Commentary

What's New York's backup plan?

Knicks president Donnie Walsh has numerous free-agent scenarios written in his head

Originally Published: April 2, 2010
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Mike D'Antoni Donnie Walsh Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesMike D'Antoni, left, and Donnie Walsh have been waiting for this summer to arrive for a loooong time.

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Everyone knows what Plan A is, so we won't even bother cluttering this first paragraph with the name of a certain physical freak from Cleveland who has been flirting with New Yorkers for two years.

It's when you look beyond that plan -- and whether it succeeds or fails -- that you run into the brick wall of mystery when quizzing Knicks president Donnie Walsh about the myriad possibilities.

There are so many of them, plus so many other variables still to be determined between now and July 1, that there really isn't yet a Plan B, a Plan C or a Plan D firmly in place.

What's important, Walsh insistently says, is that the options are going to be so plentiful that there could be a dozen or more scenarios that might eventually make sense -- and not all of them involve spending all of the $33 million to $34 million in salary cap space the Knicks expect to have when the free-agent market opens for business July 1.

"That's the beauty of having the ability to have two," Walsh said with a hearty laugh, referring to the option of being able, with a little more maneuvering, to sign two maximum salary free agents in what will be the most star-studded free-agent class in NBA history. "I can't answer every question as to what if this guy does this, and another guy does that. But basically we're in a position where we can go out and make offers, and we will with whoever's out there."

NBA tampering rules prohibit Walsh (and officials from other franchises) from publicly discussing players currently under contract to other teams, but Walsh was willing to speak in general terms as he sat with ESPN.com for nearly an hour on Tuesday discussing the two years that have passed, the five years that lay ahead and the anxiety and excitement that come along with looking three months down the road to when the Knicks will have the ability to be free spenders on the free-agent market for the first time since 1996.

One of the biggest questions is this: What is Plan B if that certain Clevelander decides to stay home or sign with another team with max space, be it the Heat, the Nets or even the Clippers?

"I'm not telling any plans. I'm not doing that," Walsh said. "But look, there's going to be Plan A, B, C, D, E, F and so on. It's going to be like that.

"I'm not going to write 'em out, no, but they're written out in my head," Walsh said.

There is a school of thought that maintains the Knicks, if LeBron James turns them down, have little chance of landing Dwyane Wade, but they might try to get Atlanta's Joe Johnson and Toronto's Chris Bosh, using David Lee and/or Al Harrington in a sign-and-trade deal if an opportunity presented itself to get two players of that caliber.

But the possibility of going after Amare Stoudemire should not be discounted, especially given his history of playing in coach Mike D'Antoni's system, nor should the chances of retaining Lee be dismissed, since Lee might be available at a price tag that would allow the Knicks to sign him, a max player and a third player (or a third and a fourth player) with the $6 or so million that could be left over after committing to a max player and Lee.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron could be King of New York.

Then there are the other major unknowns, a list that begins with Kobe Bryant (who has an early termination option) and grows longer and longer as apprehension builds among players and agents over the possibility of a lockout in 2011, forcing several marquee players to consider whether it is in their best long-term financial interest to exercise their opt-outs and hit the market this summer.

Players in that group include Paul Pierce, Yao Ming and Dirk Nowitzki, and then there is the so-called second tier of unrestricted free agents, a list that includes Carlos Boozer, Manu Ginobili, Tayshaun Prince and others.

"I think that one thing I've been able to do is explain exactly what I'm doing. And it isn't for one player or a specific group of players or anything; it is because the one thing that has affected the Knicks' ability to improve their team from year to year has been being so far over the cap, they're in an inflexible position. And I wanted to get us in a more flexible position. So it isn't just for this summer, it could be for the next five years," Walsh said.

"It's about being flexible. You know that if you go out and you take all the room and do all long-term contracts, you are going to affect 2011. If you see you're not going to be able to do that, you're going to be conscious of 2011 and 2012. That's what I've been saying all along: When you make a decision to bring players in, what does it do to your cap? And where are you left after you do that? What position have you left yourself in?

"If you've taken all your flexibility for the next 3-4 years, you got to be damn sure that the guys you're bringing in can do the job," Walsh said.

The opportunity to get James and one other of the top four or five unrestricted free agents would seem to fit that bill, but if Bosh would prefer to push for a sign-and-trade to the Bulls or Lakers, or if Boozer or Stoudemire has his heart set on Miami, or if Joe Johnson is deemed too similar of a player to be paired with James (if James comes to New York), the next-best option may be to use the remaining max space on a group of players, rather than a single player, to supplement the mere four players New York has under contract for next season (Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas and Eddy Curry).

Not everyone in that second- and third-tier of free agents is going to get the five-year deals most of them will be seeking, and if there is a money-grab scramble among the remaining free agents after the top tier has made their decisions, Walsh can choose to be picky and perhaps even frugal.

Or he can hang on to some of that cap space, either to use in a trade in which the salaries would not have to match, or to combine with the $11.3 million that will come off the Knicks' cap in 2011 when Curry comes off the books and Carmelo Anthony heads a less stellar free-agent class.

It's as much about max flexibility as it is about max contracts, which is why Walsh pulled the trigger on the lopsided deal that sent Jared Jeffries, 2009 lottery pick Jordan Hill, a 2012 No. 1 pick and the right to swap 2011 first-round picks to the Houston Rockets for the expiring contract of Tracy McGrady.

"It was the last day of the trading deadline, and I had to weigh the ability to have another $10 million worth of room, which could be substantial in the summer and also for the future if you regulate it the right way, versus what I gave up," Walsh said. "I didn't want to give up Jordan Hill, and I certainly didn't want to give up a draft choice. So when I went back and forth with myself, I thought the ability to regulate this cap is more important than anything else, and so that's what I did, and I vowed to myself to try to make up for what I lost. We'll see how that goes."

Walsh said he is not feeling the same level of anxiety he felt back in 1996 when he was running the Indiana Pacers and stood to lose his franchise player, Reggie Miller, on the free-agent market.

I think that the fact that New York is the best city in the world, the fact that the Garden is one of the greatest places to play in the world, the fact that we have a really passionate city for basketball, and just the fact that playing in New York is going to be a different experience for anybody who comes here, I think we're in a good position.

-- Knicks president Donnie Walsh

Back then, Knicks fans were clamoring for the team to sign Miller and Tim Hardaway, but then-GM Ernie Grunfeld opted to sign Allan Houston and Chris Childs, and to trade for Larry Johnson.

Knicks fans didn't get their wish that time, and there's no telling what they'll get this time with so many variables (foremost among them being whether the Cleveland Cavaliers fail again to win a championship) still unknown.

But when it comes time to go shopping, Walsh will have the biggest wallet and a persuasive pitch.

"The one thing I've seen here, and I think this is an accurate statement: I don't know why everyone doesn't want to play here," Walsh said. "I mean the passion of the fans in New York is off the charts. They've supported us the past two years incredibly, the Garden's always packed, people are always up and supporting us unless we play really bad, and then they boo. And most of the time they boo, I'd boo, too.

"But I think that the fact that New York is the best city in the world, the fact that the Garden is one of the greatest places to play in the world, the fact that we have a really passionate city for basketball, and just the fact that playing in New York is going to be a different experience for anybody who comes here, I think we're in a good position. That's what we're really selling."


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