SportsReporters’ Exclusive Interview With Knicks President Donnie Walsh

Published on: 12th October, 2010

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Knicks GM Donnie Walsh
SportsReporters' Exclusive Interview With Knicks President Donnie Walsh

Press conference to announce New York Knicks new GM Donnie Walsh. Lobby of Madison Square Garden Theatre. Original Filename: 152X1818.JPG  | read this item

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New York – Even as Donnie Walsh was sitting at courtside today watching this year’s version of the New York Knickerbockers at the open/free practice they held at Madison Square Garden for Knicks fans, his mindset was clearly focused on ways of improving his club. In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with SportsReporters.com, the architect of the Knicks offered up his unique perspective on decisions that had to be made in the past in order to achieve a longer-term competitive future for a franchise that has been shut out from the NBA playoffs since the 2003-2004 season.

On April 2, 2008, Knicks owner James Dolan signed Walsh, then the Indiana Pacers CEO and president, to take over Isiah Thomas’s role as team president. Upon the conclusion of the 2007–2008 regular season, Walsh fired Isiah Thomas and on May 13, 2008, Walsh officially named former Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni as head coach. In the time Walsh and D’Antoni have been running the ship, the Knicks have failed to make the playoffs in a league where the top eight teams in each conference, or half the league’s teams get in. The won-loss record has been putrid, a combined 61-103 over the two seasons. But, as Walsh told me, there have been reasons for the sub-mediocre showing of this once-proud franchise.

As the orchestrator of the talent swapping and as head salary capologist over the past two years for a team bogged down with bad contracts and little money to spend on free agents, Walsh made the decision when he took the job to essentially sacrifice the past two seasons in exchange for sufficiently lowering the Knicks salary cap so they could bid on the Big Kahuna of NBA free agents this past summer, LeBron James. We all know what happened that fateful day in July when James announced he was leaving Cleveland to head down to the warm sun of Miami and become Dwyane Wade’s Scottie Pippen. It was a huge shock to the collective systems of Knicks fans, many of whom felt the organization had indirectly or directly sold them a bill of goods on LeBron’s interest in coming to New York.

“When I said what I was going to do when I took this job, I never mentioned any player by name,” Walsh said. “The very next day, the press put that name out, LeBron. He’s a great player. But, whether or not we got him, I knew if we were going to build a good team, we had to get under the cap. We really didn’t have a team that fit together for the past two years.”

When I asked him if he was trying to manage the expectations of Knicks fans who have been paying top dollar to see a poor product for most of the past decade, Walsh exploded.

“I don’t want to manage expectations this year. I want production.” Let that put the coaching staff on notice, the boss is not looking for anything but wins this season.

The LeBron fiasco, however, didn’t deter Walsh from signing another prolific NBA free agent, Amar’e Stoudemire from the Phoenix Suns to a five year, $100 million contract. Stoudemire, a five-time All-Star certainly has near superstar credentials, having averaged 21 points and 9 rebounds per game for his career. Will it be enough to project the Knicks to making their first playoff series in six years? Walsh isn’t sure. He could easily predict a winning season or put extra pressure on his coaching staff to finally turn this junket around but he spoke very frankly about the current makeup of his team.

“It only feels now like we’re at the real beginning of a rebuilding process. I’m honestly not sure this 2010 team fits together the way we ideally want it to, yet. But, we’ve got enough positions covered where it should fit together better. We’ll see how we do.”

“I hope the fans understand that we really couldn’t do much in these first two years,” he continued. “We couldn’t make trades. Guys had contracts and we were way over the cap for free agents. We did the best we could with our draft picks who I think will prove to be good players, someday.”

“I can only show the fans I’m trying to get it started in the right direction. We’ve got a team out there. For the next two years, we’re going to have large room in the cap so we could add to this team. To me, that’s what I set out to do. To put the franchise back in order where you could do things and are flexible enough to start building a team in a sound way.”

We agreed scoring won’t be a big issue this season but I was wondering how this young team of leapers and shooters, with no one in the lineup a true candidate for defensive player of the year, was going to rebound the basketball and stop other teams from scoring.

“It’s going to have to be a team effort”, he said. “We’re going to have to have five guys rebounding, we have athletic people and guys that can do it but they got to do it. Defense is also going to have to be a team effort.”

The Knicks, despite the disappointment of not getting James after such a huge year-long buildup, have added an infusion of new, young players Walsh is excited about.

One of the more intriguing new names is Timofey Mozgov, a 23-year old, 7’1” center from Russia who’s been something of an unknown quality in Europe despite his height and skill level. I wondered how a very tall, very skilled young player could have possibly fallen through the cracks among NBA teams who constantly scout the world for talent. The league has had a tremendous influx of European players in recent years so it appears nearly impossible for a big kid with a shooting touch who can run the floor like a gazelle to not be at the top of every teams list of prospects.

“The only way I could explain it was he got hurt during the draft when he was 22,” Walsh said. “He didn’t play that year so the normal European scouting group from our league didn’t see him that year. Some teams saw him after the injury and were interested but felt like they would go after him in next year’s draft. We went over there and decided to get him this year. We are fortunate to have him.”

