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Donnie Walsh will repay faith of Knicks fans

274 days and counting. That’s how long until July 1 2010, the day when, if team president Donnie Walsh is to be believed, the New York Knicks will be reborn. The day when Lebron James comes to the Big Apple to breathe life into an organisation mired in hubris and humiliation for the last seven years. Assuming, of course, that LBJ not only decides to leave Cleveland but settles on Manhattan as his destination of choice.

The jury’s still out on what happens next July but the moves Walsh has made since taking over at Madison Square Garden now leave the Knicks with more salary cap flexibility than any other NBA team as the league gears up for the 2010 A-list free agent sweepstakes. In a world of knee-jerk reactions and win-now clamour, Walsh’s patience and willingness to play the long game is refreshing. The less he does, the more I trust him.

Cynics may point out that, from the abject state the Knicks were in after five years of Isiah “Doubt Him” Thomas, Walsh had no choice but to take the long view. That’s a fair point but the subtlety of Walsh’s moves and his refusal to be swayed by the fractious New York media give me reason to be optimistic that, come next summer, crowds at MSG will be in thrall to a re-tooled squad boasting two marquee names.
Think about it, Walsh brings in Mike D’Antoni, a coach 75% of NBA players are on record saying they want to play for. Add to that the pull of the world’s most famous arena and the planet’s most intense media market, and you’ve got a legitimate destination attractive to some, if not all, big name free agents.

Then there’s the resolution of the salary cap issues. Thanks to Isiah, the Knicks roster was chock full of has-beens and chemistry killers considered immovable. Oh really? With little or no fuss, Walsh moved on Zach “Black Hole” Randolph, Jamal Crawford and, unbelievably, Jerome “Big Snax” James each time taking back players whose contracts expire at the end of the 2009 season and freeing up more precious 2010 cap space. Walsh knows, like we all know, that Larry Hughes is terrible – but he can live with it because Hughes will be gone by the summer of 2010.

With the blunt realism of a retired New York cop, Walsh has continually admitted that it will take time for the Knicks to improve. Asking fans to accept two seasons of mediocrity before things improve is a real stretch but Walsh seems to have pulled this off to some degree. While I’m far from convinced native New Yorkers are as willing to accept this as I am, I still prefer Walsh’s pragmatic honesty to the smoke and mirrors of his predecessor. Remember when Isiah and Larry Brown referred to Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury as a backcourt pairing akin to Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe in a desperate attempt to paper over the cracks of their ineptitude? Well, I found that far more offensive than being told it would take a year or two for things to get better under Walsh and D’Antoni.

The recent re-signing of David Lee and Nate Robinson offers a window into Walsh’s motivational powers. I’ll admit the league’s current financial climate played a part in helping the Knicks keep their two most popular players but take a closer look at the deals and consider this. Both players were offered terms in excess of their qualifying offers, a show of respect to D-Lee and Nate that might help persuade them re-sign again next summer. Both players were also offered $1m bonuses if the Knicks reach the play-offs. Here Walsh is incentivising his stars to become leaders in the locker room, pushing them to develop closer ties with the team.

I’m not going to pretend that Walsh has been 100% with all the decisions he has made. You could point to the Stephon Marbury buy-out saga last year and point out that Walsh could have diffused the situation by giving Steph all his money and sending him home. Walsh’s initial plan to showcase Marbury in the hope of generating a trade was sound before D’Antoni complicated things by benching the star. Even so, allowing the saga to drag on and on divided fans and humiliated Marbury. Just think how much more Vaseline he could have eaten online if Walsh had bought him out prior to the start of the 2008/09 season.

The challenges for Donnie Walsh will continue into the new season. Somehow he needs to find a way of getting rid of Eddy Curry and Jared ‘Mr Fumbles’ Jeffries to maximise cap space for next season. He must also find a way of getting this Knicks team to 40 wins as it’s hard to envisage the likes of D-Wade, LBJ and Amare lining up for the honour of playing for a bottom-feeding 30-win team.

Walsh must surely be aware that all the work he’s done since arriving at the Garden stands or falls on who he signs next summer. If the pay-off for two seasons of suffering is Lebron, he’ll be a hero. If the big names stay put and the cap room is used to sign ball-hogs or has-beens, he’ll feel the sting from fans and media alike. But, based on what he’s done so far, there’s something about Walsh that makes me think he has the situation under control and that the good times at the Garden are just 274 short days days away.

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