- Ian Begley, ESPN Staff Writer
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In April 2008, the New York Knicks were burdened by a roster dotted with overpaid, underperforming players. They were nearly $20 million over the NBA's salary cap, leaving no room for the team to add any premier free agents.
The Knicks trimmed their roster over the next two years and came into the summer of 2010 $34 million under the salary cap. They earmarked the extra cash in part to go after the biggest fish in the free-agent class of 2010 -- LeBron James.
How did the Knicks go from salary cap hell to cap heaven? Here's a chronological look at some of the key steps.
APRIL 2, 2008: The Knicks announce the hiring of veteran executive Donnie Walsh as president of basketball operations. From there, Walsh took to trimming the fat on the Knicks' roster with an eye on the summer of 2010 when a host of NBA free-agents, including Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Boss, were schedule to become free-agents. Walsh, a Bronx native, traded or parted ways with Jamal Crawford, Zach Randolph and Stephon Marbury, among others, and brought back players with contracts expiring at the end of the 2009-2010 season.
APRIL 18, 2008: In his first move as chief decision-maker in the front office, Walsh does something Knicks fans wish owner James Dolan had done months ago: he fires Isiah Thomas as head coach. Thomas went 56-108 in a forgettable two-year tenure on the Knicks' bench, during which he was embroiled in a sexual harassment suit brought on by former team executive Anucha Browne Sanders. Thomas took over as president of basketball operations for Scott Layden in December 2003 and was responsible for the trade that brought Marbury, a Brooklyn native, back to his hometown team.
MAY 13, 2008: Walsh hires former Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni to lead the Knicks. D'Antoni, the 24th coach in the history of the franchise, brings a reputation as an offensive mastermind to Manhattan. He'd won an average of 58 games in four seasons with the Suns, running a high-octane offense with MVP Steve Nash in the driver's seat. Also, D'Antoni, who signed a four-year, $24 million contract, served as an assistant to Mike Kryzewski on the "Redeem Team" which won gold at the 2008 Summer Olympics. That team featured LeBron James -- the crown jewel of the 2010 free-agent class -- and D'Antoni is said to have established a good rapport with the King during their run to the gold medal in Beijing.
JUNE 26, 2008: The Knicks draft 19-year-old Italian rookie Danilo Gallinari with the seventh pick of the NBA draft. The pick is met with scrutiny by Knicks fans at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden that night, especially because D'Antoni played with Galinari's father in Italy. But Gallinari, a 6-10 sharpshooter, develops into one of the most useful players on the roster.
NOV. 21, 2008: Walsh starts to clean the Knicks' salary cap slate when he swings deals sending Zach Randolph and Mardy Collins to the Clippers for Tim Thomas and Cuttino Mobley and Jamal Crawford to the Warriors for Al Harrington. Both Crawford and Randolph have contracts that run past 2010 and Thomas, Mobley and Harrington would be off the books prior to the 2010 offseason to make room for a run at James.
FEB. 19, 2009: The Bulls deal Larry Hughes to the Knicks for Jerome James, Tim Thomas and Anthony Roberson. Doing the unthinkable, Walsh finds a team to take the overweight James, who is possibly the biggest eyesore of the Isiah Thomas era outside of Marbury. Thomas signed James to a six-year, $30 million deal in the summer of 2005. The trade to Chicago takes his salary off the books, clearing more cap space for a run at LeBron.
FEB. 24, 2009: Stephon Marbury was supposed to bring glitz, glamour and an NBA title back to the Garden. Instead, he brought mostly misery. The Marbury run ended days after the 2009 trade deadline when Marbury's lawyers and the Knicks agreed on terms of a buyout for the Brooklyn-bred point guard. Marbury was exiled by the club for the final three months of his Knicks tenure after he reportedly refused to play in December 2008 when the Knicks were short-handed. Isiah Thomas dealt for Marbury in December, 2003. It was his signature move as GM of the Knicks. With Marbury out, the Knicks cleared themselves of a player LeBron once said he would not want on his team.
FEB. 18, 2010: The Knicks unload Jared Jeffries, under contract through 2011, to free up more money for a run at King James. In a brilliant move, Walsh completes a three-team deal that sends Jared Jeffries (along with Jordan Hill and a first-round draft-pick) packing for Tracy McGrady, whose $23 million contract comes off the books after the 2009-10 season. The move gives the Knicks enough cap space to sign two free agents to a max contract.
APRIL 2, 2010: If LeBron read Ian O'Connor's debut column on ESPNNewYork.com, he would have learned about the benefits of playing in the Big Apple from the city's biggest sports stars and key executives, something that would leave a lasting impression on anyone with a sense of history. O'Connor talked to Willis Reed, Mark Messier, Reggie Jackson, Donnie Walsh, Brian Cashman and Dave Checketts about how James would benefit from playing in New York and concluded that King James should sign with the Knicks."No, Cleveland isn't a bad option at all," O'Connor wrote. "It just happens to be the second-best option on the July 1 board."
MAY 13, 2010: James and the Cavaliers fall to the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals setting in motion the unprecedented period of speculation over King James' future. "It's all about winning for me. The Cavs are committed to doing that, but at the same time, I've given myself options at this point," James said after the game.
JULY 1, 2010: James Dolan, Donnie Walsh, Mike D'Antoni and Allan Houston lead Knicks contingent to the IMG Building in Akron, Ohio, to make their long-awaited pitch to LeBron James. The team reportedly tells James that they have enough cap space to add another player to the roster and also show James a report detailing how he can become a billionaire playing in the Big Apple. "We tried to put him in a New York state of mind," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters after the meeting.
JULY 8, 2010: The Knicks officially announce they've committed nearly $100 million over five years to forward Amare Stoudemire. Later in the day, despite Stoudemire's recruiting pitches, LeBron tells ESPN's Jim Gray that he's joining the Miami Heat,
Back to the ol' drawing board.
Ian Begley is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.
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