Watching the kid during today’s practice, playing against the veteran center Rony Turiaf, who the Knicks acquired from Golden State in the David Lee trade, was like watching a young colt who has the look and feel of a potential Kentucky Derby champion. You could see the skills Mozgov has been blessed with, from his shooting skills inside and out to the meticulous timing of his shot-blocking skills. The kid is a huge man-child, about 280 pounds but he is often the first player down the court on fast breaks.

“He played at a level down from NCAA Division I and also played on the Russian national team so he’s had good experience and good coaching,” Walsh said. “This could turn out for us to be a good move because he’s a center, and he’s got talent. The league doesn’t have that many great centers right now, so he could be a huge advantage for us. And, he doesn’t cost a lot, yet.”

Earlier in the day, D’Antoni had mentioned at a press conference how he was looking for Mozgov to be a rebounding force in helping Amar’e Stoudamire on the boards.

“He picks up things very quick, shoots the ball extremely well, runs the floor,” D’Antoni said. “He’ll need to bring down eight to ten rebounds a night to help Amar’e. He’s not known as a great rebounder but he has a nose for the ball so we’ll see what he could do.”

Walsh is bullish on his acquisition of Raymond Felton to play the point guard position, this year. Thus far, though, Felton has not grabbed hold of D’Antoni’s offense yet, playing at either too fast or too slow a pace.

“That’ll get better, that’s Mike’s system,” said Walsh. “If you have an open shot, you should take it. If you’re being guarded, you should move it back and move it around for a better shot within 24-seconds. It’s a little hard, though, for guys just introduced to the system. It’s one thing to say it in a room or on a blackboard. When you get out on the court and start going, you don’t realize you’re going too fast, sometimes.”

The Knicks two draft choices, both taken in the second round of the draft, have impressed Walsh in a big way. Andy Rautins, the 6’5” guard from Syracuse and Landry Fields, a 6’7” small forward from Stanford, have shown, so far, to be much more than even Walsh may have expected. They are both competing and possibly winning their battles to be part of D’Antoni’s regular rotation.

“In Rautins’ case, I don’t think he’s just a shooter,” Walsh said. “I think he knows how to make plays. I think he’s more athletic than people give him credit for. He’s quicker than people think he is. And, he’s a very smart player. I think he’s going to be a very good guard and he’s 6’5. I don’t know about this year but in the next three years, I think he’s going to be a very good player.”

D’Antoni, not usually a coach who trusts rookies with significant playing time, was less effusive about Rautins but thinks he’s got some special talents.

“Andy is definitely trying to prove a point with his play,” said D’Antoni. “He’s trying to earn some playing time. There’s still a long time to go in the pre-season to see how the rotation shakes out. He has shown to have significant skills and he’s playing a lot better now than he did during the Las Vegas summer league.”

Walsh was positively ebullient over Fields.

“Fields is real good, he knows how to play,” Walsh said. “If you notice, he’s always open under the basket all by himself.”

The kid is an impressive athlete but the buzz out of the west coast prior to the draft was the Pac-10 conference was in a down year, talent-wise and team-wise. The downfall of the UCLA program from that of a national power led many college basketball observers to view the entire conference as one lacking in NBA prospects.

“I’m not sure why Fields dropped in the draft to the second round,” Walsh told me. “He averaged 22 ppg at Stanford. Whether the Pac10 conference was strong or not last year, the individual could play. I think Fields could be a two-guard someday, and he’s 6’8”. Rautins could be a 6’5” point guard. Good size for our backcourt.”

That led us to a discussion of the one player whose name continues to float above this franchise as a potential savior, much like LeBron’s did for the past year. Carmelo Anthony is not a subject Walsh wants to touch.

“The player we’re talking about is someone else’s property,” he said. “His team is in control of it and that’s all I can say about it. Anthony is not making the decision for any potential trade, that’s Denver’s decision.”

Walsh doesn’t want Knicks fans to build up their expectations for another young superstar to swoop in and become, along with Stoudemire, the leaders of what would automatically be projected as a championship-contending team.

“If he wants to sign a long-term deal with another team, so be it. It takes two or three teams sometimes to make a deal work but I can tell you this much, I will never extract myself from any potential movement of a player in this league.”

The 69-year old Walsh’s own health has taken a hit in the past year, having undergone spinal fusion surgery to remove a spur from his vertebrae that has led to his having difficulty walking

“There was a spur on my spinal chord so they took that out and fused the chord. It isn’t like you have a bad hip where they replace the hip joint and you build the area up around the hip and you’re back walking. In this case, you have to create neurological pathways to get yourself back again. I’m about 98% of the way back but the last two percent, you’ve got to work on. I’m coming toward the end of it now where I’m using a walker where before, I was in a wheelchair. Your balance is off but as the legs get stronger, the balance gets better.”

Walsh says he won’t accept losing basketball this year but, like his recuperation from his own health problems, he understands there is a process to making the health of a franchise sustainable for more than just a short burst of time. He wants to see D’Antoni and his coaching staff develop the young talent while making a serious run into the playoffs. You get the sense he won’t accept less.

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