This is part 2 of a three-part breakdown of the Donnie Walsh Era at MSG. Click here for part 1.
19. The Stephon Marbury Buyout (2/24/09)
A painful one. I barely remember that period. I was 24 years old, at the peak of living my best and worst lives at the same time in downtown, pre Barclays Brooklyn. I recall it had been over for a while with Steph, that he took badly to a reduced role and refused to step up when we needed him. But I just want to interrupt this forensic autopsy to say Stephon Marbury is a fucking king. With his incredible talent, in his philanthropy, the Starbury brand, his legendary career at Lincoln High School, you name it. A Brooklyn icon. Forever good in my book.
From Walsh’s perspective, he was a nagging toothache with no remedy. We shopped him everywhere. We would’ve taken some team, any other team, stocking our soda machines for a year or something if they’d take him off our hands, no one bit. The Celtics got him post buyout. I don’t remember how that relationship worked out and I refuse to Google it. Walsh saved us a few millions dollars in the contentious negotiation to cut Steph. I guess that’s something?
18. Earl Barron Signed (4/12/10)
Earl Barron. He was a guy. What a guy. I have two kids. What the fuck am I doing with my time?
17. The Larry Hughes Trade (2/19/09)
This one is notable because we actually managed to move off the Jerome James contract, packaged with other marginal trade detritus. Probably Sam Presti’s favorite move of the Walsh era. As a player, I must say, I have a fondness for Larry based solely on the fact that I’m pretty sure in an early aughts iteration of the EA Sports Live series, between 2002-2005, Hughes had the coveted steal icon by his name, and was an auto turnover when you had him faced up with a ball handler, back when he played with the Wizards.
16. Signing Jared Jeffries (3/1/11)
What will I tell my grandchildren about Jared Jeffries? The average American male is 5’9, so I can confidently say he was tall, no debating that. He grew up in Indiana, where he was Mr. Basketball in 2000, and went to Indiana, also not up for discussion. He was a professional basketball player, who played for the Knicks, and was well compensated for his time spent there, his initial contract, the one big payday in his career, was a stunning 24 mil for five years.
He was a complete nothing in a box score, but made a reputation for himself as an “intangibles” guy. As I mentioned, he was tall, and rangy in a way not many big men were back then. More of a supersized wing who couldn’t shoot. If that screams five years at nearly five mil a year, I guess you’re in good company with infamous former Knicks President Isiah Thomas.
But in bringing Jeffries back, his return to the roster is a credit to Walsh. After unloading the toxic money on Jeffries contract at a hefty price in the Tracy McGrady deal, Walsh saw value in retaining Jeffries on a finally sane and reasonable deal, and did. This feels like a natural spot and price for a largely unskilled intangibles guy in the early 2010s on an NBA roster, potentially useful in spots as a rotation guy on a low salary.
I think a lesser GM would be scared off by the optics, or hold a grudge because of the shit we had to eat to get him off the books in the first place, but that’s Walsh in a nutshell, a dispassionate operator whose sole focus was building the strongest possible roster.
15. The Amar’e Stoudemire Signing (7/5/10)
A high risk/high reward move that ended up amounting to little of either. In Stoudemire, the Knicks got their first legitimate, in his prime superstar since Patrick, depending on how you feel about Stephon Marbury, and for exactly half of a season, we got to see how exciting and glorious that could be. The great Jason Concepcion wrote this beautiful eulogy for that team and that moment, so I won’t bother attempting to build on his words.
But what I will say is the considerable downside to Amare did end up biting us in the ass. His famously uninsurable 100 million dollar five year contract was uninsurable for a reason. For one brief and ecstatic half season, we got to see the ceiling of his potential as he anchored a surprisingly deep and feisty team, reunited with D’Antoni and showing the world what a proper D’Antoni offense could look like with a still sharp Ray Felton at the helm. After 2011, we saw the basement, and why we were able to get him to New York in the first place. The contract became an immovable albatross with Stoudemire’s best days firmly behind him.
I think, looking back, it’s a deal the rudderless Knicks have to make, ten times out of ten. It breathed new life into the franchise, gave us a respectability we hadn’t had in years, and may represent a pretty poor sales pitch to LeBron in retrospect, but at the time was seen as coup, with no one on Earth capable of knowing Amare’s knees would in fact be his undoing sooner rather than later.
You could also argue that watching a suddenly revived and exciting Garden, lead by an MVP contending Amare, ended up being what wooed Carmelo Anthony and made him want to come here in the first place, causing us to blow up the team, and condemning us to another decade of misery. Fucking Knicks man. Both the red pill and the blue pill are cyanide.
14. The Carmelo Anthony Trade (2/22/11)
Probably the most difficult entry on this list to assess. It technically happened with Walsh as president of the team, so he has to wear it, or get the credit depending on your perspective, right? Many readers of this site would rank this transaction as a net positive for the Knicks. I am not among them. But the question is, what did Walsh exactly want out of the deal? Did he want to kill it altogether because the Nuggets wouldn’t budge on Mozgov? Where was his cut off, and where does the Dolan/Thomas nudging begin?
