Knicks owner leaves Walsh in limbo

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Isiah Thomas still speaks regularly with the owner of the New York Knicks, sometimes several times a week, sources say. Jim Dolan, the unaccomplished son of a billionaire, confers with Thomas about the job that Donnie Walsh has done as president. Isiah is pining for his old job, so you can imagine the bruising critiques that come from the exiled emperor at Florida International University.

“Isiah knows more about where Donnie stands with Dolan than Donnie knows himself,” one source familiar with the conversations told Yahoo! Sports.

The good news for Knicks fans: Thomas is sure Dolan doesn’t want him to return to run the Knicks.

The bad news for Knicks fans: Thomas isn’t so sure Dolan wants Walsh to return to run the Knicks.

No one should blame Thomas that Dolan hasn’t picked up the option on Walsh’s contract. This is on the owner, like everything else that goes awry in this franchise. Dolan has until April 30 to trigger the rest of Walsh’s deal through the 2011-12 season. Truth be told, a two-year extension is in order.

There’s no reason to let this linger and feed an unnecessary stress within the Knicks except that there’s something seriously wrong with Dolan. Real-world logic never applies to him and never drives his decisions. It’s a bizarre world at the mercy of his personal indulgences and sad, petty obsession with playing the part of the dolt contrarian.

Walsh is 69, fighting back after two surgeries, and as badly as he wants to finish the Knicks’ rebuilding job, he refuses to raise the issue of his future with ownership. He won’t make his case, won’t plead. The body of work speaks for itself. Or it doesn’t. And whatever deals are being made behind his back, well, Walsh doesn’t play the political game.

Several executives and agents believe the Knicks’ hiring of former Denver Nuggets executive Mark Warkentien as a top consultant was made at a level above Walsh. Walsh likes Warkentien, respects his acumen, his talent, but he’s had chances to hire Warkentien in the past and never did. Why now? Well, Warkentien changed representation to CAA – home of dealmaker William Wesley, the famous Worldwide Wes – and clearly Knicks ownership wants to do business with Wes. His agency has Carmelo Anthony(notes) and Chris Paul(notes) as clients, and those are the Knicks’ top targets in the short and long term. How much Wesley can do to deliver those players is much in doubt, except to the fool owners who buy into the belief he can do so all by himself.

Outside of using Wesley to help him reach the mercurial Eddy Curry(notes), Walsh has never courted him. He doesn’t want to cut deals with him, hire his coaching clients or grease him for free agents. Walsh is old-school this way, maybe a traditionalist, but he actually believes you’re supposed to follow the NBA’s rules on tampering. If those rules say you can’t talk to a rep about LeBron James(notes) until he’s a free agent, well, you don’t do it.

As it turns out, Dolan and his corporate minions are a much easier target for CAA than Walsh. That’s why they’d prefer to go through assistant general manager Allan Houston(notes), a longtime family friend of Wesley’s. They go back to their Louisville days, where Houston’s father, Wade, was an assistant coach and star player Milt Wagner was Wes’ childhood pal. Houston had used a rival coaching agent of Wesley’s, but left the agent before Houston needed a new contract negotiated this summer. If Houston has signed with CAA, it’s still a mystery. It almost doesn’t matter. Wes has his fingerprints all over him.

Houston has long been a favorite of Dolan, and many believe the owner has wanted him groomed as an heir apparent to Walsh. That handoff was supposed to come later, once Walsh left. The idea it would come in 2011 is too much, too soon.

Through several regimes, the Garden has always been a cesspool for the survivalists and backstabbers and con men. Kill or be killed. Walsh doesn’t engage, and maybe it hurts him. Dolan likes yes men, sycophants, and the Knicks president has never played along. When Dolan tried to push Thomas back onto Walsh as his GM last summer, Walsh threatened to resign. He wouldn’t let his franchise be thrown into that kind of dysfunctional chaos.

Walsh has had to live with the fallout of Thomas’ former right-hand man, scout Rodney Heard, and the scandal that Yahoo! Sports uncovered in October. For years, Heard had been a part of violating the NBA’s predraft workout rules. This started under Thomas, but spilled into Walsh’s regime.

Even so, Walsh wouldn’t blame it on Thomas when that would’ve been easy. Walsh insisted that he had himself not only inherited Heard, but given him a new contract and believed he was a good scout. This was Walsh being a good company man because several sources believe he’d worked to get rid of Heard prior to Yahoo! Sports’ investigation and ownership wouldn’t let him. All because Heard was Isiah’s guy and Isiah was still pushing Dolan to keep him employed.

NBA investigators have talked to Indiana Pacers guard Brandon Rush(notes) twice, and sources said he’s corroborated the Knicks’ cover-up of an illegal predraft workout that included him injuring his knee and having to withdraw from the 2007 draft and return to Kansas. Another league executive who was interviewed said investigators asked whether he had information about Heard steering young players to agents for possible kickbacks.

Rival teams are demanding the NBA punish the Knicks hard because of the egregious nature of the violations. This could mean Walsh gets hit with a loss of draft picks – never mind his owner having to pay significant fines. Heard could be subject to a firing and possible ban on NBA employment for a significant period.

Beyond the salary-cap issues and culture of losing, these are the messes Walsh was left to clean up.

If Dolan doesn’t want to pick up Walsh’s option and wants Walsh’s contract to end on June 30, he ought to tell him now. Walsh doesn’t deserve this playing out so publicly, nor do the Knicks need it hanging over them going into the playoffs. Dolan is a dunce, but Walsh would make this easy for him. He won’t fight this. He won’t wage a public war. He’ll say thank you, finish out the season and move on.

One league executive with strong ties to Walsh suggests: “If [Larry] Bird doesn’t want to come back in Indiana, don’t be surprised if Donnie ends up back running the team again. [Pacers owner] Herb Simon still loves him, and Donnie isn’t ready to retire yet.”

Even so, Walsh has been there and done that with the Pacers. He came to New York because it was his hometown and a lifelong dream to take a swing at bringing back a title. That hasn’t changed for him, and probably never will.

Before New York’s victory over Detroit on Sunday night, an old Knick, Gerald Wilkins, found Walsh courtside and introduced himself. “Thanks for bringing the Knicks back,” he said.

Walsh shook Wilkins’ hand and sheepishly said, “Ah, we aren’t back yet, but we’re getting there.”

Donnie Walsh deserves the chance to finish the job, but this isn’t about what’s best for him. It’s about the New York Knicks and an owner who listens far more to the executive who destroyed the credibility of his franchise than the one who restored it. Come on out, Jim Dolan. If this is a coup to run out Walsh, own up to it, let the man leave with dignity and end this charade.

Even in Dolan’s warped world, one thing has to be true: Donnie Walsh deserves to know his fate before Isiah Thomas.