Donnie Walsh had gone to New York with a mission: Dig the Knicks out of their salary-cap wasteland and restore them to prominence.
After clearing tens of millions out of the payroll dumpster, Walsh missed in his free-agent pursuit of LeBron James. He never had a shot, as it turned out, at Dwyane Wade. The two All-Stars joined forces with Chris Bosh in Miami and created a monster that Walsh had to compete with if he hoped to call this return to his New York roots a success.
Walsh got Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, setting the stage for Tyson Chandler to complete what he hoped would be an antidote to Miami's Big Three. He'd put the Knicks back on the map, back on the path to championship contention.
Only now, it's the team he left for the Knicks in 2008 and returned to last summer that is the true obstacle in the Heat's pursuit of a second straight championship. With a stirring 97-93 victory on Friday night to even the Eastern Conference finals at one game apiece, the Pacers -- a team Walsh ran for a quarter-century before going to New York -- are reminding everyone there's more than one path to NBA success.
Miami's Big Three model, cut from the cloth of the Celtics' Hall of Fame trio that came together and won a championship in 2007-08, is going to be put to a serious test in the next 12-18 months. The 2011 collective bargaining agreement will bear down with its punitive attempts to level the playing field.
But the stark differences in how the Heat, Knicks and Pacers were built shows it isn't so much the dollar signs, but how the players attached to those dollar signs are assembled.
The Heat were second in the league this season with an $83.2 million payroll, and the Knicks were fourth at $78.5 million. Unsurprisingly given their small-market environs, the Pacers were 14th at $66.7 million. But if you look more closely at the salary structures, they're more similar than you think.
All three follow the Big Three model of investing the lion's share of payroll in their top three players. For the Heat, obviously, it's James, Wade and Bosh. For the Knicks, it's Stoudemire, Anthony and Chandler. For the Pacers, it's Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger and David West.
Granger, who before this season was the Pacers' only legitimate All-Star, is out for the season because of a chronic knee injury.
The Big Threes in Miami and New York consist of older players on higher max deals, which they were eligible for given their years of service and more substantial resumes. All but Wade were acquired through free agency and/or trades. The sign-and-trade route Chandler took to New York is no longer allowed for luxury tax-paying teams under the CBA, nor is the extend-and-trade path that brought Anthony to New York. As the competitive and financial landscape of the sport was changing from 2010-11, the Knicks got in one last flurry of big-market punches before the bell.
The Pacers drafted Granger in 2005 and extended his rookie contract in 2008. Hibbert came on board via the 17th pick in the 2008 draft, which Indiana acquired from Toronto for Jermaine O'Neal. Last summer, Hibbert signed a four-year, $58 million deal after flirting with restricted free agency.
Coming out of the 2011 lockout, Indiana shrewdly signed West to a two-year, $20 million contract. As a result of the shorter deal, the team built by Larry Bird doesn't have West's Bird rights -- which could complicate efforts to retain him as a free agent this summer. But West has said he hopes to re-sign with the Pacers and the organization is confident he will.
The rest of Indiana's payroll looks very much like what you find in Miami and New York. Indiana has one $8 million player, George Hill, who was acquired from the Spurs for the draft rights to Kawhi Leonard in 2011. Everyone else is on the books for $4 million or less. Everyone in Miami beyond the Big Three makes less than $6 million. For the Knicks, everyone after Stoudemire, Anthony and Chandler makes less than $5 million.
With its shorter contracts, limited exceptions, spending restrictions and punitive tax rates, the 2011 CBA is designed to more closely calibrate payrolls across markets. But as the Heat, Knicks and Pacers have shown, teams can still arrive at comparable places on the payroll spectrum by very different methods.
Walsh built the Pacers organically for more than two decades, knowing Indiana would never be a free-agent destination or a place where sign-and-trade leverage could be applied. Bird and former Pacers GM David Morway followed that blueprint in rebuilding the Pacers from the ground up after the 2004 brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills. After returning last summer, Walsh is now steering the ship with GM Kevin Pritchard.
In New York, Walsh didn't have 20 years of drafts and patience to work with. In a marquee market and with virtually unlimited resources, he simply had to dump enough contracts and the free agents and other stars seeking trades would fill the void. It's why the Pacers eliminating the Knicks -- Walsh's big-market, superstar creation -- in the conference semifinals was such a fascinating case study in the conflicting methods followed in two very different NBA places by the same man.
For the Heat and the Knicks, the hope is that management can use whatever minimal tools are available to continue tweaking around the edges of their Big Three models and win as much as possible until the window inevitably closes. The Pacers have a longer view, a mostly home-grown group of players whose talents are gradually rising along with their salaries. George, emerging as the second most compelling player on the floor in the Eastern finals, earns $2,574,120 this season -- less than one-sixth of James' $17,545,000.
Will the Pacers get squeezed in trying to keep their core together when it comes time to extend George and Tyler Hansbrough, or when they have to decide whether to keep Granger or trade him? It remains to be seen what happens when Indiana hits the same luxury-tax ceiling that forced Oklahoma City to part ways with James Harden.
Whatever happens against Miami on this stage, the trick for Indiana will be to do what teams like the Spurs and Thunder have done: Establish such a culture of winning organic success that location doesn't matter.
"Indy is not like some freaking backwoods place," West told me recently. "It's not that. It's a good place to be, man."
Without the bright lights of Broadway or sunny beaches of South Florida, the Pacers have made it so.