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Upon introduction, Walsh doesn't come out firing

4/18/2008 - NBA New York Knicks

NEW YORK -- Donnie Walsh could have chosen the obvious route and made his opening act the firing of Isiah Thomas, which would have been quite the out-of-character sledgehammer act for a guy trying to convince everyone on his first day as president of the battered and beleaguered New York Knicks that he'll be the even-tempered voice of long-term reason.

Logic dictates that firing Isiah should be the first order of business toward securing the long-term rehabilitation of the league's most woeful franchise, but firing Isiah on day one -- if you listened carefully to everything Walsh was trying to get across during his introduction Wednesday -- would come off as a grandstanding act devoid of the requisite class with which Walsh has always done his business.

Make no mistake, the ax is 99.999 percent certain to fall on Thomas, and to fall soon.

But to do it on this day, or in a publicly humiliating way, wouldn't fit with the way Walsh operates.

"I hope you accept that I'm trying to deal with this in [a way] I would deal with it anywhere else, in the right manner," Walsh practically pleaded with writers who cover the team on a regular basis. He later added: "I'm trying to say and do the right things, and I have no idea whether you guys are getting it or not."

Walsh said he would meet with Thomas in person after the team returns from a five-game road trip that concludes Friday night at New Orleans, adding that he had spoken with Thomas twice -- once initially, and again late Tuesday night after his contract was completed -- since he was first contacted by owner Jim Dolan more than two weeks ago.

Walsh, who said Dolan had "more or less" placed Thomas' fate in his hands, is fully aware that it makes no sense to proceed forward with Thomas remaining as one of the main faces of the franchise, and he has already gained a sense of how strongly the public sentiment has turned against Thomas -- and Dolan -- over the course of this season.

"There's a crescendo right now," Walsh noted.

The Knicks need a clean slate and Walsh knows it, which is why Thomas' days have to be numbered -- in the teens, at most. Having been relieved of his presidency, a buyout of the remainder of Thomas' coaching contract would seem to be the most judicious way for the Knicks and Thomas to part ways, so it becomes a matter of whether Walsh believes working out a mutually agreeable divorce makes more sense than keeping Thomas on in some form as a consultant. Walsh genuinely likes Thomas, but he signed off on Thomas' firing in 2003 when the Pacers franchise was ready to bring back Larry Bird, and he's smart enough to realize it's in everyone's best interest for the Knicks to close the book on the Thomas era.

One thing that stuck in your head after hearing Walsh speak for almost an hour (owner James Dolan, by the way, made a brief opening statement but did not take questions) was how many times he reiterated that there will be no quick fixes in his remaking of the Knicks. It was extraordinary, actually, how low Walsh set his expectations, saying his primary focus will be to engineer salary cap flexibility for the summer of 2010, an achievement he said would be "monstrous" if he can simultaneously get the team back to being competitive along that two-year journey.

But in order for the Knicks to be a player in the Summer of LeBron, when James and Dwyane Wade will be unrestricted free agents, Walsh will need to move at least one of the four players (Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry, Jamal Crawford, Jared Jeffries) whose contracts already account for $45.5 million of the Knicks' cap commitment for the 2010-11 season. (Add on what the Knicks will be paying David Lee, Renaldo Balkman and their first-round picks from 2008 and 2009, and you begin to get an understanding of how hopeless the Knicks' long-term cap picture appears. Oh, and they also owe Utah a No. 1 pick that becomes unprotected in 2011, a pick Thomas surrendered in the deal that brought Stephon Marbury to New York.)

"I'm not the great new hope, all right?" Walsh said in one of his more candid comments. "I'm just a guy that's got to come in and try to create a team, and it's not going to happen overnight, OK? So I don't want any illusions. But I think it has to get better right away. I think the people in this city are paying money to go to games, and they have to see a competitive team. And I think they have to see a team that makes sense, that they can say: 'OK. This can get better.'"

The first way it gets better is by having a new guy in charge, and now that Walsh is aboard, there is a glimmer of hope for the Knicks' disgruntled and disinterested fan base.

The second way to get better is to get rid of the lightning-rod link to the recent past, which is why Isiah has to go.

The third way is to trade Curry and/or Randolph for expiring contracts, and that won't be easy.

But the goal here is not to get great immediately, but to be in position to get a lot better two or three years from now. Walsh can get away with setting the success bar that low because of the mistakes of the men who preceded him in his new job, but his honeymoon will end before it begins if he can't find a way, diplomatically or not -- depending on the Dolan factor -- to end the Isiah Thomas era.

Walsh will get it done, but he made it clear enough Wednesday that he'll do it on his timetable and in a manner that allows Thomas to exit with some semblance of his dignity intact.

That's the classy way to do it, and Walsh has always been a class act.

That's why he wouldn't come right out and say what everyone knew to be the truth -- that the Isiah Thomas Era (or the Isiah Thomas Error, if you will) is in its dying days.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.