Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni Edition
Although the product on the court isn't exactly transcendent, or even mediocre, there have already been signs that both the Knicks new President and Head Coach are as clever as their press releases would have you believe. In fact, I'm willing to concede genius. Real genius.
As the papers filled with stories of Eddy Curry's large spot on the bench and Stephon Marbury's ever-imminent removal from the roster during the preseason there was something amazing happening. Because genius was at work. Lazlo-level genius.
I didn't understand what was happening at first. Because I am no genius. In fact, I was so far off the scent just a few weeks ago that I thought the opposite of genius was at work at MSG. I thought both Walsh and D'Antoni were experiencing a bit gun-shyness due to the enormity of the problem that they inherited from Isiah Thomas. I was puzzled when the Knicks didn't pull the trigger when they could have traded the Zach Randolph to the Los Angeles Clippers in July. The Clips were dealing from a position of weakness after Elton Brand's shock defection to the 76ers and the Knicks would have been able to shed Randolph without having to take back substantial contracts in return. I was bewildered, bordering on bepissed when Walsh rebuffed the offer. A few weeks later the Knicks again didn't trade Randolph when the chance arose. This time the potential suitor was the Memphis Grizzlies and the haul included a bunch of spare parts featuring Dark Milic.
At this point, I was not bewildered or befuddled. I was beside myself. What were they waiting for? Why weren't they taking what they could get for the man who I spent most last season referring to as the Zach-hole? Why weren't they packing the bags of the player this side of Steve Francis who most exemplified Isiah Thomas's facile understanding of team building? Everyone knew that dumping his contract (he's due $14.7 million this season, $16 million next and $17.3 million in 2010/11) was the keystone to constructing a bid for Lebron James when he enters free agency after next season. Everyone knew that it would be near impossible for the Knicks to clear the necessary salary cap space without moving Z-Bo. In the New York Post, Marc Berman equivocally said the only way [signing Lebron] would be possible is if they can deal Zach Randolph for shorter-term contracts.
What were they waiting for? I thought, as Berman did, that the team needed to get rid of him in order to turn this thing around. And that was the problem. If I knew it then so did every General Manager in the NBA. And, therefore it was impossible that Walsh would get fair value for a guy who, in spite of his many foibles, is one of the few players in the Association capable of putting up 20/10 each and every night. A good GM doesn't just get cap space (which is what the Clippers deal offered) or spare parts (the Grizzlies deal) for a player with that statistical potential. A good GM finds a contending team needing a scorer to put them over the top and cherry picks the most promising youngsters of the roster. A good GM doesn't trade a player when his perceived value is at his lowest. And, Zach Randolph's perceived value could hardly have been any lower than it was during the second half of last season and the first half of the offseason.
What did Walsh do? He got together with his head coach and in a matter of weeks the two of them turned Randolph from headache to honor roll, albeit in a severely remedial class. D'Antoni has benched Marbury, railed against Curry and stood by as the seemingly unquashable confidence of Jamal Craword was thoroughly quashed. And now, we're a week away from the season opener and Randolph is no longer the Knicks main problem. Quite the opposite. It could even be argued that he is the team's most dependable player. He will score and he will rebound for a team with very few stats you can project in pen. Moreover, with Curry seemingly out of the rotation to start the season Randolph will have free reign in the post when the Knicks settle into a halfcourt set on offense. He won't be pushed out to the perimeter by a teammate, where he was at his ball-stopping worst last year. Rather, Randolph will be the focal point of the offense and likely be able to work against centers who are not quick enough (and, yes, it does feel so very wrong to talk about someone not being quick enough to handle the flightless Z-Bo) to stay with him.
Now, has Randolph fundamentally changed at all? No. Is moving him any less important to the team's goal of landing Lebron James? Nope. But does it seem like those things are true? Maybe. Does it seem like Marbury and Curry are more pressing problems right now? It sure does. Especially if you read the papers. That is the beauty of this "plan" that I have given Walsh and D'Antoni credit for. And quite possibly conjured from thin air. I think they think that Randolph still needs to go. I think that they just don't want everyone else to think that they think that. You follow? So rather than driving a FOR SALE sign into the front lawn for the neighbors to see they have gotten to work repainting the house's siding and fixing the broken shutters. They stopped saying that they were going to sell their home. They turned down a few lowball offers and told the neighbors how great the house was and how many points it was going to score. And in a few months when a neighbor's roof starts to leak he may stop by and ask if you ever thought of selling that great, point-scoring house of yours.
Before we know it Randolph will be averaging more than 18 points and 10 rebounds per game. After a few weeks of getting the ball in whatever semblance of D'Antoni's "seven seconds or less" offense the Knicks manage to scrap together, Randolph will again be considered the go-to offensive force that he was considered when Isiah Thomas traded for him. Or, at least, the numbers will be about the same. And then everyone won't think that Walsh needs to trade Randolph. After all, he'll be the team's leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. He'll have those magical 20/10 numbers that make GMs salivate. Back when Randolph was acquired by the Knicks the move made no sense as far as team-building strategery was concerned, but his numbers were so impressive that Knicks fans uncomfortably got behind the deal. Those numbers make lesser men (read: Isiah Thomas) do things that don't always make sense. Donnie Walsh understands this.
Walsh was named Knicks President the day after April Fool's Day and in less than seven months he is well on his way, with a great deal of help from Mike D'Antoni, to fooling just such a lesser man around the league. Because he is smarter than they are. While we've been debating Duhon vs. Marbury and pondering the potential of Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari these two have been slowly and surely rehabilitating Zach Randolph's image.
In about a month and a half Walsh will have everyone right were he wants them. And, then Randolph will be shipped to the Cavs to provide the scoring that Ben Wallace can't or he'll head to Detroit to provide some off-the-bench offense for a team that has everything but that. And, in return Walsh and D'Antoni will get back far more than the Clippers or Grizzlies were willing to offer when they thought they had the Knicks over a barrel. Just watch.
Well played, sirs.
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