CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Knicks pay hefty price, but succeed by doubling star power

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Two of the three people whose names were on the joint statement issued by the Knicks during All-Star weekend showed up in a conference room at the team's Westchester County training center Tuesday to explain the virtues of trading half a basketball team for Carmelo Anthony.

The third, James Dolan, was nowhere to be found -- leaving his basketball people to sing the praises of the deal he closed out in Los Angeles. The fourth person referenced not by name in that statement of unity and organizational fortitude, Isiah Thomas, still managed to hover over the proceedings.

Walsh, having been denied the opportunity to carve up his negotiating adversaries like sushi, said all the right things. As he said recently in an interview with the New York Times, he will not have any stories to tell when he leaves New York. But if nothing else came out of Tuesday's unofficial announcement of the blockbuster trade sending Anthony to New York, it was that Walsh is sick of Thomas' name being associated with his job. How sick -- as in sick enough to walk away from the job he has started and must finish -- remains to be seen.

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I don't particularly care to hear Thomas' analysis of the trade -- although I did take a look at this, just to cheer myself up and remind me of the good old days during his regime. Where Walsh and D'Antoni are concerned, they don't have to sell me. The way this went down in the end and the price the Knicks paid wasn't ideal. But when you are staring at one of the top scorers in basketball -- the last under-30 game-changer known to be available before July 1, 2012 -- you get him and you figure the rest out later.

"These are the kind of guys that are really hard to get," Walsh said. "Whether they're in the free-agent market or whether they're in a trade, they're very difficult to get. And they're guys that can go out there and get 30 to 40 points in a playoff game."

Walsh didn't get LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, but he has two of those guys now -- both in the prime of their careers, under 30 years old. The mathematicians already are out in full force with their calculators, bemoaning the fact that Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire won't get enough shots and will be making a combined $40 million in 2012-13, meaning the Knicks won't have the cap space to sign another max player. The only correct answer to that now, with labor uncertainty as far as the eye can see, is that nobody knows.

"That's one of the reasons we got Carmelo now, because come July 1, you don't know what's going to happen," D'Antoni said. "Now we've got two guys in our stable, and whatever happens, happens. And we'll go for there."

Exactly.

If the owners get the $45 million hard cap they proposed, then clearly the Knicks will be over it in 2012-13, even with only four players under contract. But if that's the case, then Miami will have to lose one of its Big Three, the Lakers will have to lose Pau Gasol or Lamar Odom, and on and on. And I don't care how stubborn David Stern and his owners are, they are not going to tear down a perfectly good, marketable and lucrative model with star players joining forces in attractive markets just to make a point.

Asked if he expects to have space to add a max free agent in '12 -- whatever max free agents will get in the new model -- Walsh said, "We'll have cap room. No matter what happens, we'll have cap room."

No one has a crystal ball that can reveal what a new collective bargaining agreement will mean. All Walsh can do is play the hand he has now, and follow the blueprint for winning in today's NBA -- one star at a time.

Carmelo Anthony was determined to get a $65 million extension before a new CBA took place. (Getty Images)  
Carmelo Anthony was determined to get a $65 million extension before a new CBA took place. (Getty Images)  
"Donnie told me when we first came, 'Here's how we're going to do it,'" D'Antoni said. "And we've followed along and we know that we want to win a championship. And the way to do it is, you've got to get some star players in here. And you can't say, 'Well, what if?' Well, what if we could be here forever and what ifs never happen? But we know we have two of the best players in the league."

It almost didn't happen.

A month ago, after Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov pulled New Jersey out of the Melo talks, the Nuggets' negotiating position was nonexistent. Anthony was pushing for New York, and there was no other horse in the race. Even two weeks ago, Denver's bid to extract a significant haul of assets was "dead in the water," according to a person familiar with the negotiations. After Prokhorov exited stage left, the Nuggets were asking New York for a first-round pick and five players -- the four they wound up getting plus Landry Fields. Walsh, this not being his first rodeo, was offering a first-round pick, Eddy Curry, and Wilson Chandler.

"At that point," the person familiar with the talks said, "New York smelled a little bit of blood."

A week before All-Star weekend, the Nuggets lured the Nets back into discussions -- as Walsh expected they would all along. It was less than two weeks before the trade deadline, and the game of chicken had reached its final stages. Who wasn't going to blink? Anthony, a 26-year-old trying to follow the "take less money to win" blueprint laid out by his friends LeBron and Wade -- but who also was determined to get his $65 million extension before a new CBA took it away. Masai Ujiri, a relatively inexperienced executive conducting his first trade negotiation of this magnitude? My money was on Walsh.

Anthony, knowing the Knicks had to sweeten their offer for Ujiri to send him to New York, never publicly closed the door on New Jersey. This was a key part of the strategy undertaken by Anthony and Ujiri. During his news conference in Denver Tuesday night, Ujiri actually thanked Anthony for that.

"Carmelo worked well with us," Ujiri said. "He got what we wanted."

Knowing how much the Nuggets preferred the Nets' offer and fearing that Anthony's head fake -- meeting with Prokhorov and Jay-Z in Los Angeles Saturday -- could morph into desperation to get his extension, someone decided that it was time for the Knicks to ante up. Walsh insisted that Dolan's actions in Los Angeles didn't result in this change in strategy, which certainly seemed out of character for him.

"That's my nature," Walsh said. "When you get into a trade, you don't want to give up everything. You have to confront that as you go along."

What would've happened if Walsh's plan to call Anthony's bluff had been allowed to reach its conclusion, without Dolan accelerating the deal? It would've been interesting to find out. Sources say the Knicks legitimately feared Denver would trade Anthony to the Nets, and Walsh essentially admitted that Tuesday. But if that were the case, and the Nuggets liked the New Jersey deal better, then why is Anthony going to Madison Square Garden for his introductory news conference Wednesday and not Jersey?

"It came down to how much do you want Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, that's what it came down to," Walsh said. "And are we a better franchise with those guys in it. The decision we made was, we are."

Are they? Absolutely. The Knicks gave up a lot of bodies and assets, but they got the two best players in the trade -- one of them a 26-year-old, world-class scoring machine in the prime of his career. Billups, though not a classic D'Antoni point guard, still has something left and will be invaluable for his ability to orchestrate the Knicks' offense and steady the locker room through what will be a difficult transition period. He brings scoring and 3-point shooting punch, too -- not to mention the fact that he already knows how, where, and when Anthony likes the ball.

"You don't get chances to get great players in this league," D'Antoni said. "It's not like a lock that all the free agents want to come here. New York's a great place, but there's a lot of teams trying to do exactly what you're trying to do. And when you're trying to do it, it's a little bit of pain, but you have to make that choice.

"We think we moved the rock ahead a little bit," D'Antoni said. "But let's don't get carried away and think now we're challenging Miami, Boston, all these teams. We're just not there yet."

They're getting closer, one star at a time.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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