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Hats Off To Donnie

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A Daily Babble Production

Whether the NBA's current trading landscape is inherently flawed remains a viable question.  It seems that fewer than ten of the league's teams are actively looking to get better each year, and the rest are primarily concerned with clearing salaries in exchange for future cap flexibility and perhaps some draft picks.

But that's another debate for another day.  Because for better or for worse, the system described above is what the NBA uses, and Knicks head honcho Donnie Walsh played that system excellently yesterday.

In two fell swoops, Walsh greatly improved the Knicks' long-term financial outlook and the character makeup of his team, to boot.

Among the many complaints about the running of the Knicks' organization under Walsh predecessors Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas, perhaps none was more significant than the long-term salary cap purgatory in which the two clueless fellas managed to embed the Knicks.  Having guys who aren't all that good at winning basketball games is a bad enough problem; not having the flexibility to replace those guys with others who are better at winning basketball games only compounds that problem.

In moving Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford, Walsh took two enormous steps toward increasing that flexibility, particularly for 2010, the year of the most anticipated NBA free agent bonanza in recent memory.  Randolph's $48 million and Crawford's $28 million through 2011 head out the door (plus nearly $3 million of Mardy Collins through 2010), replaced by approximately $50 million worth of Tim Thomas, Cuttino Mobley and Al Harrington, all of which will be off the books by summer 2010.  Whether the Knicks will be able to woo grand prize LeBron James at that point is of course still in question, but having enough cap space to pursue two top-tier free agents in a class full of them can hardly be considered a bad thing.

That is particularly true when one considers the fact that Walsh didn't exactly break up a dynastic group in moving Randolph and Crawford.  Yes, the Knicks jumped out to a surprising 6-5 start under Mike D'Antoni before Friday's trades, but the possibility of something-better-than-putridity-or-maybe-mediocrity shouldn't outweigh the value of making sound moves to prepare for a day that this team could give itself a shot to seriously contend. 

I've said it too many times to count in this space by this point, and since I guarantee you're getting tired of it, the explanation gets shorter each time: Teams centered on Zach Randolph aren't likely to win any prizes that matter.  His lack of defense and unique ability to heinously murder ball movement (and the fact that he isn't the world's greatest teammate) have rendered Randolph a player capable of filling his own stat line as well as the "L" column for his team.  Getting rid of this guy might hurt the Knicks' scoring and rebounding in the short term, but it could serve as the ultimate addition by subtraction move, not only regarding his contract but for his attitude as well.

Crawford has grown on me in recent years and was off to a hot start this season (19.6 points per game on 57.1 percent true shooting), but this is still a guy who has a career true shooting mark of 51.4 percent, doesn't guard anybody or contribute anything on the boards and still occasionally suffers from thinking he's playing in the schoolyard (though it's easy to see how Quentin Richardson fosters that thinking on the Knicks). 

With Randolph and Crawford, this was a Knicks team that ran the floor, scored a lot of points, still didn't play defense (20th in efficiency), wasn't actually all that efficient offensively (14th) and still had plenty of knuckleheads on the payroll (Randolph, Eddy Curry, Stephon Marbury).  A low playoff berth and a first-round bouncing would have represented overachievement for this team.  And that still would have been the case for several seasons thereafter thanks to the cap situation.

Now, maybe the team will be a few games worse in the immediate future than it would have been without the trades.  Or maybe it won't be.  Tim Thomas played some of the most inspired basketball of his career for D'Antoni in 46 games (including playoffs) with the Suns in 2005-06, and he was huge in the 2006 postseason.  Mobley may still be able to shoot a bit, and Harrington, a Walsh favorite, comes familiar with uptempo play courtesy of his days in Golden State's Nellieball system.  He is still a talent who should be in the prime of his career and might have just needed a change of scenery.

But even if this Knicks team finishes a few games worse in the standings this season than it could have with Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford on board, it won't mean much.  The goal in this business is to win championships, and a day ago, the Knicks had no chance of putting themselves in position to do so coming at any point on the horizon.  Now, the light at the end of the tunnel is suddenly just visible.

Considering the Knicks' situation a short time ago, that there is even any glimmer of that light on the surface is a testament to the work done by Donnie Walsh already in the relative infancy of his Sizable Apple tenure.

Though the 'Bockers are still far from out of the woods, there have been better days to be a Knicks detractor.