NEW YORK -- Brandon Jennings could have helped the Knicks, as president Donnie Walsh realized last July while watching the 6-foot-1 rookie attack the Las Vegas Summer League.
Walsh tried to turn the episode into one of those "teachable moments." "When I saw him play in Vegas, I did go to our scouts and I told them, 'Look, if you knew he was that good you should have come to me every day in my office and said, 'You've got to look at this guy,'" said Walsh. "I said, 'I listened to you. You said, 'He's good,' but that was about it."
Instead of drafting Jennings to fill their need for a leader at point guard, the Knicks used the No. 8 pick on power forward Jordan Hill, who is so raw he has earned no more than 7.8 minutes in nine games for 4-14 New York. The Knicks' choice created gasps of relief in Milwaukee, where the Bucks used the No. 10 pick on Jennings, who was the top player on their board. The 20-year old has turned out better than even the Bucks envisioned while averaging 21.8 points, 5.7 assists and 1.2 steals to lift them to a surprising 9-7 start.
This was not a franchise-killing mistake by the Knicks. Jennings may cool down after his hot start, and Hill may yet learn to fulfill his athletic potential.
The decision to pass on Jennings is above all an example of how Walsh is steadily attempting to transform his franchise without resorting to quick fixes. For one thing, he has continued to rely on a scouting staff assembled by predecessor Isiah Thomas. "When I come in anywhere, I don't fire everybody," said Walsh. "I wanted to give the scouts, the front office people, the opportunity to show me what they can do. So I just haven't [replaced them]."
It's not like he hasn't had other things to do: Walsh has created cap space for 2010 while instilling the Knicks with newfound financial discipline across the board. "I could have hired some amazing people," said Walsh, who was rumored to be courting Billy Knight, Chris Mullin and Mark Warkentien as prospective GMs. "But there are some things you can't ask the owner to do, and that's eat some of these (front-office and scouting department) numbers."
It's fair to assume that Cablevision's ongoing spin-off of Madison Square Garden involves a scrutiny of the books and a demand for fiscal responsibility. But Walsh would be pursuing restraint under any circumstances.
"This is a true rebuilding job in a lot of ways, other than just personnel," he said. "It's culture, it's everything."
That's why he takes a big-picture view of the decision to bypass Jennings. Ultimately the responsibility for that move falls on Walsh, who made astute draft picks thanks to the deep scouting staff he assembled in Indiana during his 22 years in charge of the Pacers. "When the draft room opens up, you've got to tell me what you think and don't play politics with it," he said, while acknowledging that he must differentiate the boldly-opinionated scouts from the fence-sitters who bend with the prevailing opinion. "Unfortunately, every scouting room does do that -- they check out where the coach is, you know, and they try to align themselves. I knew who they were in Indiana; here I didn't quite know.
"But I'm in good company," added Walsh of his ambivalent view of Jennings before the draft. "Because there were a lot of guys who passed on him and didn't know his game."
Eventually Walsh will keep some current staffers for the long-term and replace others. But it goes without saying that some of the people he inherited were unwilling to stick their necks out for him, if for no other reason than they didn't know him and lacked rapport with the new boss. "It could be that," he said. "And I'm trying to change it. I put Misho (Ostarcevic, the Knicks' new player personnel director) -- a guy I had in Indiana -- in charge of [scouting] for that reason."
Walsh has also hired former Orlando GM John Gabriel as director of pro scouting and free agency. "It's kind of like what I'm hearing with the players: They don't think they're going to be here, so they don't want to play hard," said Walsh. "I'm like, 'What are you talking about?' They've got to play hard, and I haven't said I wouldn't take them back (as free agents), because if they're good enough, that would be one of my options. So that doesn't compute to me, the same way if you've got scouts working for you -- they work for the New York Knicks."
More important to Walsh was his 2008 hiring of coach Mike D'Antoni, who had won 232 games over four full seasons with Phoenix. D'Antoni remains the Knicks' biggest asset as they move toward free agency with cap space for one max player this summer in addition to a second free agent who can be paid more than the mid-level exception. Walsh has noticed that opposing stars personally greet D'Antoni on the sideline before playing against his Knicks. "Oh yeah, every one of them," said Walsh. "I think a lot of it had to do with the Olympic team (which D'Antoni served as assistant). The word got around about the way he plays, the way he coaches, and people have liked it."
"He's the most positive guy I've ever met," said Walsh, who then recalled how D'Antoni tried last summer to convince himself that New York's transitional roster could be a big winner this season. "He'd tell me that, and I'd say, 'Mike ... be careful.' He might over-emphasize what they can do and what they can't do." D'Antoni's optimism was rewarded as the Knicks shocked the West-leading Suns -- and themselves -- with a 126-99 upset Tuesday, but D'Antoni wisely declined to make too much of one win by his 4-14 team.
The NBA separation of church and state -- the checks and balances that balance winning in the short term and planning for the years ahead -- is clearly defined in New York. When the Knicks upgrade their roster they'll have a coach capable of exploiting that talent. In the meantime they have a 68-year-old president who is capable of absorbing the painful transformation.
"If a younger guy took this job, the pressures on him [would] be tremendous to do something to make this team better this year," said Walsh from his courtside seat Tuesday during the pregame warmups. "I'm not there anymore. In fact, a couple of young GMs called me up (after the Knicks hired him in April 2008) and said, 'Congratulations on New York ... but boy, you've got a tough job.'
"I said, 'Let me tell you something. If you're going to take a job like this, make sure it's your last job. Because if you're trying to build your reputation it might be harder on a (young) guy. I've had my day in the sun and all that."