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Knicks play a dangerous game

NEW YORK -- It has been 19 months since Knicks president Donnie Walsh stood in front of a podium inside the theater at Madison Square Garden and promised fans a future. Nineteen months since Walsh, one of the most respected executives in the NBA who had built multiple contenders in Indiana, vowed to restore credibility to a franchise that in 5½ years under Isiah Thomas' stewardship had lost all of it. Nineteen months since embattled Knicks owner James Dolan issued Walsh a mandate to do "whatever is necessary to turn this team around."

"I'm not the great new hope,'' Walsh said that day '"I'm just a guy that's going to come in and try to create a team."

But 19 months into the Walsh Era in New York and we are left to wonder: what exactly has Walsh done?

Priority No. 1 for Walsh has always been to get the Knicks payroll, the highest in the league when he took over, under control. And he has done that, excising the bad contracts of Zach Randolph, Jamal Crawford and Jerome James and replacing them with the equally bad (but expiring earlier) contracts of Cuttino Mobley, Al Harrington and Larry Hughes. The Knicks were committed to more than $100 million in player salaries when Walsh took the job; by next summer, that commitment will be $27.3 million.

While the Knicks' bottom line has gotten better, their play has not. New York won 32 games last season, a nine-win improvement from 2007-08 but one win less than what Isiah and Co. accomplished the season before that. This season the Knicks already have been blown out by 23 in Miami, fell by two points in Charlotte and lost by 14 at home to Philadelphia. The lone victory came against a weary New Orleans team that was coming off an emotional loss to the Celtics the night before. The latest debacle came on Wednesday, when winless Indiana rallied from a nine-point deficit to take a 12-point victory.

It wasn't just that the Knicks lost Wednesday -- it was the way they lost. Indiana was a team ripe for the picking. The Pacers were on the end of a back-to-back and were decimated by injuries to Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy, Greg Foster and Tyler Hansbrough. Outside of Danny Granger, Indy didn't have any real offensive options to speak of.

They played like it, too. With Granger bombing away from all angles, the Pacers connected on just 23.8 percent of their three-point attempts. They committed 22 turnovers (against 15 assists) and scored a paltry four points off of fast breaks. The Knicks, however, lowered the bar even further. They connected on 26.9 percent of their eye-popping 28 three-point attempts and chipped in with 19 turnovers of their own. They sent the Pacers to the free throw line 28 times and made DahntayJones (19 points) look like Carmelo Anthony. Mike D'Antoni's vaunted up-tempo offense accounted for two -- two -- fast break points.

"We have to learn to be solid," said D'Antoni. "Obviously we're not there yet."

Obviously. While D'Antoni has had to deal with a constant reshuffling of the roster over the last two seasons, he has been wholly unable to recapture the same magic he had in Phoenix, re-raising the question of whether it was D'Antoni or Steve Nash -- who is doing just fine without D'Antoni this season -- who deserves the lion's share of the credit for the Suns success.

Walsh, however, hasn't given D'Antoni much to work with. Part of that is a consequence of the push to clear as much cap space as possible for the free-agent class of 2010, but part is also because Walsh whiffed on several key opportunities to improve the roster. He couldn't entice Jason Kidd to return to the New York area and he low-balled Ramon Sessions, leaving an overmatched Chris Duhon to run the offense for a second straight season. While it appears Walsh found a gem in Danilo Gallinari in the '08 draft, '09 draftee Jordan Hill played 1:45 in the season opener and has been stapled to the bench the last four games. Meanwhile, point guard Brandon Jennings, taken two spots after Hill, is averaging 22.0 points and 5.3 assists in Milwaukee.

These misses not only affect New York's present, but also its future.

Plan A for Walsh has always been to entice some combination of LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh to Manhattan. That plan was scrapped, however, as soon as the NBA announced that next year's salary cap could fall as low as $50 million, or roughly $10 million less than what the Knicks projected it to be when Walsh took over. Barring a trade involving Eddy Curry -- who, incidentally, has shown no indication that he is even interested in playing basketball again -- the Knicks will only have room for one max-level player on the roster.

The lure of playing for the popular D'Antoni, having home games at Madison Square Garden and living on Madison Avenue is strong but it's not stronger than the desire to play for a winner. James is playing for a title contender and has an owner who doesn't flinch at tacking millions onto the payroll if his superstar so desires. Wade has already won an NBA championship in Miami, and though the Heat are in a quasi-rebuilding mode, Wade has a strong relationship with head coach Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley running the show. Bosh would seem the most likely to relocate next season, but of the three he would appear the least likely to be enticed by the metropolis that is New York. Chicago is a possibility and Houston, which can clear $15 million in cap space after this season, would love to pair the Texas native in the frontcourt with Yao Ming.

If the Knicks fail to entice James, Wade or Bosh, what are their options? Joe Johnson? Good player but not a franchise changer. Tracy McGrady? Maybe a few years and one knee surgery ago. Carlos Boozer, Ray Allen, Jermaine O'Neal? Do they roll over their free agent money and wait for the summer of '11, when Dirk Nowitzki Yao and Pau Gasol could be on the market?

Only time will tell if Walsh's plan will pay off. If the Knicks land James, get McGrady on the cheap and re-sign David Lee, then Walsh is a genius. But if the free agency Big 3 stays put and Lee walks as an unrestricted free agent next summer, the long leash that Walsh and D'Antoni have been given gets a little bit shorter.

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