These are not the actions of a secure, confident man. But they are actions. NBA commissioner David Stern has said the Knicks are “not a model of intelligent management,” but no one would ever claim Dolan is asleep on the job. Which is why Knicks fans, despite the modest but exhilarating successes of this season, have a right to get nervous when Dolan starts butting in again. Last week, the Daily News reported that Dolan, tired (like the rest of us, to be fair) of the daily Carmelo Anthony drip-drop of rumors and guesswork, called Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke to try to grease the wheels of a deal. (This Carmelo business has been making billionaires crazy these days; Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov flew across the Atlantic just to throw his hands in the air in disgust.) Reasonable people can question whether it’s a good idea to bring Anthony to New York. The answer, of course, depends on the price. And that’s where Dolan’s interference is the most damaging. For the better part of the season, Walsh played the Carmelo hand perfectly. He waited out the increasingly desperate Nuggets, holding the trump card the whole time: Carmelo wants to come here, and everyone knows it. The Nuggets could either trade him before the February 24 deadline and get something, however unsatisfactory, in return, or they could let him leave as a free agent this summer and get nothing. Walsh was doing what any good negotiator does: To achieve the best possible terms, he was pushing the guy on the other side of the table to the brink. Only then Dolan jumped in, apparently too impatient and afraid of letting a deal slip away to allow Walsh’s endgame to play out. This was curious, not just because Dolan likes to paint himself as a hands-off owner, but because, well, Dolan has a general manager. The move undermined Walsh and sent a clear signal: Forget the years of patient and effective work Walsh has done; Dolan, spoiled, impetuous, and controlling, was once again in charge.
Walsh has taken great pains not to discuss his lack of a contract extension in public, but he must be bewildered. What more is he supposed to do? But the Knicks had their previous problems for a reason. Dolan can only be hands-off for so long. Walsh has been an outsider to the Knicks organization since he arrived; it’s the primary reason he has had so much success. But Dolan has never run his empire as one that encourages a Socratic exchange of ideas. (Ask any MSG employee, after a couple of drinks, how warm, open, and nurturing that company is.) Now that the hard work is done—or fairly far along, anyway—having Walsh’s contract end in April is simply too great an opportunity to regain control for Dolan to resist. That’s his nature: Walsh has put the tires back on the car. Now Dolan wants to drive again.
So let’s take a look at the nightmare scenario, the one that happens if Dolan lets Walsh walk and the grown-ups are no longer in charge. The Knicks are unable, despite Dolan’s attempts, to nail down a trade for Anthony. They head into the off-season—having promoted clearly qualified, but not quite sure what he’s in for, Mark Warkentien to G.M.—uncertain and wobbly, wondering what happens with the NBA labor agreement. Desperate for a splash, Dolan and Warkentien overpay for free agents Tyson Chandler and Tayshaun Prince, and the Knicks finish next season essentially where they are this year: at .500. Then Amar’e Stoudemire blows out his shaky left knee, and the Knicks get really desperate and start trading for overpaid non-superstars like Joe Johnson and O. J. Mayo, giving them max contracts. And then we are back to the salad Randolph-Crawford days of yore. Isiah-land.
And if they do get Carmelo? Even with Anthony, Amar’e, and the rest of the foundation that Walsh has built at his disposal, do you really think Jim Dolan will be the wise, modest, steady-as-she-goes organizational leader that’s a signature of championship teams? Jim Dolan?
The Knicks have brought vigor and mirth back to the Garden this year. But this is not a renewable resource. This can go away. Let us not take it for granted. This is the pivotal moment. There is work left to be done. Jim Dolan should check his own worst impulses (as much as he can, anyway) and let Donnie Walsh finish the job he started. The Knicks finally have a good thing going. They need a steady hand to keep it that way. The clock is ticking.