His first big Knicks move, back in April, was to fire Thomas as coach and general manager—though Walsh stopped short of chasing him out of town, as the sports pages were demanding. Partly that’s because Walsh has a reservoir of personal respect for Thomas, whom he hired in 2000 to coach the Pacers, and he wants to give Thomas the chance to recover his dignity out of the spotlight (and Thomas remains under contract to the Knicks for three more years). But the decision was also part of his attempt to lower the volume around the Knicks; appeasing the calls for Thomas’s exile would have only validated the shouters and made the screams louder the next time something went wrong.
To replace Thomas, Walsh jumped at the chance to hire Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni was pushed out last spring after five excellent seasons directing the Phoenix Suns; his teams not only contended for the NBA title, but they played an entertaining up-tempo style crafted to exploit the talents of wondrous point guard Steve Nash. D’Antoni could have gone to the Chicago Bulls, a team that will win more games sooner than the Knicks, but he came to New York after a classic bit of Walsh courtship. D’Antoni was criticized in Phoenix for not caring about defense, and the Bulls suggested he hire an assistant coach who specialized in defense. “When Donnie flew out to Phoenix and talked to me, he conveyed to myself and to my wife, Laurel, that we want you—no ands, ifs, or buts,” D’Antoni says. “He conveyed a sense of ‘We really believe in what you do.’ ”
In June, Walsh made his next big statement, using his first draft pick as Knicks boss to choose six-foot-ten Italian teenager Danilo Gallinari. “There’s nobody out there on our team pulling everything together. I think Gallinari is that kind of player,” Walsh says. “He’s very good with the ball, he can draw a defense or pass. He’s a guy that can help other players.” Not, however, anytime soon: Gallinari hurt his back in July during a summer league game and only recently resumed practicing.
More surprising, however, is what Walsh hasn’t done: Dump Stephon Marbury. For months, the sports pages have reported that Walsh was on the verge of releasing Marbury or buying out his $21.9 million contract. Walsh insists it isn’t happening—yet, anyway. Turning Marbury loose now could come back to haunt the Knicks, he thinks, if the sullen guard signed with a division rival like Boston or Miami and played well. Better to hold on to Marbury, give him a clean slate, and hope he raises his trade value by being a good soldier for a change. If Marbury acts out again, releasing him is still possible—and it would be clear, once and for all, that the fault is entirely Marbury’s. In the meantime, Walsh has brought in point guard Chris Duhon, and Marbury has been relegated, at least temporarily, to the bench. “Donnie is very patient,” Reggie Miller says. “He’s brilliant at keeping the big picture clear in his mind.”
Rival teams see a conspiracy in which LeBron James is subtly steered to the league’s flagship team. “Aw, they’re just paranoid,” says Walsh.
Though fans and sportswriters are obsessed with the Marbury psychodrama, Walsh considers it a minor part of his plan. He’s made a number of subtle changes to improve the Knicks’ front office, adding former Orlando Magic general manager John Gabriel and Croatian scout Misho Ostarcevic to scour the world for new prospects. He’s also made more-symbolic moves, like hiring Ben Jobe, one of the coaching greats featured in Black Magic, as a scout.
At 67, Walsh (along with Rod Thorn of the Nets) is easily the oldest general manager in the NBA, and his references to long-gone greats like Rick Mount and Carl Braun can leave younger listeners mystified. His general-manager colleagues used to be mostly ex-players or coaches; the new generation includes an increasing share of number-crunchers, though the wave of stat-head executives isn’t yet as large as it is in Major League Baseball front offices. “What I see now are more of the guys who are into the statistics and the digital and all that, like the kid down in Houston,” Walsh says. “They analyze everything to the nth degree. They study it to the point where they know, ‘Well, if the guy can do this, this, and this, there’s a 99 percent chance he’s gonna be a starter in the NBA.’ It’s moving in the Moneyball direction. And it’s all good. I never thought I was any smarter than anybody out there.”
Walsh reads and understands the statistical analyses just fine. Yet he prefers to trust his eyes and instincts. And though there are whispers around the league that Walsh is well past his prime, he’s repeatedly shown the ability to adapt—unlike Isiah Thomas, who realized far too late that the NBA was deemphasizing the static, muscular half-court game in favor of speed and agility, and that the new salary-cap regulations made long-term contracts an enormous burden. Walsh, in transforming the Pacers after Reggie Miller, was ahead of the curve, targeting big men who could run and shoot, like Jermaine O’Neal. He also knows full well that no team wins championships these days without one of the league’s half-dozen superstars. “You want to believe that if we had five really good players, but not one great one, and we play the right way, we can win the championship,” Walsh says. “But it hasn’t happened that way. The last time it happened, probably, was with the Knicks, in 1973. In other words, how good, really, was Earl Monroe? How good was Bill Bradley? How good was DeBusschere? Were any of them, individually, as good as Jerry West? No. But as a team, they were a great team.”