There could be a number of attractive free agents in the NBA marketplace next summer, ranging from Baron Davis to Gilbert Arenas to Allen Iverson to Jermaine O'Neal. All have opt-out clauses and could be available, depending on how many millions they're willing to risk.
But there's another free agent who will be available as well, one who won't be nearly as expensive as the above fab four and one for whom no salary cap room need be cleared. He is Donnie Walsh, the longtime Indiana Pacers CEO and president. After 23 years in Indiana, Walsh is moving on, to what he does not know.
"Twenty-three years, that's probably too long," Walsh said. "I would have gone last year, but I didn't want to put Larry [Bird] in a difficult position. So I signed on for one more year. We'll see what happens after that."
Walsh has turned over the basketball operations to Bird. Someone else handles the day-to-day business operations. In that sense, he is CEO in the truest sense, presiding over it all but delegating authority to others. But, he said, "I told the owners that with me and Larry here, you have two guys who are well-compensated, and maybe that's too much."
Walsh did something interesting a couple months back. He hired longtime agent Steve Kauffman to represent him in his search for a new position. He wouldn't be doing that if he were intent on joining the shuffleboard set in Florida. Again, he said, he hasn't set his sights on any one spot or any one position. But, he acknowledged, "I have loved every day of doing this job. It's a 24/7 job, but you even grow to love that part of it. I love the league. And I enjoy challenges. I think I'm up for another challenge."
And we have the ideal landing place for him: the Knicks. It would be a perfect fit. Walsh is a New York City guy, played his high school basketball in the city and then was one of many New Yorkers who ventured to North Carolina to play for Frank McGuire. With the current state of the Knicks - "circus" is a polite way to phrase it - the presence of the unflappable, universally respected Walsh at Madison Square Garden should be a no-brainer. (Insert your favorite James Dolan line here.)
There undoubtedly will be other teams interested in Walsh. Or, at least, there should be. At 66, he said, "I'm either too old or too young, depending on your point of view." You won't find many people around the NBA saying bad things about Donnie Walsh.
"The word 'class' comes to mind when I hear Donnie's name," said former Golden State general manager Garry St. Jean. "He was always straight with you. He didn't try to jerk you around. You'd call him up, tell him what you wanted, and he'd either say, 'Let's talk some more,' or 'No thanks.' Everyone loves the guy."
Walsh has been Mr. Pacer for almost a quarter-century. He endured ridicule from the locals when he drafted Reggie Miller instead of Hoosier Steve Alford. He endured four years of Larry Brown - and they remain close friends. Jim O'Brien is the ninth Pacers coach since Walsh arrived in Indianapolis in 1984 to be an assistant coach. Two years later, he became general manager.
Until a certain November night in Auburn Hills, Mich., in 2004, Walsh had gradually gotten the Pacers to the brink of an NBA championship. They went to the Finals in 2000 and might well have won it all the year before had not the Knicks upset them in the conference finals. In 2003-04, Indiana had the best record in the NBA, winning 61 games. The following year, the Pacers went into Detroit to play the defending world champions and beat them like a drum. We all know what happened before that game ended, and the Pacers have never been the same since.
Walsh said he could not have anticipated that, three years after the brawl, the Pacers would still be paying a price.
"There are guys still going to court over what happened that night," he said. "It forced us to trade Ronnie [Artest]. There was a fragmentation of the team and a real breakdown the next couple years. And that fight also hurt Rick [Carlisle] a lot, too."
Carlisle no longer is around. Most of the Indiana players from that night are elsewhere; O'Neal, Jamaal Tinsley, and Jeff Foster remain. Bird has started to put his stamp on the team with the hiring of O'Brien. Walsh has decided it is the right time for him to move on.
He shouldn't be out of work for long. You can bet David Stern wouldn't object to having Donnie Walsh in the same area code. But whether it's New York or somewhere else, Indiana's loss is going to be someone else's gain.
It's going better for Wright
Quick, name the last first-round NBA draft pick who played his high school basketball in Massachusetts. The answer? Antoine Wright, who played at Lawrence Academy and then went on to Texas A&M, a natural (?) geographical procession for a kid from Southern California.
"My summer league coach in California had a history of sending guys east to school," Wright said of his decision to prep at Lawrence. "They came out, interviewed me, I took a test, and they approved me. It was a tough adjustment for the first couple of years with the weather and the way everyone talks around here. But it worked out."
The Nets drafted Wright 15th in 2005, and he spent a lot of his first two years just watching. But this year has been quite the opposite, the invisible stretch he had in Boston last Wednesday notwithstanding.
"Antoine has taken a big step forward this year," says Nets coach Lawrence Frank. "It started for him in the middle of last year and then in the playoffs. He had a great summer working out in Vegas. He has become not only a rotation player, but a regular rotation player."
The Nets, however, decided not to exercise the fourth year of Wright's rookie deal, which was not a great surprise given his sparse contributions. And it gave Wright a little extra motivation.
"I don't hold it against them," Wright said. "I don't think of it as a personal shot at me. Either way, I figured I had to have a good year for my career. But at the same time, I do look at it as motivation."
Wright is starting in place of the injured Vince Carter and averaged more than 30 minutes in New Jersey's first eight games. He started 23 games last year and averaged only 18 minutes a game.
"I've been playing with a lot of confidence and trying to be a professional every night," Wright said. "In years past, when I was on the court, I would be a little more timid. Now, I understand what is expected of me."
Older Shaq isn't submitting vintage performances
We got our first look at the Miami Heat Friday night. We'll get another look at them a week from Friday. For a team one year removed from a championship, there's been a lot of changes. The constants, however, remain: the declining Shaquille O'Neal and the daunting Dwyane Wade. After that, well, coach Pat Riley is searching.
