You may have been reading Ball Don’t Lie recently (always a good idea), and come across this post about the Knicks and general manager, Donnie Walsh, in particular. In it, Kelly Dwyer sorts through a bunch of copy and concludes that, among other things, “It’s inconceivable that Walsh hasn’t been picked up for next season,” in reference to the suddenly hot topic of his uncertain contract status. The Knicks are 25-23 as of Thursday, and Dwyer can’t seem to believe why the architect of the team remains in limbo. It caught me a little off guard, the idea that Walsh’s record leaves essentially no doubt as to whether he has been successful in his job. Dwyer is one of the very best writers covering the league, so I had to give this a second thought. Sure, the team has improved drastically over its performance of the last few years, but given how bad they had been, that doesn’t say too much, and I have to wonder, is it really inconceivable to question the merits of Walsh’s tenure?
Before we go on, I should probably note that even if we end up deciding that Walsh has performed at or near an “average” level for an NBA G.M., that should probably be good enough for a contract next season. Unless something goes wrong, the team is going to make the playoffs, and that’s more than enough for most G.M.’s to hang onto their jobs.
It’s also important to remember that every situation is different and every general manager is evaluated in the context of the team. Winning is ultimately the goal and criteria for measurement, but the degree to which each G.M. is held accountable varies. Walsh, for example, took over a franchise in such disarray that he had the freedom to work towards a goal a few years down the line, as opposed to the pressure many (if not most) have to produce wins immediately or soon after. We also don’t know if this current uncertainty is actually an issue for Walsh. Dwyer mentions as one possibility that Walsh may be hesitant to return to work under owner James Dolan past this year, which could make some sense. We know Dolan is one of the worst owners in sports – his, as Dwyer says, “jock-sniffing obsession” getting in the way of doing good business frequently – but Adrian Wojnarowski casts doubt on that in the story, saying Walsh wants to finish the rebuilding process he started. It’s also possible is that Dolan and Walsh will continue their relationship and this will prove to be much ado about nothing.
But what if Walsh is done after this year? How should his performance be judged? It’s probably won’t happen, and even if Dolan decides to cut ties, it’s just as likely to be for a terrible reason like replacing him with Allan Houston as it is to be based on merit. Either way, if we look closely at his three seasons running the team, it’s pretty clearly an uneven performance, one that started in 2008 with the purpose of clearing cap space and, even after a relatively successful 2010 offseason, absolutely remains unfinished. The team is hovering around .500 in the Eastern Conference, with a glaring hole at center and no depth anywhere but small forward. As Dwyer notes in his piece, Walsh’s mission for three years has been clear, yet this team that may be a player or two away from being dangerous in the playoffs finds itself living and dying with the play of Raymond Felton and hoping for Timofey Mosgov to become the starting center:
Walsh won’t win any points for creativity in his time running the Knicks, because he’s basically done what followers of all fields (fans, writers, anyone with a working knowledge of how to run a toaster) have been begging the Knicks to do for years — rebuild with cap space. And though he was never able to unload Eddy Curry’s contract and paid a hefty price to swap out Jared Jeffries’ contract a year ago, Walsh was able to dismantle nearly all of Thomas’ handiwork as a personnel boss, while offering Knicks fans an entertaining and competitive (if not championship-caliber) club along the way.
Well, it definitely is not a championship-caliber club. And he really did pay a hefty price to unload Jeffries when he sent his 2009, #8 overall pick (Jordan Hill) and a future first rounder to Houston at last year’s deadline. You have to wonder if he gave up too much, especially when you figure how much money the Knicks had left over after missing out on LeBron, Wade and Bosh. Even if you aren’t a fan of Hill – and that would speak to Walsh’s draft performance, more on that in a minute – he is an asset that, along with the pick, could come in handy right about now for someone like, say, Carmelo Anthony. The two players he was able to move without giving up anything else (Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford), have gone on to be key contributors to teams with playoff aspirations, so it would stand to reason that most G.M.’s could could have, at the very least, dumped those two for no return if they wanted to. As Dwyer says, he wanted to clear cap space and he (mostly) did that. But he also had the freedom to do so without consequence while his team won 32 and 29 games in the previous two seasons. To say he lacked creativity seems like an understatement considering the price he paid for the pleasure of signing Amar’e to a max contract.
