2009 Report Card: Donnie Walsh

It was with fanfare befitting a peaceful transfer of power from despotism to enlightenment that Donnie Walsh inherited Isiah Thomas’ job as New York Knicks president of basketball operations in the spring of 2008.  But as with so many European monarchs, African generals, and Spinal Tap drummers before him, the excitement surrounding Walsh’s arrival soon gave way, at least in part, to the grim realization that the pitfalls of previous years had not all departed with his predecessor.  An impossible cap situation, a meddling owner, and a frequently unmotivated core of players were all holdovers from the Isiah era which Walsh has been forced to address, with varying degrees of success.

Walsh’s first Knicks team finished with a record of 32-50, worse than three of the five Knicks squads that Isiah oversaw.  But Walsh’s job was never about 2009 and, unlike Isiah, he immediately proved willing to accept that short term failure was a necessary and acceptable side effect of true progress.  To this end, it is undeniable that the poker-faced Bronx native has moved a dysfunctional franchise in the right direction, but his advances have not come without missteps.  That these mistakes have come with little popular backlash is cause for gratitude to Isiah – critics of Walsh would be far more vocal had his hiring not come on the heels of such unmitigated failure.

If Walsh’s patience and indecipherability are his greatest qualities in negotiation, they may also be his best assets in avoiding the kind of criticism that is typicaly heaped upon New York pro sports executives by media and fans.  His stern demeanor and unshakable calm suggest to observers, even at moments of seeming misjudgment, that he knows more about the situation than they do and so deserves their trust.  A move-by-move analysis of Walsh’s Knicks tenure reveals a well-reasoned overall plan that has been tarnished by some truly baffling decisions.  With the belief that the moves a general manager doesn’t make are as important as the moves he does make, I offer this chronological assessment of Walsh’s first season-plus on the job:

May 10, 2008: In his first, and thus far best, major move as Knicks president, Walsh signed Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni to a 4-year, $24 million contract.  D’Antoni’s hiring has resonated with fans (seen in the sense of pride that came with a prized coaching commodity choosing the Knicks over a handful of other suitors, as well as the entertaining brand of basketball to which they are treated each night), Knicks players (seen in the career years put up by David Lee, Al Harrington, Nate Robinson, Wilson Chandler, and, for the first 50 games, Chris Duhon), and players around the league (D’Antoni’s relationship with soon-to-be-max-contract-signers LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Kobe Bryant may prove to be his most important asset as the Knicks’ coach).

Grade: A, and if LeBron’s affection for D’Antoni leads him to New York, it becomes an A-plus.

Draft Night, 2008: With the sixth pick, Walsh chose Danilo Gallinari, whose struggles with back trouble and flashes of promise have both been well-chronicled on this and other sites.  While the jury remains out on Gallo, we have a better idea about some of the guys Walsh could have taken.  Of the lottery picks remaining on the board at #6, Eric Gordon (chosen 7th, 14.98 rookie PER), Brook Lopez (chosen 10th, 17.94 rookie PER), and Anthony Randolph (chosen 14th, 16.94 rookie PER and an absolute monster of a summer league) have looked the most promising thus far.

However, simply lining Gallo up against these three doesn’t quite create a proper lens for evaluating Walsh’s choice.  Looking back through Chad Ford’s archives reminds us that Gordon and Joe Alexander (chosen  8th, 10.19 rookie PER) were the two most likely Knicks picks had they passed on Gallinari, and the early returns suggest that Walsh may have dodged a bullet by passing on Alexander’s unique, but extremely raw, skill set.

Grade: C-plus.  We all love Gallo and it’s tempting to give Walsh an incomplete here.  It’s also probably unfair to criticize Walsh for passing on Lopez and Randolph, as the former was universally regarded as low on upside and the latter as a potential bust.  Still, it’s impossible to ignore how well Gordon, Randolph, and Lopez would all fit into D’Antoni’s system, and one would be hard pressed to find a non-Knicks fan who would put an unproven 21-year-old who already has back problems on the same level as any of these three.  I think there are decent odds Gallinari will prove this grade wrong but at the moment this looks like an OK, but not great, pick.

July 4, 2008: Walsh signed former Bulls PG Chris Duhon to a 2 year contract at the full mid-level ($12 million).  The price tag here looks high now, given the lower salaries being handed out this offseason and the incredibly frustrating second half to Duhon’s 2008-09 season.  Still, the Knicks have never minded paying out  luxury tax dollars and Walsh brought in a point guard who generally stays out of his own way and makes his teammates better on the offensive end.  If Duhon’s ability to create easy baskets can turn Curry into a tradable commodity this season (it’s a long shot, but hey, a guy can hope), it becomes a great signing.  Until then, Duhon is a player who doesn’t set his team back on the court, creates reps for a young core in need of development, and doesn’t set the franchise back in its hunt for prime talent in 2010.  Pretty good move for the mid-level in a lackluster free agent summer.

