When Donnie Walsh took over as the president of the New York Knicks in March, he promised to bring hope and change to the most dysfunctional franchise in sports.
Walsh's first big moves as Knicks president show he's going to walk the walk. First he fired Isiah Thomas as coach. And now Walsh has lured Mike D'Antoni from the Phoenix Suns to the Knicks -- an improbable home run that could immediately turn the fortunes of a franchise in desperate need of optimism. D'Antoni will bring a pedigree of exciting, winning basketball that should inject new life into a tired Knicks franchise.
Scoring D'Antoni wasn't easy for New York. Chicago, with a group of young, talented athletes, appeared to be a great fit for D'Antoni, and he wanted to work it out with the Bulls. The team appeared to be a great coach away from returning to its status as a contender in the East.
The struggling, rebuilding Knicks, in contrast, appeared to be years away from winning in the NBA's most demanding market. Walsh was widely expected to hire Mark Jackson, work on cleaning up the roster and patiently wait until the free-agent class of 2010 hit the market.
It was only over the past few days that details began to emerge from ESPN.com's Marc Stein that the Knicks were throwing all their weight behind an offer for D'Antoni.
How did Walsh pull off the coup of the year? By using his 20-plus years of experience as a GM to woo D'Antoni. There's a reason many of his peers consider Walsh the best GM in the league.
Walsh knows coaches want to be loved. He knew D'Antoni was coming off a bad breakup with a GM who questioned his defensive chops and wondered aloud whether D'Antoni's style could win championships.
More than money or security, D'Antoni was looking for a boss who believed in him -- the same way his former boss, Bryan Colangelo, believed.
Walsh understood that, and that gave him an advantage in the recruiting process.
While Walsh's counterpart in Chicago, John Paxson, hedged and asked D'Antoni to consider hiring a veteran defensive coach, Walsh was decisive. He let D'Antoni know that he was a big fan and wanted the coach to bring the same excitement to New York that he brought to Phoenix.
Walsh told D'Antoni he was committed to giving him the players he needs to succeed. He even went through each player on the roster with his coach-to-be, discussing who would be a good fit and who wouldn't.
Walsh was a true believer. The Bulls, at times, acted like they needed to be convinced.
Obviously money played a big part in the wooing of D'Antoni as well. The Bulls were hesitant to offer D'Antoni a big deal, while the Knicks came right away with a big offer, reported to be $24 million for four years -- another sign that they were committed, long term, to what D'Antoni was going to bring.
"The money and years were important," said one veteran NBA agent with knowledge of the situation. "But it's also what the money and years represent. For a coach looking to be embraced, it says, 'We want you and we want you badly.' Sometimes that's all they need hear. Coaches need a relationship with management to succeed. Mike felt like he could work with Donnie."
D'Antoni's arrival now gives the Knicks an identity to build around. Look for Walsh to be aggressive in the coming months and years in finding players -- particularly long athletes and jump shooters -- to fit D'Antoni's up-tempo, high-efficiency style.
The Knicks actually have a decent core already for D'Antoni to work with. David Lee, Nate Robinson, Wilson Chandler, Jamal Crawford and Quentin Richardson (a former Sun) should be good fits in what the Knicks will want to do.
But they still need a point guard who can push the tempo and an athletic big man who can run the floor and score in the paint. The Knicks who currently play those positions appear to be poor fits for D'Antoni's system -- especially Stephon Marbury and Zach Randolph, who will surely be on the trading block. A few other players, such as Eddy Curry and Renaldo Balkman, are probably wild cards.
New York also has a potential top-five pick in the draft. If it can acquire a dominant point guard like Derrick Rose, an exciting combo guard like Jerryd Bayless or an athletic wing like O.J. Mayo, the Knicks should be immediately able to add some offensive firepower.
Just as important, Walsh now has yet another big chip in the game when it comes to wooing free agents. Players already love New York and all the trappings that come with playing in the league's biggest media market.
Players also love playing for Mike D'Antoni. They love to get up and down the floor. They love coaches who treat them like adults and give them the freedom to play.
When the Knicks hit 2010 with cap room, as planned, players such as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, expected to be free agents that summer, may find the combination of D'Antoni, New York and an improving Knicks roster too good to pass up.
Meanwhile, the Bulls, once again, are on the outside looking in. Once again, the story is about the one who got away.
Over the past several years, a series of high-profile players, from Kevin Garnett to Pau Gasol to Kobe Bryant, were rumored to be on their way to Chicago. In each case, it appears the Bulls' indecision and aversion to risk hampered their ability to pursue a game-changing deal.
Losing D'Antoni could be another big blow in Paxson's quest to turn the Bulls into a title contender. I wrote earlier in the week that D'Antoni, as long as he got cooperation from management, had what it took to save the Bulls. There are other coaches, such as former Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson and Boston Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau, who can run the team. But none of them can bring to Chicago the cachet, excitement or offensive system D'Antoni would have.
So in Chicago, many questions remain about the viability of the Bulls' roster, the direction the franchise is heading and what to do about their free agents. Meanwhile, the Knicks are announcing loud and clear how they intend to turn around the franchise.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.