- Andrew Marchand, ESPNNewYork.com
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"You will be asking someone else, 'How are you going to get back to the playoffs?'" D'Antoni said as he sat next to team president Donnie Walsh after the Knicks' sixth consecutive playoff-less season. "That's probably what will happen."
D'Antoni laughed as he said it, but he knows his Knicks career is now on the clock -- no playoffs next year, no job.
For two years, he and Walsh have planned to be under the cap so on July 1, 2010, they could add two stars, commonly referred to as "LeBron Plus One."
Walsh has fulfilled his half of the deal. The Knicks are under the cap for the first time since the Atlanta Olympics were going on in the summer of 1996. They don't know how far under because the NBA has not figured out what the salary cap will be for next season, but Walsh is optimistic he can add two max players or use the room to make a trade.
The trade route could become more of a possibility because free agents' current teams can offer max players around $30 million more than the Knicks can. The only star player comparable to James to leave in the past 15 years was Shaquille O'Neal, who went from the Magic to the Lakers in 1996.
What Walsh and D'Antoni haven't accomplished is convincing any free agent that there are winning players already in place. The two-pronged plan Walsh sold D'Antoni on two years ago, when the coach chose New York over the Bulls' job, called for Walsh to maneuver the Knicks under the cap and D'Antoni to feature an exciting style of basketball -- and return the Knicks to the playoffs.
Instead, the Knicks have lost 103 games the past two seasons, which is only five fewer than Isiah Thomas lost his final two seasons.
D'Antoni, though, is supposed to be the Knicks' master recruiter. He spent time around all the big-time free agents -- LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- as an assistant on the gold medal-winning Olympic team in 2008. D'Antoni downplayed how this will influence players, instead pointing out that all the zeroes at the end of their contract will have a larger impact.
Still, with James saying winning is most important to him, how will D'Antoni sell him and others on coming to the Garden? What will he be saying on the phone at midnight, July 1?
"This is the best place to play in the world," D'Antoni said. "Other people have said it better than I can say it. You can win a lot of places, but there is no place like New York if you are winning. That's what they kind of have to buy into. A lot of responsibility comes with coming to New York. You have to bring your A-game."
They also need to bring their D game, as defense again was a main reason why D'Antoni's team was awful. Most of the Knicks from the current roster will be gone.
Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas and Eddy Curry are the only players who are under contract for next year. Bill Walker might return. David Lee will be an unrestricted free agent and will likely have to wait to see whom the Knicks can sign before Walsh would offer him a contract.
At midnight on July 1, Walsh will also be on the phone selling free agents on conquering New York.
"They can be the pioneer of good things to come," Walsh said. "I think all players want to create a winning atmosphere. They want to be in a winning atmosphere. The only thing left here to do is to actually win, because everything else is here."
Walsh, 69, is a no-nonsense guy, but he plans to use all of New York's resources to recruit the big-time players. Walsh declined to give details, but it is safe to assume that Knicks fan Spike Lee and other celebrities and models who regularly sit courtside will be part of an elaborate presentation to James, Wade, Bosh and the rest of the Class of 2010.
Walsh said when he arrived at the Garden he knew he wanted to get under the cap as soon as he could. The long-anticipated Knicks countdown has moved from years to months and will soon go from weeks to days. With the moment of truth approaching, Walsh said he feels no pressure to make sure it works.
"[If it doesn't happen,] are you guys going to bring guns?" Walsh asked.
No, but if the plan fails and the Knicks are on the outside of the playoffs next year, D'Antoni knows he will be on the firing line.
Coach knows he's gone if Knicks don't make splash during Summer of LeBron.