In the middle of what looks like a very exciting NBA Finals, another storyline re-emerged over the weekend which didn’t make many waves outside of New York. Donnie Walsh, who took over as team president of the New York Knicks three years ago, has stepped down, citing age and health concerns.
The truth is this: Donnie Walsh, who took the Knicks from punchline to legitimate playoff contender in less than three years, lost his job months ago.
Three years ago, when Walsh took over as president, the Knicks were coming off their eighth straight losing season. Their closing record of 23-59 tied the worst record in team history. To make matters uglier, the team’s coach and general manager (Isaiah Thomas), owner (James Dolan), and parent company (Madison Square Garden Entertainment) were found liable in a sexual harassment lawsuit and ordered to pay 11.6 million dollars in punitive damages.
Put bluntly, the New York Knicks were the laughing stock of the league.
For most of the last decade, the Knicks were defined by losing seasons and comically inept trades and free agent signings arranged by owner James Dolan (who was ranked by both Sports Illustrated and ESPN among the worst owners in American sports) and president/GM/coach Thomas, which left the team with bloated contracts for ineffective players like Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford and Eddy Curry. The position of head coach became a carousel that included a one-year stint by Larry Brown (he was fired with four years remaining on his contract), and the debacle of Thomas’s tenure as head coach (he appointed himself to the position), which featured a brawl against Denver instigated by Thomas, historically poor season records, poor draft picks, and all of it while the team spent more money than any other in the league.
And, of course, the sexual harassment lawsuit.
Into this maelstrom of ineptitude came Donnie Walsh. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the sexual harassment suit is that it forced James Dolan, under pressure from the league, to hire someone not named Isaiah Thomas to run the team. One of Walsh’s first acts as team president was to fire Isaiah Thomas. Thomas was not allowed to have any contact with any Knicks players during his tenure, as many felt that he would attempt to undermine Walsh’s authority, as well as that of new head coach Mike D’Antoni.
Walsh spent the next two years drafting promising talent and trading away the bulky contracts his predecessor incurred. By the time this season rolled around, he had given his coach a solid team to work with. For the bulk of this year, the Knicks looked like not just a playoff team, but a team capable of contending in the league for years to come. The $24 million Walsh had cleared off the payroll allowed the team to sign superstar Amar’e Stoudamire, who stepped into a role as team leader under his old coach, D’Antoni. Raymond Felton, picked up from the Charolotte Bobcats, emerged as a stellar point guard and reliable force at running the offense, averaging 17.1 points and nine assists per game. Shooting guard Landry Fields was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie team. Italian forward Danilo Gallinari (whose drafting was booed by New York fans two years earlier) and Wilson Chandler both averaged better than 15 points per game and gave the team a defensive presence in the paint not seen since the days of Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley. The Knicks were young, talented, and on their way to the playoffs. And after nearly a decade of futility and the humiliating tenure of Isaiah Thomas, Donnie Walsh had returned the team to respectability.
Unfortunately for Walsh, he was never fully in control of the team’s basketball operations. James Dolan never wanted to fire Thomas, and only did so when the league leaned on him after the lawsuit. He continued, according to reporters such as Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, to rely on Thomas for advice. He even attempted to re-hire Thomas as GM while he was serving as head coach at Florida International University. Thomas even accepted a job as consultant, but was forced to give it up as it violated NBA rules.
For whatever reason (and it is hard to speculate with Dolan, who hasn’t spoken to the press in four years), Dolan seems to be constantly under the sway of Thomas. Last summer, when the most anticipated free agent class in NBA history came available, Dolan sent Thomas to try to recruit LeBron James to the Knicks. When that failed, Thomas still attempted to take credit for the hiring of Amar’e Stoudamire. Walsh apparently had a full out argument with Dolan for undermining him, but the truth is that Thomas had never really gone away in the first place.
Then, in February, came the last straw. All season long, the Denver Nuggets had been looking to trade Carmelo Anthony. For weeks, Donnie Walsh sat back, eyeing the field, offering Denver some of what they wanted, but not too much. He was convinced Anthony wanted to come to New York, and that if he couldn’t trade for him by the deadline, he’d be able to sign him when his contract came up at the end of the year. It was a shrewd strategy, one that had a very good chance of working, and one which would have left the Knicks with two superstar scorers without having to deplete their talented young core.
Then Dolan and Thomas swooped in and blew the whole thing up.
On the advice of Thomas, Dolan pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, and Russian center Timofy Mozgov, a first round draft pick, two second round draft picks, and cash to Denver in return for Carmelo Anthony, point guard Chauncey Billups, and a few bench players, including Renaldo Balkman, an Isaiah Thomas draft pick from years before who never performed up to expectations.
In one move, nearly everything Donnie Walsh had worked for was wiped out. The Knicks lost three starters and three future draft picks for one big star, a once great but now aging point guard, and a few reserves. Gallinari (age 22), Chandler (age 23), and Felton (age 26) all have the potential to be solid players in the league for years to come, while Billups (age 35) is nearing retirement, and Anthony, despite his scoring prowess, is regarded as a liability on defense. The Knicks actually had a lower winning percentage with Anthony than they did without him.
Worst of all, the Knicks gave up everything they did for a player they probably could have landed if they’d waited until the season was over.
Donnie Walsh gave the Knicks back their respectability over the past three years. He built a solid team and attempted to separate them from one of the ugliest eras of their history. But he was undermined constantly by his boss, Dolan, and by the man who had nearly dragged the temple down on all their heads.
And despite all of his success, when it came contract time, Dolan proposed that Walsh take a forty percent paycut.
There are slaps in the face and there are slaps in the face. This was a slap done with a steam shovel.
What this means for the Knicks remains to be seen, but there are very dark clouds on the horizon. Donnie Walsh is a good man and deserving of respect for the job he did in New York. If he’s going to get treated like this as a thank you, what can his successor expect? Furthermore, what will happen to Mike D’Antoni, who has done such a good job as coach? And if Carmelo Anthony starts to act out like he did in Denver, what does that do to the team’s chemistry, not to mention the attitude of Stoudamire, who stepped up so admirably as a leader this season?
This should be a very interesting storyline over the coming months, and probably not in a good way. Pity the New York fans. They deserve better than this.
So does Donnie Walsh.