When Donnie Walsh was given almost $20 million to run the New York Knicks last year, he was taking over a dysfunctional, mostly talentless franchise that was littered with bad contracts and few signs of hope.
He was also handed the easiest job in sports.
Never before had such a large group of people (fans, the media, players, David Stern) been so collectively content with building for the distant future. In New York, the motto wasn’t, “we’ll get ‘em next year,” it was, “we’ll get ‘em in two-and-a-half years.” By contrast, if during his campaign, Barack Obama told everyone it would be the end of 2010 before the US showed any sign of progress, chances are we would be a heart attack away from having Sarah Palin run the nation.
For Walsh, winning in 2008 wasn’t a priority, which he said plenty of times. Tanking wasn’t either. The Knicks were awful, but they certainly weren’t the Kings or Clippers. To be honest, it really didn’t matter if the team just stopped playing altogether. No one would have noticed. Walsh simply needed to get rid of some huge contracts (Stephon Marbury, Zach Randolph, Jamal Crawford) to get the franchise’s finances in order so it could make a run at LeBron James in 2010.
And there lies the problem. The class of 2010 will be the greatest crop of free agents in the history of sports, with the likes of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire and Yao Ming, along with a number of veterans who could immediately have an impact on any team in the league. But LeBron James is the only player Walsh and the Knicks have their eyes on. It’s the King or bust.
Walsh has even drafted around the idea that LeBron will end up with the Knicks. He took Danilo Gallinari, knowing full well that he was just as likely to never play meaningful minutes in the NBA as he was to become a star in the league. That’s what the LeBron security blanket does. It allows you to gamble with picks.
This year, all signs point to Stephen Curry as the Knicks first pick, unless they somehow fall into a top 3 pick. Walsh sees Curry as the next Mo Williams, a dead-on shooter who can compliment James, which is true. But he’s also a 6’ 160 lb guy with no real position (can’t play the point, too small for the two) who will struggle to defend even marginal NBA players.
So the question becomes, what if the Knicks can’t get LeBron? What if he wins a championship this year or next or both and realizes he doesn’t need New York to elevate his pursuit of being a global icon? This should have been asked a long time ago, but everyone in New York (fans, the media, certainly the Knicks) is so arrogant and believe it’s their god given right to sign James.
As great as the 2010 class is, LeBron is the only player that can carry a team by himself. He’s probably the only player in modern history that could do it. And now that it’s becoming more and more of a possibility that he might not go to New York, the Knicks will be left with a roster that could win 60 games with the best guy, but will struggle to win 45 with the next-best guy.
It should be the easiest job in sports. Stink it up, clear cap room, draft safely, sign a star. That’s all Walsh had to do. Of course the Knicks would be able to sign one the top guys; it is New York after all. But it was never about signing just any star; it had to be LeBron.
So now somehow, the easiest job in sports has become the most stressful.