The grandest hubbub surrounding the New York Knicks for the past week, if you can believe it, hasn't been Carmelo Anthony trade rumors or that $200,000 slap on the wrist handed down by the league. It hasn't even been a couple of tough losses that have the Knicks hangin' around .500. It's been the fate of Knicks president Donnie Walsh, whose team option for the 2011-12 season still hasn't been picked up by franchise owner James Dolan.
Howard Beck of the New York Times caused alarms to go off all over the city with a fascinating Jan. 31 story digging into Walsh's future. Dolan has until April 30 to pick up Walsh's contract option for 2011-12; if he doesn't, the Knicks will move forward looking for a new decision-maker. Dolan doesn't talk to reporters, and his PR team won't comment. There remains the specter of Isiah Thomas hanging out on the periphery, as no one forgets that just months ago Dolan wanted to add the disgraced former GM to the payroll as an adviser.
The reaction to Beck's story has been swift and nearly unanimous. CBSSports.com's Ken Berger's sentiment is common.
If April 30 rolls around without Walsh's option for the 2012-13 season being picked up, and without any indications he will receive an extension that will remove all these doubts, it will be among the most shameful days in the history of this franchise. And that would be saying something, given the cesspool of sleaze and mismanagement that came before.
That's indeed saying something, given the amazingly disgusting stories that came out of the Anucha Browne Sanders trial, and the fact that the Knicks settled harassment charges to the tune of $11 million. Unfortunately, to call a dismissal of Walsh as shameful as rampant and institutional sexual harassment, hostility and discrimination is a bit too much.
But it speaks to the wide and heavy reverence toward Walsh that Knicks observers have. Given the years that preceded this moderately successful campaign, the reverence is understandable. But when you look at the situation from a wider angle, it's hard to understand why Walsh's future is such an enormous flashpoint.
I mean, has he even done that good of a job?
In comparison to Isiah? Of course. Isiah was the worst NBA decision-maker since Ted Stepien. Isiah's tenure was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was truly, truly awful. But it turns out that's a good thing for Walsh, because he's graded against that. Walsh had to clean up Zeke's mess, yes, and that was no easy task. But the standard of success is so amazingly low because of Isiah's failures. You know how some professors grade on a curve? That's what's happened with Walsh. Scott Layden was so bad, Isiah was so bad ... even "average" -- which is what the Knicks are in the strictest definition of the word -- is a raging success.
The fallacy in statements like the one by Berger above -- that it'd be shameful to let Walsh go -- is in mistaking the past for the present and future. Walsh is better than Isiah, yes. But my dog Stella would have done better than Isiah. (Bonus: she would have done a cuter job too!) You can't grade Walsh against Isiah when you're making decisions for the future, because the Knicks aren't going to turn into Isiah's Knicks if Walsh leaves. If Dolan dismisses Walsh, that will not automatically launch the team backwards in time, to the halcyon days of Stephon Marbury, Zach Randolph and Jerome James.
Walsh has this team on the upswing. His rebuild is on schedule. Some have argued that you have to let Walsh complete his rebuild before going a different direction; I'd note that Walsh signed a contract with a team option for 2011-12. He knew what the schedule was, and the schedule has a check-in right about now, where Dolan can decide his expectations have not been met.
This is a team hovering around .500 (currently 26-24), a team whose saving grace in the 'Melo sweepstakes is location only. The Knicks might not rank among the top 10 teams in terms of a potential trade package to offer for Anthony. But the fact that 'Melo apparently won't sign an extension anywhere but New York has us seriously considering whether Wilson Chandler, Anthony Randolph and Eddy Curry will be enough to get the star. Seriously. Wilson Chandler, Anthony Randolph and Eddy Curry. The Nets couldn't pry 'Melo from Denver for Derrick Favors and 47 draft picks because Anthony didn't want to rent in Newark for 18 months. Walsh, essentially, had lucked into prime geography. If the Knicks do get 'Melo for that package, leading the team to a full revival and honest-to-Mozgov contention, we'll know the Heavens do shine on Walsh, and he should be made premier for life.
But until then, the option is not one between Walsh and the old days. It's between Walsh and any potential replacement -- like Mark Warkentien, the team's newly hired director of player personnel. Or any number of young risers like Kevin Pritchard, David Griffin or Tom Penn. Would any of those guys do a better job than Walsh? Walsh, after all, did strike out on the very best 2010 free agents. It was reported that his presentation to LeBron James was the worst the King saw. The Knicks quickly grabbed Stoudemire, offering more guaranteed money than it seems anyone else would have, with the hopes of leveraging Amar'e to summon another free agent. Instead of another top-tier FA, Walsh grabbed Raymond Felton, a nice point guard with very obvious limits.
Meanwhile, Warkentien has a (recent) Executive of the Year award under his belt. Pritchard was revered in Portland. Griffin and Penn are thought of very highly. There are plenty more names like those -- Sam Hinkie, Dennis Lindsey, Tony Ronzone. This isn't to say that any of them would have delivered LeBron or Dwyane Wade. This isn't to say that any of them could do better than Walsh has done to clear the books and set New York up. But that's who you consider Walsh against when you call a potential dismissal shameful. You don't compare Walsh to the past.
Unless, of course, Dolan would seriously consider bringing Isiah back, which is an idea one can never reject outright. That would be truly shameful, a paean to dysfunction and embarrassment. That's something that absolutely should not happen, now or ever. Given Dolan's track record, we cannot count out the possibility. But imagine we could. Imagine Dolan put out a statement saying that, at the behest of MSG shareholders, Isiah will never be hired by the Knicks again. Would Walsh still deserve this incredible reverence? Would it still be shameful to see him go?
If so, there are about a dozen more ousted GMs the media takes up the mantle for. This is a dog-eat-dog league, y'all, and "better than the last guy" does not and should not cut the cheesecake. Nothing Walsh has done -- not signing Amar'e, not signing Felton, not clearing cap space at the expense of picks and prospects -- deserves a free ride. The Knicks, after all, are just not that good.