy who never gave less than every conceivable fuck whenever he touched the floor. We traded him to the Nuggets after Gallinari and Chandler came aboard and he lost his role. We got him back in the Melo trade, where he proceeded to do little, before being waved in 2011-2012 to make room for … Jeremy Lin.
What can I say? Sometimes it lasts in love, and sometimes it hurts instead.