NEW YORK -- The pause between the question and Donnie Walsh's answer was so long, you actually began counting. Two seconds, three seconds, four
What, Walsh had been asked, had been his biggest accomplishment of the offseason aside from hiring Mike D'Antoni as head coach?
Had this been a year ago, or even six months ago, when reporters covering the Knicks were making it a habit to count the amount of time that elapsed between their legitimate questions and the inevitable non-answers from Walsh's predecessor, something cryptic would have come out of the mouth of Isiah Thomas, leaving the question unanswered and the questioners scratching and shaking their heads.
Walsh, however, is different, and evasiveness has never been one of his strong suits.
So after pondering that particular question longer than he pondered any other Friday during a 45-minute meeting with reporters and columnists, Walsh spoke the truth:
"Um," he said before his prolonged pause, "I haven't accomplished anything. I had to think about that, but I haven't accomplished anything yet.
"But I haven't said I did either, except to form a plan, I guess, and I'm going by that plan. We're going to see what guys on this team we can keep, and what guys we can't."
Problem is, the Knicks and everyone else around the league have figured out that one of the guys Walsh cannot afford to keep is Zach Randolph, whose cap-killing $48 million contract runs through 2010-11 and will preclude the Knicks, if he cannot be traded, from clearing enough salary-cap space by the summer of 2010 to make a run at LeBron James should he opt out of his contract with Cleveland and become a free agent.
Walsh acknowledged speaking with two teams, the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, about a Randolph trade, but said the talks were more complicated than what was publicly reported, and that in neither case was there ever a deal on the table.
ESPN.com has learned that the Clippers were seeking Randolph, a first-round draft pick and cash, in return offering a pittance -- the opportunity to swap second-round picks, which is exactly what they ended up relinquishing to Denver in exchange for Marcus Camby. When the talks were in their infancy, the Knicks were of the belief that the Clippers could be talked down from their asking price, but the Clippers' deal with the Nuggets for Camby blindsided Walsh and forced him to turn his attention to the Grizzlies, with whom he discussed a swap involving Randolph, Darko Milicic and Marko Jaric.
"I still want to keep us free in the third year [of his tenure], so the people I would bring back are two-year guys, and I'm sure that cut down on the number of people I called," Walsh said.
Walsh disputed the notion that rival executives were treating him differently in terms of the legitimacy of their offers than they would have when he was running the Indiana Pacers, but he did betray some serious frustration with what he has been confronted with in his dealings with other teams.
"Look, if you call up the New York Knicks, and every trade, people call up and they say I want your first-round pick and $3 million and you're getting a lesser player than I'm getting. At some point, somebody's got to say 'I'm not going to do that.' Period."
And that, in large part, is why Walsh and D'Antoni will head off to training camp Tuesday with almost the exact same mix of players who underperformed their way to just 23 victories last season.
Gone are Fred Jones, an unrestricted free agent who was not offered a contract, and Renaldo Balkman, whom Walsh viewed as superfluous in a crowded frontcourt and was dealt to Denver for two players, Bobby Jones and Taurean Green, who were immediately cut.
The only prominent newcomers are rookie Danilo Gallinari, the sixth overall pick who will begin training camp on the sidelines while still recovering from a back injury he sustained on the first day of summer camp (one team insider said that Gallinari's injury is a major concern inside the front office, although Walsh specifically said Friday he had no long-term concerns), and Chris Duhon, who signed as a free agent expecting to supplant Stephon Marbury as the starter, only to learn this week that the buyout of Marbury that everyone expected to happen will in all likelihood not happen.
Walsh said Marbury has appeared to be in fantastic shape during informal workouts with teammates, and he said the mercurial guard -- like everyone else on the roster -- will begin camp with a clean slate no matter how many run-ins with teammates and former coaches he has been involved in.
Both Walsh and D'Antoni said center Eddy Curry did not report to the team in peak physical condition, and D'Antoni cautioned that when he sets his rotation of eight or nine players, the ones who will make it are the ones whose bodies can become accustomed to playing at the frantic pace he prefers. He singled out David Lee, Wilson Chandler and Jared Jeffries as players who have made the strongest positive impression on him during informal workouts, and he provided a little comic relief when someone asked whether Jerome James was one of the players who can perform at the high-octane pace he'll demand.
"Let me drink some water before answering that one," D'Antoni said before joking that maybe there was something stronger than H2O in his water bottle, soaking up the ensuing laughter to get away from directly answering the question.
James represents one of several signings and trades that went bust during the Thomas years, and the roster remains littered with players whose talents and contributions bear no correlation to their salaries on a franchise that once again will lead the NBA in payroll. Malik Rose can be included in that group, along with Jeffries, Quentin Richardson, Randolph, Curry and Marbury, a majority of whom will be gone by the time the real new beginning of this new beginning arrives in the summer of 2010. (Buyouts will apparently not be the way the new Knicks get rid of their problems. Walsh said he could not recall ever giving a buyout and is philosophically opposed to them, preferring to jettison his problems through trades.)
So until 2010, D'Antoni need only keep things interesting as Walsh endeavors to rotate out the old and speed up the influx of new. "I'm going to believe in nine or 10 guys, and they'll love me, and everyone else will hate me," he said.
Well, maybe not everyone. Especially in what will be a honeymoon season between Walsh, D'Antoni and Knicks fans, who are so fed up with a series of management teams that have kept the club from having any meaningful salary-cap space since the summer of 1996 that they're willing to sacrifice two more seasons just to complete the process of tearing down the old and bringing on the prospect of hope.
"He'll make it better than most coaches could right now. And with the right players, this guy will deliver," Walsh said of D'Antoni, who described the Knicks' 2007-08 season as a "death spiral."
But as Walsh learned this summer, the desire to change and the ability to change are two totally different things.
"To be honest with you, I thought maybe things would change, but [in] the NBA it takes two to tango, and a lot of times that doesn't happen," D'Antoni said. "But I do think at the end of the day we have a group of basketball players who can be a lot better than what they've shown. And that's my job -- to make them better than what they were. I don't know exactly who that group is, and over the next 30 days we'll find that out."
Beyond that, and until Walsh can find a way to actually execute his long-term plan of clearing cap space, the best we're going to get out of the new president and coach is what they delivered Friday -- enough positive thoughts to put lipstick on a pig, but also enough of a grip on reality to know that what they have is not what they want. In the meantime, they'll tread water with what they have and hold out hope that at some point down the road, someone will take Randolph (or Curry or Jeffries, three of the four players -- Jamal Crawford is the other -- the Knicks have on their books through 2011) off their hands.
Only then can the real rebuilding commence.
As Walsh put it: "If we can do the right thing managing our cap, a lot of players will want to play in New York."
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.