Grade: B.

November 21, 2008: Walsh put on his Kevin Pritchard hat for a day and swung two trades that cleared up $27 million in 2010 cap room.  In sending Zach Randolph to the Clippers and Jamal Crawford to the Warriors in exchange for a useful forward in Al Harrington, a useless forward in Tim Thomas, and a soon-to-retire combo guard in Cuttino Mobley, Walsh dismantled the slim playoff hopes of what was then an above-.500 team.  More importantly, however, he overhauled the team’s long term cap position, picked up a trade chip in Mobley’s tax-free contract, and rid the team of two shoot-first players who were almost certainly stunting the development of their younger, more promising counterparts.   A complete no-brainer.

Grade: A-minus.  It’s a move any good GM would have made if it was available but, what can I say, it’s a good career move to succeed Isiah.

February 19, 2009: An unstoppable force (the Bulls’ desire to trade Larry Hughes) met an immovable object (Jerome James’ contract) and the unstoppable force won as the Knicks flipped James and Tim Thomas for Hughes.  Largely seen as a garbage for garbage deal, the move was supposed to make the Knicks slightly better in the short run without helping or hurting their long-term cap situation and, mainly, sparing their fans the nightly sight of James smiling and joking around on the end of the bench during 20-point losses.  A mostly useless move in the long run and maybe a net negative, as Hughes took some minute that would likely have gone to Nate and Chandler otherwise.  Hughes also brought back some of the poor shot selection and general grumpiness that had mostly departed with Crawford and Stephon Marbury, respectively.  In the end, the trade’s impact, positive or negative, was minimal and we stopped having to listen to Jerome James jokes.

Grade: C (in a one-credit class with little effect on overall GPA).

Trade Deadline, 2009: The Knicks engaged in a well-chronicled negotiation with the Sacramento Kings, who asked for Nate Robinson and Jared Jeffries in exchange for Kenny Thomas’ soon-to-expire contract.  With the Knicks still loosely in playoff contention, Walsh turned down the offer and chose not to rid himself of the nearly $7 million committed to Jeffries in 2010.  A puzzling, disturbingly Isiah-esque move whose questionability has been compounded by the complete disinterest that Walsh has displayed in re-signing Nate this offseason.  If Robinson is truly so expendable, and it’s likely he is, then why endanger the future for only a few months of his services?  This inaction made little sense at the time and makes even less sense now.

Grade: D-minus.

2009 Draft, Lead-up: Another instance in which Walsh seemed to contradict his general mission statement of financial flexibility, as he reportedly rejected an offer of the #5 pick and some expiring contracts for Wilson Chandler, Jeffries, and Hughes.  This rumor always seemed a bit sketchy from the Wizards’ side, but if this offer was truly on the table, I can’t imagine Walsh’s resistance to it.  Trading Jeffries is a desirable goal, Hughes has no long-term value, and Chandler, while a promising young player, is more likely than not to become an effective wing who is generally indistinguishable from any number of other small forwards in the league.  The negligible , if even existent, talent drop off from Chandler to the #5 pick in the draft (which turned out to be Ricky Rubio, though no one would have guessed it at the time) seemed a small price to pay for the disposal of a considerable financial obstacle.

Grade: D.  It’s worth noting that a few different versions of this trade were bouncing around during draft week, some of which would have been less of a windfall for the Knicks.  None of them, however, seemed particularly logical to reject as the Wizards displayed genuine interest in both Jeffries and Hughes.

Draft Night, 2009: Walsh played the hand he was dealt at #8, picking Jordan Hill after watching Rubio and Stephen Curry disappear in rapid succession.  An uninspiring, but far from disastrous, summer league performance has left Hill as a general mystery to Knicks fans at this point, but he’s big and athletic and he got enough numbers in college (although his FG% leaves something to be desired, considering his layup-and-dunk-heavy shot selection) to suggest that he’ll be a useful role player at the worst.  Walsh’s bigger coup on draft night was the effective purchase of Toney Douglas’s draft rights from the Lakers, just the kind of low-risk, solid-upside maneuver that the Knicks never seem to make.  If Douglas develops into a serviceable back-up point guard with a jump shot and an above average defensive skill set, which seems likely, this pick is a success.

