We'll know in the next few days, if not weeks, just how much power Donnie Walsh has as president of the Knicks. If he gets to hire a longtime confidant in Mark Warkentien as a consultant, a situation that first came to light in a report Sunday night by Yahoo!, then Walsh's standing with the franchise would seem to be solidified. If that move results in Warkentien, the former Denver Nuggets GM, brokering a deal that brings Carmelo Anthony to New York, it should guarantee Walsh can keep the job for as long as he wants.
But right now, with all Walsh has done to rebuild the organization on and off the court, in making it fiscally healthier than it's been in a decade, his future is still not a certainty. Walsh, who turns 70 on March 1, has a team option in his contract for the 2011-12 season that has to be picked up by April.
So why, with the Knicks (25-22) over .500 and with a decent hold on a playoff spot in the East with 35 games to go, hasn't Walsh been given any assurances about next season yet? Let's go back to March 12, 2007, when Isiah Thomas was awarded a contract extension after the Knicks moved into the eighth-and-final playoff spot in the East with 19 games to go in the season. In hindsight, the move was premature, as the Knicks immediately fell out of the eighth spot and never returned. In fact, they lost 15 of the last 19 games. And the move to reward Isiah before anything had been actually accomplished was panned by the media with each loss.
So let's just safely assume there's a reasonable hesitation to make the same mistake twice.
Walsh should feel confident that once the Knicks get closer to locking up that long-awaited playoff berth, which was the main goal for this season (obviously it's natural to get greedy and prognosticate the team's ability to win a playoff round), the final year of his deal will get locked in. But until then -- and as long as Isiah is still looking to get back into the NBA -- Walsh has reason to wonder if he'll get to finish the job that he started here with the Knicks. And, really, if the Knicks get Carmelo in a good deal and make the playoffs with cap space to keep building in 2012, shouldn't Walsh get more than just the final year of his deal? His goal is to get the Knicks to a championship level. He'd have made a huge step towards that in just three years.
It would certainly speak volumes if Warkentien is hired in the exact consultant role that Isiah initially was given in August, only to be disapproved by the NBA because Isiah still held his position as head coach of an NCAA school, at FIU. Though there remains a fear -- no, that's not too strong of a word to use here -- around 2 Penn Plaza that Isiah will still find a way to nudge his way back into the franchise, it does seem he has lost a great deal of influence at the highest levels because of remarks he has made about his departure from the Garden.
And let's not forget to mention how angry the customers get at the mere mention of his name.
Isiah may have already given up on the Knicks as his avenue back into the NBA. Perhaps his only other option is in the one city where he still hears the cheers: Detroit. The woeful Pistons are in the midst of an ownership transfer and John Kuester is coaching an apathetic team that is 14 games under .500 and four games out of the final playoff spot in the East. Isiah was spotted sitting with his former Bad Boys backcourt mate and the Pistons current GM, Joe Dumars, at the Pistons-Heat game in Miami on Friday. Would it be that much of a shock to see the Pistons bring Isiah back to the franchise as the next head coach? Most people in the league believe coaching, not managing, is Thomas' best role.
Meanwhile, Warkentien is a brilliant behind-the-scenes-type manager who quietly pulled off both the Allen Iverson trade with the 76ers and then the Iverson-for-Chauncey Billups trade with Detroit. The former NBA Executive of the Year still has strong ties with the Nuggets franchise and strong ties with Carmelo and CAA. Quite frankly, Walsh might be better off not officially hiring Warkentien, because then he couldn't, by tampering rules, work as a potential backchannel liaison.
But Warkentien is too valuable not to have in-house, especially when it comes to getting this deal done. And make no mistake, the Knicks want to get this deal done.
* * *
* - Timofey Mozgov's 23-point, 14-rebound performance in his first real game action in months was something out of the Nate Robinson annals. Credit Raymond Felton and Toney Douglas for finding Mozgov on cuts and rolls, especially when his man helped off. Mozgov had the yips early, but once he flushed that first dunk, you could see the confidence begin to grow. Mozgov can be very important to the Knicks because of his length and size, but also his quickness to the basket. If a defender helps off him, he should, and, as we saw against Detroit, can make you pay.
The best part about Mozgov's game was how much his teammates seemed to revel in his success. All of them pointed to the extra work he put in before and after practice and before games with assistant coaches such as Herb Williams and Dan D'Antoni. That's the kind of stuff that always pays off eventually, kids. "He is a true professional," Felton said.
