Commentary

At D'Antoni's debut, it's still all about Walsh -- and LeBron in 2010 or '11

Originally Published: May 13, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Donnie Walsh and Mike D'AntoniMike Stobe/Getty ImagesKnicks president Donnie Walsh, right, and new coach Mike D'Antoni have some challenging salary-cap management to do in the coming years if they hope to get in the running for LeBron James.

NEW YORK -- It was Mike D'Antoni's day Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, but it's still all about Donnie Walsh and whether he can gut the New York Knicks by the time LeBron James becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Walsh and D'Antoni spent the bulk of their afternoon discussing the future, and you walked away from nearly two hours of conversation and observation of them with one overriding, singular thought:

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.

Sounds Of New Knicks

Michael Kay of 1050 ESPN Radio in New York talks to Knicks GM Donnie Walsh and new coach Mike D'Antoni. D'Antoni talks about Stephon Marbury, and Walsh discusses how close Mark Jackson was to becoming the coach. Podcast

"I feel New York should be in position every so often to go into the free-agent market," Walsh said. "We have to be an attractive franchise for those kinds of players."

The problem is, the Knicks will be over the cap in the summer of 2010 unless they can find takers and get back shorter contracts for two or three of their more marginal, overpaid players: Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry and Jared Jeffries.

Walsh kept talking Tuesday about not taking on additional salaries, but he was understating what could be a far bigger problem. If James opts out in 2010, Walsh actually has to shed money to get in position to make James a max offer.

Stephon Marbury ($21.1 million) and Malik Rose ($7.6 million) come off the books a year from now, and Jerome James (who will earn $6.2 million and $6.6 million in each of the next two seasons) and Quentin Richardson ($8.1 million and $8.7 million) are off the cap after the 2009-10 season. But already on the books for 2010-11 are Randolph ($17.3 million), Curry ($11.3 million), Jamal Crawford ($10.1 million) and Jeffries ($6.9 million). That's $45.6 million right there just for that season. Then you have to add on the third-year salary for whomever the Knicks select in the lottery this June (whose salary will cost anywhere from $2.8 million to $5.2 million), plus the second-year salary of whomever they pick in the 2009 draft (another $2-5 million). And we haven't even started talking about whatever youngsters David Lee, Nate Robinson and/or Wilson Chandler and Renaldo Balkman will make in the 2010-11 season after their contract extensions and/or options have or will have been negotiated.

So if you estimate another $8 million will go toward the two draft picks, and $14 million to whichever two are the keepers from the Lee-Robinson-Balkman-Chandler foursome, we're already somewhere in the area of $67-68 million for the 2010-11 season. And if we guesstimate that the cap will be $61 million that summer, the Knicks will have to get their payroll down to somewhere in the area of $43 million to be able to make a max contract offer to James.

I spoke to Walsh after the news conference and asked if it was fair to assume that he has to cut the current committed payroll for 2010-11 in half.

"I don't know if I'd have to go that far, but we'll figure it out down to the penny," Walsh said.

D'Antoni wouldn't touch a question about how much James, Wade and the other 2010 free agents had come up in his discussions with Walsh -- "No, you're not going to get me to go there" -- and he discounted the notion that he had formed any sort of special bond with James during their extensive time together the past two summers with Team USA. (They'll be together again this summer in Beijing, when D'Antoni can whisper in James' ear that it might serve everyone best if he waits until 2011 to decide between the Cavs, Knicks and Jay Z's Brooklyn Nets, whose new arena probably won't be built until then anyway.)

"I learned that [James] wants to learn to speak Mandarin and conquer the world of Chinese business. Like with Kobe, I learned how focused he can get, and I learned that he wants to be the best player -- just like Kobe," D'Antoni said.

D'Antoni also said the overriding reason he chose New York over Chicago was that New York was where he and his wife would prefer to live. He also said he did not remember telling Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf "I don't want to coach the Knicks" as Reinsdorf alleges he did, although D'Antoni noted that they talked about a lot of things over the course of their three-hour meeting.

[+] EnlargeLebron James
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesWill we see LeBron James thrilling Madison Square Garden in a Knicks uniform someday?
He said he spoke with his wife Friday night after the Knicks made their four-year, $24 million offer.

"I said, 'I think Chicago wants me, I know New York does, so where do we want to live?' We decided New York," D'Antoni said. "I did feel [Walsh] came to get me, and I liked that. When you're getting divorced by somebody, it feels good to be liked."

With the fan base so beaten down by losing that it's willing to sacrifice two seasons to gain cap flexibility, this is a good situation into which D'Antoni is walking. The success bar has been set so low by Walsh that D'Antoni gets to have two honeymoon years while Walsh tries to shed salary.

If Walsh can do it, then the real new beginning starts in 2010.

If not, Randolph, Curry, Jeffries and Crawford all come off the cap in the summer of 2011. That's when D'Antoni will be going into the fourth and final season of his contract, as will Walsh.

And James, if he decides not to opt out of the final season of his Cavs contract, will be only 26.

So take heart, Knicks fans. There is a plan, and the first pieces are in place.

If D'Antoni can keep things competitive and interesting between now and then, all the better.

But this decade already has been written off, and the hard part for Walsh is that other teams aren't enamored of the Isiah-tainted merchandise he's trying to get rid of. Randolph has a cap-killer contract and doesn't play defense; Curry is heavy, slow, and unmotivated and has a 15 percent trade kicker; and Jeffries -- aside from his long contract -- did nothing but regress in his two years playing under Thomas. (Let's also not forget that the Knicks' 2010 first-round pick is already the property of the Utah Jazz, courtesy of Thomas' trade four years ago for Marbury. The 2008 and 2009 second-round picks are gone, too.)

"What did you guys tell me? It's been 10 years since the Knicks had cap room to spend on free agents?" Walsh asked the Knicks' beat writers.

Actually, it's been 12.

And Walsh didn't know it, but as he was asking that question Tuesday, he was standing in the exact same room where 12 years earlier the Knicks had held another news conference, that one announcing how they had decided to spend their cap room (much to the chagrin of Reggie Miller) on Allan Houston and Chris Childs.

Well, if all goes according to plan, it'll be the same room where LeBron James is standing two or three years from now being introduced as the newest New York Knick.

All D'Antoni has to do between now and then is keep things entertaining, and he's a perfect fit for that job.

But the real question is whether he'll be a perfect fit for LeBron. If he ultimately is, this will go down as a genius hiring.

"I think it'll work," Walsh said. "If it can't, I guess I'll be down in Indiana hanging out with the cows."

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

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