In a final draft night move, Walsh acquired Darko Milicic from the Grizzlies by sending Quentin Richardson off on the first leg of his summer-long tour of NBA mediocrity.  Another low-risk move that might suit D’Antoni’s system well.  Given what he had to work with, a sound if unspectacular draft night for Walsh.

Grade: B-plus for draft night in a vacuum.  However, if you consider that Walsh could have had Rubio or Curry at five had he made the Wizards trade, it’s a C-minus.

Free Agency, 2009: I don’t know.  Do you?  I think Walsh was right not to pay for Iverson.  I would have loved a year or two of Nash at the mid-level, but I get the feeling that was never as close to a reality as we all were hoping.

If Walsh wins his ongoing staring contest with Ramon Sessions (17.65 PER, 23 years old) and signs him for two years at a low 2010 cap number, it will be a way better long-term move than signing Jason Kidd (16.95 PER, 36 years old) would have been, as the Knicks will acquire a young, affordable point guard who can defer to his teammates and can wait until after the Knicks make their big free agent splash to receive his long-term payout.

Additionally, Walsh has done well not to give in to unrealistic demands by either Lee or Robinson in a depressed market, but until their situations are resolved (ideally with Nate walking or taking a cheap one-year deal and Lee staying on for something near the mid-level), it’s hard to get a read on Walsh’s current plan or his level of confidence in the LeBron/Wade/Bosh sweepstakes next offseason.

Grade: Incomplete.

All told, Walsh’s tenure got off to a promising start but has suffered from several moments of seeming hesitance to take the final plunge and commit to any one comprehensive strategy.  Walsh has clearly leaned toward building for the future at the expense of the present, which is a welcome change from the Isiah era, but his unwillingness to part with anyone of value as a pot-sweetener in the unloading of bad contracts has stunted the Knicks progress toward an ideal 2010 cap situation.  As it stands, the team has a top-flight coach and more young talent and long-term financial flexibility than anyone could have realistically expected 16 months ago.  But one worries that Walsh has hedged his bets a bit too much and will fall short of a free agent jackpot next summer.

Overall Grade: B

2009 Report Card: Chris Wilcox

The Knicks acquired Chris Wilcox in February in exchange for a barely used Malik Rose. It seemed that Wilcox was going to play center and push the undersized David Lee back to power forward, but instead Wilcox spelled Lee at center. Looking at his most frequent 5-man units from 82games, Lee doesn’t appear in any of them.

Watching Wilcox play, gave me a new appreciation of Lee. Both players have a similar style, but Wilcox lags behind in multiple areas. He was less efficient when it comes to inside scoring, and he was less able to stretch the offense. According to 82games, 80% of his attempts were inside. If the knock on Lee is his desire to stay near the hoop, then Wilcox must be tethered to it. And despite playing with the same support cast, David out rebounds Chris by a far margin. Wilcox’s one saving grace is his adequate block rate.

Name Jump eFG Inside eFG Inside % reb/36 to/36 ast/36 blk/36
Wilcox 35.0 57.3 80% 8.9 2.2 1.5 0.9
Lee 35.2 64.1 68% 12.1 1.9 2.2 0.3

Even though New York is still short on big men, they decided not to keep Wilcox for 2010. Newly acquired Darko Milicic and Eddy Curry are likely to take any minutes that would have gone to Wilcox. I guess the Knicks have filled their quota of lottery center busts.

Report Card (5 point scale):
Offense: 2
Defense: 2
Teamwork: 2
Rootability: 1
Performance/Expectations: 2

Grade: D F I was going to give Wilcox a D, until I remembered this. If I recall correctly, he did this more than once as a Knick.

Similarity Scores:

z-Sum FLName Year Tm PER TS% eFG% PTS ORB TRB AST STL BLK TOV
.000 Chris Wilcox 2009 TOT 13.2 .517 .496 15.3 3.3 9.5 1.6 0.9 0.5 2.6
.024 Pat Cummings 1983 DAL 14.6 .526 .493 15.8 3.5 10.4 2.2 0.9 0.5 2.5
.032 Rick Robey 1982 BOS 11.0 .511 .493 13.8 3.5 9.0 2.1 0.8 0.4 2.8
.033 Marc Jackson 2001 GSW 16.1 .534 .471 16.2 3.0 9.2 1.5 0.9 0.7 2.4
.045 Mike Jackson 1976 VIR 13.2 .549 .499 15.8 3.4 9.8 1.8 0.7 0.5 3.1
.046 Jason Caffey 2000 GSW 12.4 .515 .479 14.2 3.2 8.0 2.0 1.0 0.3 2.8
.054 Kenny Carr 1982 TOT 14.7 .543 .504 16.7 3.1 9.9 1.6 1.2 0.4 2.8
.061 Kenny Thomas 2004 PHI 15.9 .527 .469 13.4 3.5 10.0 1.5 1.1 0.4 2.3
.071 Armen Gilliam 1991 TOT 15.5 .542 .487 16.9 3.0 8.1 1.4 0.9 0.7 2.4
.073 Dwight Jones 1979 HOU 10.9 .505 .458 13.6 3.3 9.7 1.7 1.0 0.8 3.0

