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Knicks turn to experienced hand at rebuilding to turn fortunes around

Knicks president Donnie Walsh is going to get the credit or the blame for the moves New York pulled off at the trade deadline last week. But don't think it was just Walsh and coach Mike D'Antoni involved in a series of decisions that, in one day, made the Knicks the most imposing free-agent force this summer.

Nor should anyone think that the Knicks traded away half of their roster solely to clear space for the summer.

Yes, obviously, financial flexibility is the biggest reason the Knicks sent Jared Jeffries, Jordan Hill and Larry Hughes packing. They want to go after LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But the Knicks also think Tracy McGrady can still play. And they think he can play for the foreseeable future. For New York.

Guess whom they asked?

Their director of pro scouting, John Gabriel, the man responsible for bringing McGrady to Orlando from Toronto in 2001 and the man who, after sniffing around, still thinks McGrady can be a major contributor on a good team.

"First off, this is Donnie's show. He deserves all the credit," Gabriel told SI.com. "Did they ask me about T-Mac? Yes -- and they also asked [Knicks VP of basketball operations] Glen Grunwald, who had T-Mac in Toronto before I got him in Orlando."

These are the inner machinations and maneuvering in the NBA about which few people know, the unseen connections that result in countless phone calls with a variety of contacts throughout the league, relationships that go back through the years.

You want to know why it seems that the same old people keep getting recycled into jobs? Because when Walsh needs some critical information on a player like McGrady, he can ask Gabriel to make a few discreet inquiries, and just like that the information is at his fingertips.

Beyond his connections, Gabriel has been a veteran of the rebuilding process -- a large part of the reason Walsh hired him. Gabriel was the architect of the Magic's post-Shaquille O'Neal-departure-for-Los Angeles reconstruction, the designer of the vision that brought both Grant Hill and McGrady to the Magic in one thrilling summer -- a summer the Knicks will try to rival in four-and-a-half months.

True, it did not work out, but that had more to do with Hill's chronically injured ankle than it did with Gabriel's thought process. After he was fired in Orlando following a 21-win 2003-04, Gabriel was hired by Portland for its incineration of the Jail Blazers squad that was pieced together by Bob Whitsitt and has forever been a point of shame and embarrassment in the organization.

And here he is again, behind the scenes with the Knicks, who are attempting to erase the mistakes of Isiah Thomas and once again give New Yorkers something about which they can be proud inside Madison Square Garden.

Gabriel sees hints of McGrady's prowess, evidenced by the 26 points McGrady hung on the Thunder in Saturday's overtime loss to Oklahoma City -- which is what Gabriel told Walsh.

"He is not the T-Mac of three or four years ago," Gabriel said, "but Tracy McGrady at 80 percent is still better than most of the rest of the league."

Which is why the Knicks are hoping McGrady debuts for them for a little more than two months, then re-signs over the summer. In large part because of the contract Gabriel gave him to leave Toronto and go to Orlando, McGrady has made enough money over the course of his career that the Knicks hope he is looking to be a part of something bigger, reviving his career at the same time the Knicks are reviving their organization. That, of course, means taking a significant pay cut. Like more than a $21 million pay cut from his $22.5 million salary.

But let's face it: McGrady has not earned a significant portion of that money and needs his reputation rehabilitated more than he actually needs money. Remember, this is a 13-year veteran who has never gotten his team out of the first round of the playoffs. He no longer is capable of carrying a team the way he did when the led the league in scoring in 2003 and '04. But imagine if he was the third cog in an overly talented wheel. Imagine if Wade could feed to Bosh in the post, who would kick out to McGrady on the wing for an open three-pointer.

Would that be enough talent overcome the Cavaliers if LeBron stays in the Midwest? Would that be enough to make McGrady forgo somebody's mid-level exception to thank Gabriel, the man who had enough of a vision to see McGrady for the star he was about to become back in 2001, and return to New York to complete the rebuilding process that never was accomplished in Orlando?

Both the Knicks and Gabriel hope so.

The day after the trade deadline, the Jazz seemed utterly distraught that their starting shooting guard, Ronnie Brewer, had been traded to the Grizzlies for a protected first-round draft pick.

Deron Williams had said at the morning shootaround that it was decisions like this that prompted him to sign a three-year contract extension rather than a five-year deal. The grousing continued in the locker room before the game, and then after the game as well -- even though Utah had just stomped Golden State to win its third in a row and 15th in 17 games.

"Losing Brewer was terrible," Carlos Boozer said. "I can't stress that enough. He's a brother to a lot of us in here and he was obviously a huge part of our team. It's tough. It's just tough to move on."

From the human perspective, that much is true. Particularly since his teammates did not really get to say goodbye to him. But from a basketball standpoint, which often is clouded in the minds of the players because of how close they are to teammates, the move was actually legitimate.

It was not a cost-cutting move as much as it was a move toward the future. The Jazz could eventually get a top-10 pick for Brewer, who is an average-at-best shooting guard. (Brewer, incidentally, injured his hamstring in his Memphis debut and is expected to miss at least a couple of weeks.)