As for the crowd chanting "Moz-gov! Moz-gov!", he said that was "really, really good" but he went on to mention that he's heard his name chanted before in his native Russia, when he played for his hometown teams. But there they were a bit more formal. They chanted his entire name, which Garden fans have done in the past for Patrick Ewing and Jeff Van Gundy. But those guys had four syllable names, which are easier to sing.
Mozgov's numbers were so impressive I had to look up the last time the Knicks had a rookie big man have a 20-10 game. David Lee, as a power forward, had 23 points and 15 rebounds on Jan. 2, 2006 in a triple-overtime win over the Suns. Channing Frye, also a power forward, had 21 points and 11 rebounds on Nov. 26, 2005 against the 76ers.
But what about a rookie center? The last time the Knicks had a rookie center put up a 20-10 performance? Obviously you have to go back to 1985-86 and Patrick Ewing.
For you nit-pickers: The Knicks drafted only three 7-footer centers since Ewing was a rookie: Greg Butler (2nd Round, 1988) was a mascot, Frederic Weis (1st Round, '99) never made it to training camp, and Nene (1st Round, '02), who is technically listed at 6-11 but we'll throw in the extra inch, was traded for Antonio McDyess.
* - By the way, Anthony Randolph played too. Randolph hasn't blown anyone away with his worth ethic -- nowhere near what Mozgov has offered -- but to his credit he was ready to play when his number was called, just as he promised. What was more admirable was that Randolph didn't come into the game looking to put up shots and collect numbers. He took only one shot but grabbed five boards and blocked a shot in 8:30.
His role was to give Amar'e Stoudemire a rest, which he did in the first half. But D'Antoni said Stoudemire asked that he didn't get his usual break in the second half (generally bridging the third and fourth quarters) because he didn't want his sprained right knee to stiffen up. So Randolph didn't get back into the game until Stoudemire exited with 1:23 to go and the Knicks up by 16 points.
While you can expect to see more of Mozgov in the rotation, Randolph will likely go back on ice when Shawne Williams, who served his one-game suspension, returns Wednesday against Dallas. So it goes.
* - Danilo Gallinari had another strong game but it went mostly overshadowed by the feel-good story involving Mozgov and the feeling-pain story involving Stoudemire. As he exited his post-game media session, D'Antoni offered the fact that Gallinari played well to anyone who would listen. It was Gallinari's third 20-point effort in his last five games and it's impossible to not notice how aggressive he has been going to the basket and drawing fouls since he returned from the knee sprain suffered on Jan. 2.
The lift he's showing on his drives to the hoop is something new. He is throwing down dunks now -- he posterized rookie Greg Monroe early in the game -- where he used to barely get to the rim. That appears to be the result of weight room work with the team's strength and conditioning coach, Greg Brittenham, as well as some adjustments made to Gallo's stride and tempo when he does put the ball on the floor. The coaching staff noticed he was taking long strides, which make it harder to get a strong push-off, so he was instructed to slow down his movements and keep his steps shorter. That allows him to get more power in his jump, which gets him closer to the rim for better finishes.
"I'm working on a lot of stuff," Gallinari said. "Stuff you don't see in practice that I do in the weight room, it's working out. Me and Greg, we are doing a pretty good job, trying to work on the explosiveness. All the stuff we're doing is working."
* - There was a collective groan from the Garden crowd when Stoudemire got up after a fall early in the fourth quarter and started limping. He stayed in the game and later said it was the result of banging knees with Ben Gordon. This time it was his left knee. On Friday, he sprained the right one when Marvin Williams fell into him. Clearly battered and bruised, Amar'e still put up 33 points, though he saved most of it for the end when it mattered most. Asked how he feels, Amar'e said, "I'll be ready, no worries." There are two days until the next game (Wednesday vs. Dallas) and the February schedule provides plenty of buffers between games -- only one back-to-back (Feb. 11-12 vs Lakers and at Nets) -- to provide needed rest.
* - Shirt of the Night: Ronny Turiaf's t-shirt said, "I AM PLASTIC." It's a Kidrobot thing in case you're wondering.
* - At the Garden was Gerald Wilkins, who happens to be the last Knicks second round pick to start at shooting guard as a rookie, before Landry Fields. And Wilkins did it before Fields was born. Of course Trevor Ariza was the last Knicks second round pick to start anywhere as a rookie, as the small forward had five starts in 2004-05.