Don't bet on Walsh to bungle Artest trade
Ian O'Connor / Special to FOXSports.com
Posted: 6 hours ago
From the blind side, Donnie Walsh was hit with his epiphany on the plane ride home. His Indiana Pacers had just lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2000 NBA Finals, and right there, at 30,000 feet, Walsh knew it was time to remove his head from the clouds.
Of course his heart was telling him to make another run at David Stern's grail. His Pacers were right there, after all. They had been the Buffalo Bills of the Eastern Conference, losing four conference final series before finally landing on the big stage with Kobe and Shaq.
Now they just needed one more piece, one more off-season tweak, before they could wipe that smug expression off Phil Jackson's face.
Walsh knew differently. As much as he wanted to believe the Pacers just needed to take that last step in the natural progression of an NBA champ, Walsh surrendered to a cold and unforgiving truth.
"I knew my team was done," he said the other day by phone. "I knew the players had given everything they had to give, and it wasn't going to happen anymore. I thought we had to change the team and start over before it was too late."
So Walsh traded Dale Davis, coming off his one and only All-Star season, for a kid who couldn't get on the court in Portland, Jermaine O'Neal. The Pacers' president declined to pay big free-agent bucks to Mark Jackson, and he watched Rik Smits, Chris Mullin and the coach, Larry Bird, leave to pursue other interests.
By doing the O'Neal deal and making smart complementary choices ever since, Walsh managed the near impossible: He rebuilt his team without spending a single season out of the playoff tournament. In fact, the Pacers are expected to make the playoffs this year for the 16th time in 17 seasons, a run that makes Walsh one of the best and most underappreciated executives in sports.
It also makes him a leading candidate to end up on the better end of his next big trade, the one involving Ron Artest.
"A lot of teams have called about Ron," Walsh said, "and some think we're just going to take anything for him. That's not going to happen. I don't think I can get a player as good as Ron, and I'm not really expecting that. But I do want players who fit in and will contribute in a meaningful way.
"I don't want older guys. I want to go younger."
Artest wants to go to New York, which happens to be a hometown he shares with Walsh. It's not going to happen, and not because Artest ruined the 2004-05 season and cost the Pacers a shot at their seventh Eastern Conference finals under Walsh by taking his malice into the stands of the Palace.
Walsh simply has no interest in doing a bum deal, especially one that might aid his former coaches in New York, Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas. When Thomas, the Knicks' president, called Walsh on behalf of Brown, the Knicks' coach, Walsh made sure the conversation was short and bittersweet.
"Isiah, I know you had to make this call," Walsh told Thomas. "I know everyone's saying you should bring Ron home. But I also know that you're not giving up any of your young players, and that I'm not doing a trade for any of your older players. So we won't have a deal."
Truth be told, the Knicks have always represented the best measurement of Walsh's success in the Hoosier heartland. While Walsh struck before his Pacers plunged into oblivion, his forever postseason antagonists in New York waited too long to trade Patrick Ewing, then made a dreadful deal when they finally did move him.
Walsh never gave Reggie Miller the kind of absurd, nine-figure contract the Knicks gave Allan Houston. Scott Layden ultimately put together an undersized, underskilled and overpaid roster, one that Thomas was left to remake. The cost? The Knicks are working on their fifth straight season of claiming fewer than 40 victories.
"We can't afford to have seasons like that," Walsh said. "How many people go through Penn Station every day? If you walk through the wrong door, you end up inside the Garden. I don't have that in Indiana. We've got to put a good team on the floor here every year. We've got to win and create excitement to fill the building."
Walsh kept the Pacers competitive by making that O'Neal deal with Portland, another franchise that has fallen off the face of the earth. Now he's got a star in Artest to ship somewhere else.
Even though he hasn't won a title in Indiana, Walsh almost always fields a team good enough to challenge for one. He's survived the brawl and the retirements of Reggie Miller and Rik Smits, and now executives are lining up to talk to Donnie Walsh on the subject of Ron Artest.
Let the buyer beware.