But let’s zoom out, because there’s no point in litigating the fine points of a trade we may never get a fully fleshed out autopsy of. So let’s explore a few other unanswerable questions. The major question, to me, is did the Knicks need to make this trade? If they played hardball with Denver, or simply waited for Melo to hit free agency, and called his bluff that he’d go elsewhere, what happens?
The Nets component of this can’t be underrated in answering this question. They were the main competition for Melo (and Lala, a hilariously huge part in this little drama that is mentioned in every single piece concerning Melo’s trade demand at the time), but they were still very much a distressed asset, and I think it’s unlikely Melo jumps there if it’s even money at the end of the day. Resigning in Denver was probably more likely, but I think there was definitely an ego driven, rich guy dick measuring match happening behind the scenes at MSG. Dolan knew 2010 era Knicks media would absolutely kill the team if the Knicks not only struck out on LeBron, but walked away from the Melo, an in his prime superstar who had voiced a desire to play in Manhattan, over one or two role players. If he had decided to go to the Nets and become the name and face the sudden rival franchise built their brand around, it would’ve been too much to bear.
Another interesting question, in Dolan’s “favor” I suppose, and an idea that refutes some of the Melo hate, mine included, is how much any of this ultimately mattered. Was the toll Melo would take on the team inevitable? We have an interesting real life corollary to now consider, and it resides on the other side of the Manhattan Bridge.
Going into the 2019 offseason, the Nets were the model of a fun, ascendant franchise who had pulled a young, exciting, cohesive roster together under the umbrella of a smart front office and a good head coach. This environment created the perfect landing spot for two in their prime superstars, attracted by the vision and general good vibes, and then they both proceeded to tear the team down to the studs and rebuild it in their own image, which involved a lot of DeAndre Jordan, until it didn’t.
The Melo doubters and Walsh like to dream about what a future with the Knicks core, as constituted in 2010, with Melo and Stat, under Mike D’Antoni, would’ve looked like had we simply been able to add Melo into the fold rather than gut our entire team for him. But something I’ve been forced to consider by the troubles in Brooklyn is maybe that’s a misguided pipe dream. Would Melo have been more willing to play D’Antoni’s style if he had Wilson Chandler on the wing and Ray Felton caretaking the ball to midcourt? Doubtful.
The Knicks unquestionably would’ve had more assets, more room to maneuver and build the kind of team Melo wanted around him, but there were several other opportunities to do that over the years that followed, and all those teams sucked too. The conclusion I’ve come to is it was always going to be this way.
The problem seems to be bending to the demands of a moody superstar who has a specific idea for how he should be utilized, how a team should be constructed, and how basketball should be played. Walsh wisely sussed out that Dolan was going to hitch his wagon to Melo and whatever Melo wanted, which we were only beginning to see the signs of with his trade demand and its lack of care or concern for what he would be doing to the makeup of the team cannibalizing itself to acquire him, and he rolled to the exit.
13. Signing Shawne Williams (9/23/10)
Walsh should be commended for taking a shot on Williams, a tremendous talent who largely squandered that talent with a bevy of personal issues stemming from what sounds like a pretty brutal childhood in Memphis. But Walsh was rewarded for giving Williams a shot over sentimental favorite for 15th man, Patrick Ewing Jr. He had his best season in 2010-2011, shot the lights out, and helped the Knicks reach the playoffs. The only reason he wasn’t brought back is the Nets beat our offer to bring him back the next season, and that was pretty much it for him.
12. David Lee and Nate Robinson sign one-year contracts (9/25/09)
In which Donnie elects for a stay of execution for Lee and Nate, two of Isiah’s few actual accomplishments, rather than letting them walk, because he can’t work a deal at that moment.
To keep the 2010 cap clean, this was a necessary move. But also, it was a decision in the interest of progress. Both Nate and Lee have had productive roles on good basketball teams, but they were complementary pieces who fill stat sheets but made no sense on a roster together. Both were uniquely skilled offensive weapons, and Lee is one of the better/smarter rebounders I’ve ever seen, but both are disastrous defensive sieves, at different positions for different reasons, and while I was sad to see Nate in particular go, I think the decision to eventually move on from them was an embrace of modernity. Which brings us to
11. The David Lee Trade (7/8/10)
A good-for-both-sides deal. With Lee’s contract up, and LeBron having made his decision the same day, we still elected to ship Lee out to Golden State for loose change. With Amare on the team, Lee didn’t really make sense for the Knicks anymore. He went to Golden State, became their first All Star since Latrell Sprewell, and was an important locker room guy in 2015 as they won their first improbable championship, with Draymond Green doing all the heavy front court lifting on defense.