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Walsh will be significant upgrade for Knicks

Three weeks ago, Donnie Walsh was absent from his customary Conseco Field House seat to watch the Pacers and Knicks. He was hiding. Word was out that Isiah Thomas’ job would soon belong to Walsh, and it was as though New York’s coach was determined to deliver his old boss and soon-to-be successor the loser’s gift that keeps on giving: Extra Secaucus ping-pong balls.

So yes, Thomas has been canceling practices with the regularity of a beer-league softball team and the Knicks beat guys swear that he conducts the shortest game-day shootarounds in the sport. Whatever, Thomas’ determination to tank the rest of a lost season has been undeterred despite the inevitability of Walsh usurping him as Knicks emperor.

Even with the game tied with nine minutes left on March 17, Thomas chose Randolph Morris and Wilson Chandler over his two most productive players, Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph. Surprise, surprise: New York lost by a dozen, inspiring one Knicks assistant coach to privately grumble the obvious to league friends that night, “The plan wasn’t to win the game.”

Truth be told, taking a dive for Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose has been the best-executed endeavor of this regime’s four failed years.

Essentially, it ended on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, where Walsh was introduced as the Knicks’ top basketball executive. Walsh has a long, distinguished history of success in the sport, an insider’s insider whom the commissioner keeps on speed dial. He’s a good hire for the Knicks, an upgrade, but seriously: Opening a phone book, closing your eyes and pointing would probably be an upgrade.

The discussion of Thomas staying as coach beyond this season had been born out of a belief that beyond Jim Dolan’s bizarre loyalty to him, Walsh wouldn’t be averse to the idea. After all, he hired Thomas to coach the Pacers. Here’s the problem: Never mind that Thomas hasn’t worked at his job coaching with the Knicks; Walsh privately held that that was the case with the Pacers, too.

Some league executives insist that Walsh never wanted to hire Isiah in Indiana, that it was the owner, Herb Simon, who pushed an old Hoosier hero on him.

Whatever the case, it’s impossible to believe that Thomas returns as Knicks coach beyond this season, though there’s always a chance Dolan wants him to stay with the organization in some front-office capacity. The fact that Thomas has been so loyal to the losing cause down the stretch suggests that he believed he would keep some role with drafting and scouting players.

Dolan hired the preferred choice of David Stern, who has been pushing Dolan hard for months now. Stern pushed him into dropping an appeal and settling Anucha Browne Sanders’ sexual harassment suit for $11.5 million. Stern pushed Walsh on Dolan, too. This hire delivers a dose of credibility to the Knicks’ bottomed-out operation, goodwill to a city of basketball writers who’ve always been partial to Walsh’s goodwill and Bronx charm.

Nevertheless, there are younger, more cutting-edge minds in the sport. There are now executives, too. To think that Dolan never called R.C. Buford, the Spurs GM, speaks to the flawed business sense of the franchise. How did they hire the last president and GM? They offered the job to Magic Johnson. He turned it down. Magic said, “Try Isiah.” They did.

Buford has the title of general manager, but Gregg Popovich has ultimate control of the sport’s best-run franchise. Buford loves his life in San Antonio, his relationship with Popovich, but he would’ve listened to the Knicks. Unlike Walsh, who no longer travels to scout colleges and Europe, Buford is one of those younger executives who travels to the ends of the earth to complement Tim Duncan with the perfect cast of characters. Any top executive with final say must work this way now.

No one has done a poorer job of mining the globe for players than the Knicks. After spending time studying the Cleveland Indians, Buford constructed a model Developmental League relationship with San Antonio’s Austin affiliate. These are different days in the NBA, different vistas and the Knicks, with unlimited resources, would’ve been wise to explore them all.

There’s little love between Stern and the Spurs, and it was no surprise that Buford wasn’t on his short list for Dolan.

Walsh works the phones hard, and he’s relentless that way. The Knicks are hiring him for his great eye of talent and team building, but that work will largely be left to his understudy, perhaps ex-Philadelphia GM Billy King. Walsh is a believer in his old point guard, Mark Jackson, as a future NBA coach. Scott Skiles is a possibility too, and a source close to him says he’s already told ousted Indiana coach, Kelvin Sampson, that he wants to bring him as an assistant wherever he goes.

What will be most interesting for Walsh is whether he heeds John Calipari’s clandestine push for the job. Coach Life Skills has Memphis in the Final Four and he knows this weekend could be his ticket back to the NBA, where he never wanted to leave. He is selling himself as the man who can deliver LeBron James in 2010, the Jay-Z for the Knicks. Of course, Memphis’ director of player personnel, William Wesley – the famous World Wide Wes – is responsible for delivering the Tigers’ big stars, from Dajuan Wagner to Chris Douglas-Roberts to Rose, with last week’s McDonald’s All-American game MVP Tyreke Evans of Philadelphia on deck.

This time, Calipari is desperate to get on the right side of the Hudson River, desperate to vindicate his checkered run with the New Jersey Nets. He made the playoffs once in Jersey, but mostly made enemies at a rapid rate. His paranoia and pettiness was legendary, but wildly entertaining. Even so, Calipari’s partner in prowling for NBA jobs, Larry Brown, is still close with Walsh, and King did baby sit Brown and Calipari together on the Sixers bench in 1999-2000.

For now, Donnie Walsh, out of Fordham Prep and the Bronx, is the new star at Madison Square Garden. He’s 67 years old and the biggest mess in basketball belongs to him now. For all the bad contracts, bad characters and bad karma that Isiah Thomas left him, there is this one final gift for all the lottery picks he cost them for Eddy Curry.

Twenty wins and sinking for this franchise. For now, Donnie Walsh has the benefit of the bouncing ping-pong balls across the river in Secaucus. No, the plan hasn’t been to win the game in New York. Maybe now, that starts to change for the New York Knicks.