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New leader, same result for Knicks

For the most important job in his sports empire, Jim Dolan never could be bothered with the simplest of searches. Dolan flipped through a Rolodex of ex-superstars from anonymous wallflower Scott Layden, dangling the job to peerless point guards. Magic Johnson declined, but tossed his support to unemployed Isiah Thomas. Ownership spent little time probing Thomas for a plan, and just turned the kingdom over to his wayward rule.

This time, Dolan deferred to NBA commissioner David Stern, and the old-boy network spit out Donnie Walsh. He had been a terrific general manager for a long time in Indiana, but his franchise had spiraled in large part because of increasingly poor judgment. Sold as the ultimate NBA insider for the Knicks, an old sage with some of the league’s deepest institutional knowledge, Walsh has had a sluggish start to the job.

For a franchise in full LeBron James-Chris Bosh recruiting mode, there has been little separation of the Knicks’ new order from its dysfunctional past. The mismanagement of the Stephon Marbury saga has delivered a disheartening message to today's and tomorrow’s Knicks: Once again, Marbury was empowered to drain the spirit out of the locker room. Once again, he’s been enable to dictate the terms of engagement.

With his franchise in crisis, Walsh should’ve been in Detroit on Wednesday to suspend Marbury on the spot. Once Marbury had refused Mike D’Antoni’s demand to play for a second time in six days, the guard never should’ve been allowed back into the Knicks’ locker room.

As much as anything, Walsh never should’ve left his coach to manage this mess alone. Reports were that Walsh had been traveling back to his Indianapolis home for Thanksgiving.

As one NBA executive said, “You have to be on the road with your team right now if you’re Donnie. You can’t wait until LeBron shows up in two years and then decide to travel with your team.”

The Knicks announced Friday they have suspended Marbury for one game and fined him $400,000. But the embarrassment has already gone on too long, and should’ve been stopped weeks ago. The damage has been done.

In the end Wednesday, it was Knicks veteran Quentin Richardson publicly ripping Marbury for betraying his teammates. He shouldn’t have had to be the lone voice. That’s Walsh’s job. He should’ve been there.

What’s more, why didn’t they approach Marbury prior to the team flying out of New York on Tuesday night? Why did this circus have to travel again? Nevertheless, Walsh had to see the crises coming, with the Knicks unable to dress guards Nate Robinson and Cuttino Mobley. D’Antoni had to go back to Marbury to get him on the floor, only to be rejected again.

So far, Walsh’s top draft pick, Danilo Gallinari, has been lost with a bad back. He traded his two top scorers, Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford, for 2010 salary-cap space. One of the players returned in the trade, Mobley, has a heart condition troubling enough that his NBA future is in doubt. After an encouraging start to the season under D’Antoni, the Knicks are rapidly becoming unwatchable.

James and Bosh are playing for functional franchises that have surrounded them with good talent. They won’t just show up in New York because it’s New York. Geography alone won’t earn New York its saviors. The NBA sent out a memo to teams on Wednesday, a reminder about tampering rules and consequences. Two league executives believed it was in response to Walsh’s public comments about James and Bosh.

Walsh, 67, does the GM job his way. He doesn’t get out and scout much. He isn’t always on the road with his team. He works the phones relentlessly, yes, but that’s no substitute for witnessing prospects with your own eyes.

Walsh is a great basketball mind. He’s had a long, successful career. Whatever his style, only results matter. Ultimately, that will be the only judge.

But running the Knicks isn’t supposed to be a lifetime achievement award. These days, it demands an around-the-clock vigil. There are no days off, no holidays.