After Donnie Walsh had been hired as President for the New York Knicks, the headlines in the New York local papers would read: “Walsh a Light in Darkness”… “New Hire Brings Hope to Garden Hell”… and “New GM has Patience and Smarts to Fix Knicks”. In the nearly universal mainstream praise Walsh was correctly and rightfully credited for the outstanding job he did as General Manager of the Pacers in building a title-contending team in the 1990’s and re-tooling that team between 2000-2002 with trades that exchanged veterans for Jermaine O’neal, Ron Artest, and Brad Miller. And by all media accounts he is as likeable and respected executive as there is in the league. How much does the mainstream media love Donnie Walsh? Enough to have collective amnesia. There has been a glaring absence of mainstream sports media criticism toward Walsh’s post-2003 record that has been mostly relegated to the blogosphere:
“The DunMurphy Trade”: In 2006 free-agent Al Harrington did not come free. It cost Indiana their 2007 #1 draft pick which the Atlanta Hawks used on Acie Law (next pick: Thaddeus Young). Months later the Pacers would ship Harrington and Stephen Jackson to the Golden State Warriors for Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy (+ Ike Diogu). While this year’s improved play by Dunleavy has been a pleasant surprise, the “DunMurphy trade” still highlights a year-long stretch from January 2006 to January 2007 where Indiana would turn Artest, S. Jackson, Acie Law or Thaddeus Young, and a 1st round draft pick into DunMurphy, Ike Diogu, and Shawne Williams. The trade would propel Golden State back to respectability and Indiana into mediocrity.sTeams vs. Rosters: In 2008, the Knicks may have the worse “team”, but the Indiana Pacers have the worse “roster”. Bad teams are judged by today’s wins, bad rosters are judged by tomorrow’s potential. The worst type of roster is one that is just bad enough to consistently miss the playoffs, and just good enough not to secure top 5 draft pick for the next few years. The Pacer’s trade assets are limited to an all-star caliber player with a hefty contract and gimpy knee (Jermaine O’neal) and one promising young player (Danny Granger). The rest are solid veterans with long-term bloated contracts who have hit their ceiling (see “DunMurphy” and Jamal Tinsley). Should Oneal’s knee mimic the decline of Allan Houston, the Pacers would have a GM nightmare not seen since the… 2003 Knicks – easily the worst inherited roster this century and perhaps NBA history.Pacers 2003 vs. Pacers 2008: The only thing that the Knicks and Pacer rosters had in common in December 2003 was Harrington. Unfortunately, the Knicks had Othella. While Isiah’s only real trade chip was Kurt Thomas, Indiana’s roster was built for championship contention – which is exactly what they did for one season. With Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, Al Harrington, Jeff Foster, and Jamal Tinsley all age 26 or younger, the future would be bright for many years to come. Apologists will point to “the Palace Brawl” or off-court incidents for the Pacer’s demise, but those facts are not the main reason that the Pacers received 10 cents on the dollar for Artest, Harrington, and Stephen Jackson. It was bad management. The worst executive job during the last four years in the NBA has been by the Indiana Pacers – by far.Knicks 2003 vs. Knicks 2008: Despite the media windstorm and windbags, Walsh just left a hopeless situation for greener pastures. In 2003, Isiah had to bake a cake with no flour, eggs, or sugar. In 2008 Walsh has to merely exchange some ingredients to start winning and start receiving undue praise. Big difference. Isiah’s greatest failures were chemistry (see Zach Randolph trade) and coaching (see this season). Unlike 2003, the Knicks actually have assets. That includes young, solid, but misused role players with tiny contracts (David Lee, Nate Robinson, and Renaldo Balkman); misused talent that could attain higher value with better coaching/utilization (Curry/Crawford); expiring contracts (Stephon Marbury/Malik Rose); and most importantly, the Knicks are looking at a top 5 pick in the 2008 draft. Translation: Walsh and the Knicks have talent, options, and a future.Walsh vs. Bird: Scoop Jackson recently wrote about “Isiah Thomas vs. Larry Bird Double Standard” and how the media should hold Bird should be “in the same boat”. While one could argue that Bird deserves his very own ship for turning “wine into water”, a bigger question remains: as Pacer President and CEO since 2003 just how much did Donnie Walsh help steer that vessel. Walsh recently indicated that he lacked full control in recent years, and reporter Stephen A. Smith also suggested that Bird was the primary decision maker. For his part, Bird recently stated: “Now it’s one voice; it’s mine”. And IndyStar writer Bob Kravitz who recently wrote: “after The Brawl, Walsh stepped back up as a major front-office presence. For the next few years, Walsh was primarily responsible for trades”. Does that include the Artest and “DunMurphy” trades? Perhaps the public will never know.
“The GM’s I talk to regularly around the league …for the last five years have told me that Donnie Walsh is just over-rated in large part because he has such great relationships with the national writers. He’s very good at buddying up to the media. He has had final say on all the moves that have made the Indiana Pacers such a mess over the last five years… At age 67 he is getting 5 million a year to rebuild the New York Knicks. This is just insanity-squared to me.”
Perhaps Bayless wasn’t aware of Donnie Walsh’s most useful qualifications: he is old, white, and well-connected. So long as you have been successful at an earlier point in your career “old, white, and media-friendly” = instant respectability in the eyes of a media contingent that mostly looks like their siblings or children. It helps to explain why the three most common names to surface amongst media recommendations were Walsh, Jerry Colangelo (68), and Jerry West (69), despite Indiana’s recent demise, Colangelo’s GM inactivity, and West’s forgettable stint with the Memphis Grizzlies. Rarely has a media so routinely critical bypassed so many opportunities for legitimate criticism. …And then it started to all make sense:
Donnie might be exactly what the Knicks need. Making the Knicks better is the easy part. Replacing Isiah as coach, playing sensible rotations, adding a top 5 pick, and subtracting Zach Randolph are moves that will instantly lead to 10-15 more wins. Add one solid chemistry-improving trade and the Knicks are back in the playoffs. The hard part is: having the media promote patience that would simply no longer be granted under Isiah Thomas – and many other incoming executives; patience not to make a drastic roster overhaul; patience to let young guys develop as they did last year; patience to let misused players restore their trade value before sending them off for a dime on the dollar; patience to potentially take a free agent crack at Lebron/DWade/CBosh. (Note: 2010 may be the ONLY annual exception to the rule of “The Salary Cap Myth”); and patience to accept the following statements from Walsh at the press conference:
– “It isn’t the players themselves, but the mix of players”– “There are always guys that leave teams that aren’t very good and then go to good teams and boom they look great. And everyone says ‘how could you let that guy go?’”– "I’m not the great new hope"… "I’m just a guy who’s going to come in and try to create a team. And it’s not going to happen overnight, so I don’t want any illusions."