Meanwhile, there were multiple reports that Utah was close to sending Boozer to Miami as the trade deadline approached, ostensibly to save money toward the luxury tax. But that is not entirely accurate. In fact, there are indications that Miami was telling people it was heavily pursuing Boozer to make Wade think that the Heat were trying their hardest to improve the team.

Think about it: Why would the Jazz make a move with Boozer? Whatever happened, they were going to have to take back players in a trade, so they still were going to be paying a luxury tax for less-talented players at a time that they are making a run toward the top of the standings.

Boozer's contract is up after the season, so they were not doing it to clear cap space. No, this looks like a case of corporate espionage. One wonders if Miami has designs on Boozer this summer, and when the Heat make their first call they can point to the trade deadline and say they were trying to get him almost five months ago.

A few weeks ago, the Warriors had so few players on their bench because of injuries that the organization may well have been wise to sell those seats in order to get premium prices in a down economy.

That has all changed after injured forward Anthony Randolph pulled a page out of the book of Zach Randolph (no relation) and was spotted hobbling around at a club while his teammates were getting pounded in a game.

So the Warriors have taken the step of requiring that all injured players must now reside on the bench for all home games -- a decision that required several players to fly in from out of town, where they were rehabbing.

"They are still getting paid. I sat them down and told them that that is the business side of basketball. But they are still getting paid to go out there and play. So go do your job." -- Jazz coach Jerry Sloan after his players bemoaned the trade that sent Ronnie Brewer to Memphis.

Oklahoma City Thunder (3-0): It's amazing what can happen when a young team gets its confidence. This is where you see the Thunder, who have won nine consecutive games to move into the fifth seed in the West. What's more, they are starting to win close games, which is the next step in their maturation. If they can keep this squad together, the sky's the limit for them.

1. I posed the hypothetical question to a high-ranking NBA official about whether the Kings could move their operations to Seattle, the league's next-best market, if they are unsuccessful in their pursuit of a new arena -- which appears as if it will be the case. Seattle has a ready-made arena sitting in town going virtually unused, and it is in better shape than Arco Arena.

The official said, however, that unless KeyArena is redone, it would not make sense for the Kings to move because they would not make enough money to recoup their relocation fee.

Here's a thought: For the betterment of a league that clearly is having financial issues, why not waive the relocation fee? The only place that money is going is into the owners' pockets, a bribe, if you will, that paves the way for a smooth transition. There is nothing that says it can't be waived so that owners can be more financially solvent someplace else.

2.David Stern seems to have employed a new negotiating tactic with the players' association: condescension and ridicule.

In the wake of the attempt by union leader Billy Hunter and the executive committee to preempt Stern's state-of-the-league news conference during All-Star weekend with their own news conference the day before, Stern appeared on the dais and effectively laughed at the players' stance in the formal negotiating session, held the Friday before the game.

Stern said he has been negotiating contracts for almost 40 years and saw the union employing tactics from Negotiating 101.

"If I can get a little personal, as Peter Holt, the chairman of our labor relations committee, a Texan says, 'This is not my first rodeo,' " Stern said. "I don't even know that this may not be my ninth rodeo, or my 10th; I've been around this. So I would give yesterday's meetings high marks on the list of theatrical negotiations.

"The lawyer was brought in to threaten us as a tactic to say ... the union is going to go away; that's going to make you bargain harder. The right adjectives were thrown around, and our proposal was appropriately denounced. Our response is you can denounce it, tear it up, you can burn it, you can jump up and down on it, as long as you understand that it reflects the financial realities of where we are."

I get the feeling things may get much uglier before any resolution is reached.

Speaking of which, I wonder how much it makes Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash want to perform at their highest level for their owner when they both see that Robert Sarver is one of the hawks in sticking it to the players.

3. One team official wondered this about the union's executive team: Because Derek Fisher plays for the Lakers, whose games are always sold out, and Adonal Foyle is with Orlando, whose games are always sold out, do those players really have a concept of what some of the smaller-market teams are going through? Do they really grasp that the league may be losing money when all they see is full arenas?

4. How do the Nuggets go out and defeat the Cavaliers in a fantastic overtime game on Thursday night, then drop a 107-97 decision to the Washington Wizards on Friday night? Yes, they were playing in back-to-back games and had to do some late-night travel from Cleveland to the District. But these are the stripped-down Wizards, who are trying to incorporate Josh Howard and everybody else into their rotation. The loss was especially disappointing given that Carmelo Anthony was playing in front of friends and family.

At least the Nuggets redeemed themselves by beating the Celtics on Sunday afternoon in Denver.

5. With five victories, the Nets are four shy of Philadelphia's record of nine in 1972-73. But the upcoming slate doesn't bode well for the Nets to make history of the dubious kind. They have a big game next Sunday against the above-mentioned Wizards, against whom they play twice before the end of the year. The Nets also get New York one more time. They also have Indiana, Detroit, Sacramento and Philadelphia, as well as one more game against Charlotte, which has lost to New Jersey twice this season.

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