SAN ANTONIO - Donnie Walsh sat in his usual spot behind the Knicks' bench watching the pregame warm-ups. The Knicks president is very much in observation mode - actually, he'll tell you he always is - as the team plays out these final games of the season.
Walsh dismissed any notion that his presence on this five-game trip, which began last night against the Spurs, suggests he also might be scrutinizing his coaching staff - from Mike D'Antoni to his assistants and other parts of basketball operations.
"I'm here to evaluate the players," Walsh said.
D'Antoni has received heavy criticism from the media and some fans for his performance in his first two seasons as Knicks coach. Most of the debate against D'Antoni is that he did not get enough out of the players on the roster, though it was built not for winning but to clear salary-cap space for this summer.
What's often overlooked, however, is that D'Antoni was hired to be an asset to attract free agents for the Knicks, who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday. His offensive system - the one he ran with two-time MVP Steve Nash in Phoenix - is extremely popular among the star players in the NBA, such as two of the biggest names in this summer's free- agency sweepstakes, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
James talks a lot about defense, but he's also extremely interested in offensive systems, as well, especially those that encourage the run-and-gun. According to a person with knowledge of the situation, James met with Kentucky coach John Calipari this past summer to talk about Calipari's philosophy with the dribble drive motion offense.
With William Wesley, who has a close relationship with both James and Calipari, entering the ring as an official agent who will represent coaches, there is a prevailing belief that Wesley could get Calipari an NBA job by using James' free agency as a possible lure. Calipari is in his first season at Kentucky, but might already be eyeing a return to the NBA.
The Clippers, for instance, decided to fire GM Mike Dunleavy on Tuesday to clear the front office for just this type of power play. The Nets are in a similar situation, with Kiki Vandeweghe serving as an interim coach and Rod Thorn unsure of his future. Incoming owner Mikhail Prokhorov will spend whatever it takes to make the Nets attractive to James, and that includes hiring whomever James would want as coach.
The Bulls could do the same after this season by letting go of coach Vinny Del Negro. The magnitude of this summer's free-agency crop is that great. One of these players - and in the Knicks' case, two - are considered franchise-changers.
Walsh believes he already has a coach in place who appeals to star players. But what about the rest of the staff? Any consideration to making changes there? "No, no, no, no thought whatsoever," D'Antoni said. "And there will be none."
When Suns GM Steve Kerr asked D'Antoni to adjust his staff and consider bringing in a defensive-minded assistant, D'Antoni bristled. The situation led to D'Antoni leaving Phoenix.
With the Knicks, D'Antoni made it clear that the only necessary changes involve the roster and the long-awaited upgrade in talent that is expected to come via that $30 million-plus in salary-cap space.
"We're not throwing anybody under the bus," D'Antoni said. "That's not going to happen."