"This has got to become a team," he said after the loss in Boston. "Obviously, Dwyane and Shaq are the key guys, and Dwyane gives us confidence and breathes life into us like CPR. But other guys have to step up.
"J-Will [Jason Williams] has to step up. I don't know what's wrong with him. He cannot turn down shots. Dwyane will be the catalyst, but it can't be on him all the time."
Which brings us back to Shaq. Against Seattle last Wednesday, he may have hit rock bottom. He played 16 minutes. He had 10 points, 4 fouls, 3 rebounds, and 3 turnovers. Wade even called out the Big Aristotle, saying, "He has got to be willing and ready to do it." (By the way, Shaq said he was cool with that.)
Asked if this was as frustrating a time as he's had in Miami, O'Neal didn't hesitate.
"Yes," he said. "But nothing can break my spirits. Everything that starts out bad can only end up better. I'll get through it. I'm programmed to get through anything."
Shaq actually looked OK against Boston - and his numbers were still ordinary (for him); he had 17 points and 9 rebounds in 26 minutes. He's still battling injuries. And, as Riley noted, "Shaq is 35 years old. He can play better and be more focused on what we want from him. What he needs to do is be more aggressive, dunk everything, go to the rim."
Still, you look at Shaq and you see him miss a layup late in the game and you know he'd have dunked the thing a couple years ago. More revealing, he spent the last 2:08 of the game on the bench. As one scout asked, "Don't you want him out there to set a screen, to get an offensive rebound?" Apparently not.
A Frank assessment
Nets coach Lawrence Frank is the only unfortunate soul whose team has had to play the Celtics twice this season. (Pat Riley will be the next.) Frank had an interesting take on this year's Boston team, which has twice beaten New Jersey, including last Wednesday's 21-point victory in which the Celtics didn't play all that well. "They have a real good karma about them," Frank said. "You have really special players with chips on their shoulders. When you have really special players who are motivated and who are coming together for one reason, that's a dangerous combination. Their supporting cast is a whole lot better than the prognosticators predicted. [Eddie ] House and [James ] Posey can make shots. Scal [Brian Scalabrine] brings the energy. [Rajon] Rondo and [Kendrick] Perkins are underrated. And Big Baby [Glen Davis] is going to get a max deal just based on what he did to us."
The featured distraction
It took Stephon Marbury's one-day, cross-country williwaw to get the Yankees off the back pages of the New York tabloids. There was (or wasn't) a fight on the team plane. There were (or weren't) threats made by Marbury against coach Isiah Thomas. Marbury was (or wasn't) furious that he wouldn't be starting against Phoenix and that the team reportedly was considering getting rid of him. After missing the Suns game, Marbury showed up in Los Angeles for the Clippers game two nights later and, aside from not starting, everything pretty much was the same. He played 34 minutes. He was on the floor at the end of the game. And the Knicks lost. While Marbury seems to be untradeable because of his salary ($42 million for this year and next - gulp) and reputation, we've learned never to say never in the NBA. And the Knicks have a history of paying players who don't play for them. But one place he won't end up is Cleveland, which is in dire need of a point guard. That's because franchise pillar LeBron James put the kibosh on any Marbury-to-the-Cavs move by telling Cleveland writers, "I couldn't have a guy like that on my team." There you have it.
Much was made recently of the first-round picks from 2004 who either did or did not sign long-term extensions. Teams had until Oct. 31 to sign the players. Teams also had until Oct. 31 to activate the fourth-year salaries for players taken in the first round of the 2005 draft. According to the NBA, only three teams passed on the Year 4 clause, the Timberwolves (for old friend Gerald Green, No. 18), the Nets (for Antoine Wright, No. 15), and the Heat (who technically didn't pass because they already had waived No. 29 Wayne Simien Oct. 29). Last year, the Bucks waived Julius Hodge (No. 20), and the Clippers waived Yaroslav Korolev (No. 12) in late October after previously declining to exercise the option for a third year in October 2006. Korolev was re-signed in early October 2007, brought to camp, and cut. The Magic, meanwhile, are still waiting for Fran Vazquez (No. 11) to walk through that door sometime soon. What does it all mean? Wright and Green will be unrestricted free agents next summer while the others who had their options picked up are under wraps through the 2008-09 season.
Banned from his head
It might be worth a subscription to NBA League Pass just to get a look at what hairdo Smush Parker decides to use for the Heat games. You may recall that Parker, who played for the Lakers the last couple years, was a headband guy in Los Angeles. But Pat Riley is not a headband guy, which led Parker to braid his hair for the first eight games. Then, against the Celtics Friday night, he unveiled the Afro/Ben Wallace look, something he said he did occasionally in Detroit and Cleveland. "I would love to have the headband," he said. "Nothing replaces the headband." It's not exactly a trade secret that Parker has been unhappy with his minutes in Miami; he was averaging a shade more than 21 per in the Heat's first eight games. He averaged well over 30 a game for the Lakers the previous two years, during which he didn't miss a game, starting all but two of 164. He has yet to start a game for Miami.
A valuable center
Doc Rivers had hoped his late father would see the day that the Grady and Bettye Rivers Learning Center opened next spring in Maywood, Ill. The Celtics coach had ponied up the $50,000 to fund the center, which will have computers and provide a place for kids to go and learn. It's similar to the one that opened recently in Boston, funded by Larry Bird in Dennis Johnson's memory. "I love what Larry did. The whole idea is great. It's just awesome," Rivers said of the centers, which are the brainchild of M.L. Carr and his company, Warm2Kids. "I think the whole concept is a neat idea. In my case, my mom has been in that area for 70 years. My dad was, too. They never had a chance to go to a place like this."
Peter May can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.