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John Schuhmann

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Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni sees an immediate bright future for Danilo Gallinari.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Knicks eyeing improvement before summer of 2010

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Sep 9 2009 9:47AM

Donnie Walsh came to New York 17 months ago with a plan to make the Knicks a contender by freeing up cap space for the summer of 2010 and then hitting it big in free agency. And he was aggressive in executing his plan, trading away or waiving seven of the 12 players he inherited from Isiah Thomas in the first 11 months of his tenure as team president.

While they gave the Knicks the cap space they needed to sign a major free agent or two next summer, none of the deals Walsh pulled off made the Knicks particularly better or worse on the floor. They were lacking All-Stars, lockdown defenders and players who can make their teammates better before Walsh took over. And they're still lacking them now.

Hiring Mike D'Antoni to run the team gave New York an identity and a direction, but as far as developing a winner, the Knicks have been in a holding pattern for the last year. That holding pattern has continued through this summer, as the Knicks were unable to sign their early free agent targets, and have yet to even re-sign their own (restricted) free agents, David Lee and Nate Robinson, because of their commitment to keep next year's cap space largely intact.

Reversing Fortunes
NBA.com's experts review the teams that didn't make the Playoffs last season and what they'll need to do to avoid the Lottery next season.
Date Team
Aug. 23 New Jersey Nets
Aug. 24 Toronto Raptors
Aug. 25 Oklahoma City Thunder
Aug. 26 Phoenix Suns
Aug. 27 Charlotte Bobcats
Aug. 28 Minnesota Timberwolves
Aug. 31 Memphis Grizzlies
Sept. 1 Washington Wizards
Sept. 2 Sacramento Kings
Sept. 3 Golden State Warriors
Sept. 4 New York Knicks
Sept. 7 L.A. Clippers
Sept. 8 Indiana Pacers
Sept. 9 Milwaukee Bucks

"We went after people that we thought would help our team," D'Antoni told NBA.com on Thursday. "There were parameters that we kept within that limited some of the choices, but at the same time, there was nothing that we passed on that I thought would make us that much better of a team."

The New York Daily News reported Wednesday that Walsh believes that both Lee and Robinson will be back with the Knicks this season (likely with one-year contracts that will make them free agents again next summer), and D'Antoni is similarly confident.

The coach also believes that his team doesn't have to wait until next summer to begin moving forward. His optimism begins with second-year forward Danilo Gallinari, who played just 28 games last season, dealing with back issues that eventually required surgery. D'Antoni is very high on Gallinari, and he'd better be, considering the Knicks drafted the Italian with the sixth pick in a draft that produced one of the most productive rookie classes in NBA history.

"What we've seen of him and what we know of him as a person, a leader and all that, we think he can be a top-level player in this league," D'Antoni said. "He's definitely one of the best shooters in the league, without a doubt. He's 6-10, knows how to play and is a better defender than what most people think."

Those are strong words for a player who has yet to log 500 minutes in the league and at this point is nothing more than potential. But D'Antoni has a rosy outlook on most aspects of his team's current situation.

He believes that all the trades kept the Knicks from building any sort of momentum last season, and that more continuity will produce more wins this time around.

"We'll be more stable in starting off with the group that finished the year," D'Antoni said. "We think that we can improve a lot just by standing pat, instead of chasing guys that aren't necessarily as good as the guys we've got."

The coach is also unaffected by fact that half of his roster is playing with just one year left on their contract, unsure of whether or not they're a part of the long-term plan.

"They'll play hard," D'Antoni said with a laugh, knowing how pending free agency can keep players motivated. "Everybody's in the same boat. Everybody's just pointing to this year and looking to get as much out of this year as we can."

In order to prove to a free agent that he can win in New York, the Knicks will have to get more out of this year than they did the last. Walsh can also help the situation by finding a team willing to take Eddy Curry or Jared Jeffries off his hands. If he can shed one of those salaries and not get multi-year contracts in return, he'll have even more cap space next summer.

The plan isn't foolproof, because free agents will have to want to come to New York for it to work. Good players were made available this summer by other teams looking to save money, but by not making moves like the Spurs, Cavs, Magic or Mavs did, Walsh has kept the quality of his roster low.

Even if Lee and Robinson re-sign and Gallinari quickly turns into a productive rotation player, the Knicks aren't contending for anything unless they hit the free agency jackpot next summer. But that's their plan and they're sticking to it.

If you have a question or comment for NBA.com's John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on twitter.

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