Robinson Arrested

For Knick fans antsy for any news on free agency, today brings them a story even they would rather not hear. According to multiple sources, Nate Robinson was arrested last night for driving without a license. The Daily News reported that the Knick guard was pulled over for driving without a seat belt, and that they had found his license had been suspended.

Additionally Robinson was twittering during the encounter saying: “Cops pulled me over cuz my windows were 2 dark (but my windows were down) lol how funny is that,” AND later “I am still pulled over and its been 35 min they have me sit in my truck like i dnt have s#* 2 do lol.”

Compared to other detain worthy offenses, this ranks about a 1 out of 5. Consider that Robinson was not arrested for driving while intoxicated, possession of drugs, or dui manslaughter. However what’s damaging to Robinson is the timing and twittering of the event. The diminutive guard already suffers from a poor image of being immature, and how he initially handled this event lends credence to this view. Ironically Nate is in town for his basketball camp, something that helps build up one’s public image.

In the end I don’t think this action will hurt his free agency status. Had the Knicks wanted him long term, they would have already signed him by now. But if Robinson’s maturity problems were a camel, this would be another small straw on it’s back.

Lee Talks

At a basketball camp, David Lee speaks on his contract situation, courtesy of the Lower Hudson Journal News:

“It’s been a little frustrating, but my agent came up a couple of weeks ago and we had a meeting with Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni and found out where we were, and the purpose behind what’s going on, and it kind of all makes sense to me now,” Lee said. “We agreed on what I thought I was worth, so it’s not a money issue. What it comes down to is they need their flexibility for the 2010 summer. Whether they can get LeBron or not, they need to have the flexibility to make a run at a guy like that. And that’s completely understandable from my standpoint. We’re going to continue to work on a few sign-and-trade possibilities; otherwise, we’ll continue to work on a one-year-deal.”

Very few teams are spending money, so there haven’t been any free-agent offers, which the Knicks have the right to match. There was a meeting with Portland in Las Vegas, but there was little common ground.

A sign-and-trade would be extremely difficult since there are strict base-year-compensation rules that could get in the way.

“It has to be something where the Knicks can dump another salary or get another player in return they really want to have around,” Lee said. “There’s a couple of possibilities out there, and we’ll see if those come true, otherwise we’ll start talking to the Knicks about what we want to do for a one-year deal.”

I think a majority of Knick fans want to see Lee in a long term deal now, but from his words it seems unlikely. Walsh wants the financial freedom for 2010 and if he doesn’t sign Lee to a long term deal now, then he’s willing to risk losing him as an unrestricted free agent next year to accomplish that goal. It appears that Lee wants to stay in New York, and perhaps things may turn out this way. However Knick fans are likely going to have to wait until next summer to see where he ultimately lands.

Could Robinson’s Deal Come Soon?

It’s been a quiet preseason for the Knicks. If NBA free agency were airplanes, restricted free agents David Lee and Nate Robinson are in a holding pattern waiting for the weather to change. And the Milwaukee to New York flight (Ramon Sessions) hasn’t gotten off the ground, and may be rerouted to Los Angeles.

So over anxious New Yorkers, like yours truly, are looking for any clue that might shed some light on these events. Nate Robinson is a frequent twitterer, and perhaps he hinted at a Knicks resigning.

Yo twill ill be in nyc on the 17th my dude 8block
1:38 PM Aug 5th from UberTwitter

RT @MikeAdz: @nate_robinson I doubt you read these, but for what it is worth, PLEASE STAY IN NY!!!(Yeah ill be back in nyc dnt worry)
4:36 PM Aug 5th from UberTwitter

For the Twitter-illiterate and the elderly, I’ll translate: Robinson is telling his friends he’ll be in New York City on the 17th (Monday), and he’ll be back playing for the Knicks. Now granted perhaps Nate is just speculating, and perhaps he’s coming into New York for another reason. It’s certainly possible that nothing will happen in the next few days, especially if Donnie Walsh is waiting out the Ramon Sessions situation. I’ll guess we’ll find out the answers to these sooner or later.

Boy it is a slow summer.