He was amiable and courteous, forthright and thoughtful. In other words, on his first day on the job as New York Knicks president, Donnie Walsh was everything Isiah Thomas was not.
That's not to say Walsh's answers in a Wednesday afternoon news conference announcing his hiring were crystal clear. Over the course of two hours at Madison Square Garden, an event that brought many members of the Knicks traveling media off the current road trip and back to New York, Walsh straddled the proverbial fence like an Adonis when he was asked (repeatedly and in different ways) about Thomas' future. He stated (and I'm paraphrasing) that he plans to sit down with Thomas over the next few days and discuss Thomas' future with the organization. Walsh was non-committal about Thomas continuing as Knicks coach or his potential role in the Knicks organization, though he did say that Knicks owner James Dolan (who introduced Walsh before making a conspicuous exit) has "more or less" left Thomas' future up to him.
"Isiah has a great basketball mind," said Walsh. "I want to talk to him about everything. I want to ask him questions like how he feels about this and how we do this."
What else stood out about Walsh's first day? Four things, in particular:
1. I don't believe for a second Isiah Thomas will be coaching the Knicks beyond this season.
First, the obvious: Thomas is not an effective coach. Earlier this week he crossed the 100-loss threshold as Knicks coach, doing it in the second fastest time in team history. He has lost the locker room (how many more unnamed players quoted in the press do you need to tell you that), lost the faith of ownership (if Dolan didn't owe Thomas $18 million we wouldn't be having this conversation) and, in general, lost control of his team.
And let's not forget, Walsh is no stranger to firing Thomas. It was widely reported in 2003 that Larry Bird was the driving force behind Thomas being fired as head coach of the Pacers. But as Walsh said on Wednesday "ownership wouldn't have done it if I hadn't approved it."
Walsh added he initially resisted the firing of Thomas ("[H]e coached the team to 48 wins the year before," said Walsh. "I thought he was on his way to becoming a good coach."), though he relented when it became clear that Bird preferred working with Rick Carlisle instead of Thomas.
While Walsh may be fond of Thomas personally (and I got the impression he was), he has to recognize that bringing back Thomas, who has single-handedly turned the Knicks into what they are today, is impossible.
2. I believe Billy King will be the next general manager.
Walsh did not refer to King by name at the press conference but he did say that he had received "a lot of phone calls" in the days leading up to the Knicks announcement, and I'm certain one of them came from King.
King worked as an assistant coach in Indiana for four seasons under Walsh and is said to have a strong relationship with him. King also has become increasingly more popular with the recent success of the 76ers, a team he built before being fired in December, and a team that has vaulted itself into sixth place in the Eastern Conference. If King had simply insisted that the Sixers play a more up-tempo style at the beginning of the season (as new GM Ed Stefanski did), he might still have a job today.
King has a sharp eye for young talent and would probably be comfortable working in a No. 2 role under Walsh, provided he had his boss' ear. And while Walsh has said his relationship with any lieutenant will be different than his relationship with Bird ("I gave up my [duties] there," said Walsh.), there is no question he will lean heavily on whomever he brings in.
3. Finally, someone will stand up to Dolan.
The Cablevision media policy, which, in a nutshell, states that no employees can criticize other employees publicly, is absurd. No one -- not the media, not the fans, not even the biased MSG Network reporters -- wanted to stomach ambiguous criticism from Thomas after one of the myriad Knicks blowout losses this season. High-ranking executives from a major sports organization should have the freedom to speak their minds, especially when you consider that their credibility takes a hit when they sugarcoat an obviously bad situation.
Walsh won't be reciting the minutes from his conversations with Dolan or other GMs ("I can't tell you guys everything," he said.) but he will be more open and will be given complete autonomy by Dolan to reshape the team's media policy. "Be careful what you wish for," said Dolan.
4. How long before Jermaine O'Neal becomes a Knick?
Walsh's top priority will be getting the Knicks under the salary cap by '10, when several of the team's bloated salaries are set to expire, and presumably the year the Knicks can make a run at a marquee free agent. That said, I am starting to believe more and more that Walsh will try and acquire O'Neal, dangling Stephon Marbury (and his expiring $21 million contract next season) as the bait.
For the Knicks, acquiring O'Neal (who, if he does not opt out this summer, has another two years and $44 million remaining on his contract) does not affect the long-term plan, as O'Neal's contract will expire in '10. Moreover, O'Neal -- when healthy -- would give the Knicks a legitimate star at power forward.
For the Pacers, moving O'Neal -- who they shopped hard at the trade deadline -- accelerates the rebuilding process. It's a smart move for both teams, provided the Knicks can find a taker for Zach Randolph.
Is Walsh the answer? I believe he is. He has built teams from scratch (from 1995 through '05, the Pacers boasted the best regular-season record among teams in the Eastern Conference), showed the courage of his convictions (he drafted Reggie Miller in '87 over Indiana star Steve Alford) and won't just spend Dolan's millions on the Jerome James' of the league just because he can. He'll build the team slowly and he'll do it the right way. In New York, that's all you can ask for.