His draft record is really interesting in that it makes up for some questions early with this year’s outstanding pick of Landry Fields. To get a legitimate, efficient starter from the second round may be Walsh’s best move in New York, but his previous two drafts failed to produce the best players available and remain in question today. In 2008, he opted to take Danilo Gallinari (6th overall) over Eric Gordon. It was a controversial move, but as Walsh told Chad Ford after the draft, he felt he drafted a potential superstar:
Walsh said that the future of the Knicks lies with Danilo Gallinari … From Walsh’s perspective having the cap room to lure a free agent wasn’t going to be enough to lure a top talent to New York. Nor was having the most player-friendly coach in the league, Mike D’Antoni.
The best players in the league want to play with other great players, Walsh reasoned. The Knicks need at least one other potential superstar on their roster to help convince a top-tier free agent that New York has a shot at winning in the future.
So given the Knicks’ general lack of talent, who is the other potential superstar that could lure a free agent to New York? Walsh said, matter-of-factly, Gallinari.
Gallo is a gifted offensive player with tremendous feel for the game and should continue to get better with more involvement in the offense, but, as it stands today, Walsh passed on the superior player. That he hoped Gallo would turn out to be a superstar with the power to build around and attract top free agents has proven to be optimistic, to say the last. (Remember, despite his success this season, Staudemire was not the Knicks’ top choice free agent, and he was likely closer to their fourth choice). Gordon is one of the best guards in the NBA, a true standout on both ends of the floor that has risen to an elite level in his third season.
The next year he took Hill 8th overall over Brandon Jennings. Hill is gone, a casualty of Walsh’s salary dumping plan, and Jennings is one of the NBA’s best young guards. It was this decision that drew the most criticism at the time, and continues to puzzle now. Not only did the Knicks pass on an elite point guard prospect at a time when they were giving Chris Duhon starters minutes, but it revealed organizational dysfunction that implicated Dolan and former G.M., Isiah Thomas, but ultimately reflects on Walsh:
Donnie Walsh met with his entire U.S.-based scouting department Wednesday to discuss the future and perhaps one glaring mistake from the not-so-distant past.
“I’m pretty sure the name Brandon Jennings will come up,” said one team official.
The decision to pass on Jennings in June’s draft has backfired for the Knicks, and Walsh has not been shy about assigning blame to members of his scouting department, many of whom are holdovers from the Isiah Thomas administration.
“I couldn’t get a feel for his game,” Walsh said of Jennings last month. “One scout said he thought Brandon Jennings was very good. I said, ‘If he’s that good you should come in my door every five minutes and tell me.’”
Almost every G.M. has a draft pick he would like back, and in general it’s bad practice to re-draft with hindsight. But in these cases, Walsh’s performance faced the same questions then as they do now. The circumstances surrounding the Jennings/Hill situation, in particular, deserve mention, because it’s one thing to take a player you have ranked higher and have him turn out to be worse, but it’s much worse to fail to prepare to take a player who won the McDonald’s All-American game MVP award a year earlier and would have been a perfect fit for D’Antoni in New York.
When Walsh took over in 2008, Chris Sheridan wrote that:
The New York Knicks are all about the summer of 2010, when James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all can become unrestricted free agents. Anything good that happens between now and then is gravy. But priority No. 1 is getting into position to go after those players, and there’s an extremely viable backup plan of going after James in 2011 if he plays out the final season of his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The “backup plan” turned out to be not-that-viable, but the Knicks do find themselves today with a playoff team, an All-Star starter and their beloved cap space. Walsh has provided D’Antoni with a team that depends heavily on the production of Felton and Amar’e because there is no backup point or starting center to speak of. With very little upside on their roster aside from Fields and Gallo, they do not currently have the pieces to make a trade for Anthony. The sign-and-trade he negotiated for David Lee looked promising at the time, but Anthony Randolph has been an enormous dissapointment and you have to wonder if it’s possible he opted for Randolph, Ronny Turiaf and Kelenna Azubuike over Monta Ellis, as was rumored. No one can question the progress the team has made, but it’s equally impossible to ignore the cost at which it came. Two years of dreadful, unwatchable play, an asset from the 2009 draft and another first round pick have essentially netted them Amar’e Stoudemire, Raymond Felton and cap space. It’s a step, especially if the team’s key players can maintain their half-season levels, but when Walsh says he wants to finish the rebuilding job he started, he really has no choice. If he stopped now, the grade would have to be “incomplete.”