When an NBA team president sheds millions from the payroll, acquires two All-Stars and ends a six-year playoff drought, he is usually rewarded with a contract extension. In New York he was shown the door. Last week the Knicks announced that Donnie Walsh would not return as the team's top executive. (Walsh will remain with the team next season as a consultant.) In a statement, owner James Dolan said that he and Walsh had "mutually agreed" on the decision; Walsh, who is 70 and underwent hip and neck surgery last year, said he was "running out of energy." However, an NBA source said the driving forces behind the departure were Dolan's insistence that Walsh take a "significant" pay cut and the owner's refusal to give Walsh autonomy over basketball decisions.
Walsh's exit was greeted with surprise around the league. In his three seasons in New York, he cleared enough cap space to sign Amar'e Stoudemire, drafted the principle asset (Danilo Gallinari) that enabled him to acquire Carmelo Anthony and reduced a payroll that had swelled to more than $100 million. Last season the Knicks finished over .500 for the first time since 2001.
Even more puzzling is the looming presence of Isiah Thomas, Walsh's predecessor and the man who created the Knicks' mess in the first place. Dolan tried to hire Thomas as a consultant in 2010 (the NBA nixed the deal, citing Thomas's status as coach at Florida International) and last summer sent Thomas to Ohio to recruit LeBron James. Dolan's affection for Thomas has led to speculation that Thomas could be brought back. Thomas told ESPN he had "no interest" in succeeding Walsh but also said he would "never say never" about a return. Were that to happen, the Knicks would come full circle, with the man who righted the ship replaced by the one who nearly sank it