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      Plenty of work ahead for Knicks' Walsh, D'Antoni

      Donnie Walsh

      Sometime early next July, the Knicks might take their free agent cash to LeBron James, or Dwyane Wade, or some other superstar, and see if he'd be interested in coming to New York.

      First, the Knicks have to decide what to do about the guys on their own team.

      The Knicks began their usual long offseason Thursday, with another trip to the draft lottery to be followed by negotiations with the representatives for pending free agents David Lee and Nate Robinson. The goal is to build a team that can make the playoffs next season without messing up their plans for the summer of 2010.

      Team president Donnie Walsh has already cleared enough salary cap space to afford one of the maximum salary players who could be available that summer. But after watching the Knicks go 32-50 in their first season in charge, Walsh and coach Mike D'Antoni don't feel like waiting around.

      "I want to make it a better team. That's all I can say. In whatever way I can," Walsh said. "I think it's missing elements that make it difficult to win at a higher level. So we've had a year to look at that, and between Mike and I, I think we know what that is."

      Better defense would be the obvious start. New York yielded 107.8 points per game and opponents shot 48 percent, both third-worst in the NBA.

      But the offense also didn't always hum the way it did for D'Antoni in Phoenix. Of course, the Knicks don't have a top point guard like Steve Nash, or a scorer like Amare Stoudemire.

      They're probably not going to find players like that this summer. The key is not to settle for guys who aren't elite players but are paid like them - the kinds who have littered recent Knicks rosters.

      D'Antoni said all that does is make you a 40-win team - which would still be good considering what New York has done in recent years.

      "You can do that, you can throw money at people, you can get there. We don't want to get stuck in mediocrity," D'Antoni said. "And you want to make the right decision, you want to go slowly and make sure you make the right decision and not just, 'Oh my God, I've got to do something because you guys are after us."'

      The Knicks won nine more games this season than in Isiah Thomas' final season, but the better way to view improvement is by looking at some of the players. Wilson Chandler, who was unknown to D'Antoni last season, averaged 14.4 points in his second year.

      Lee led the NBA with 65 double-doubles and averaged 16 points and 11.7 rebounds. Robinson scored 17.2 points per game and on some nights seemed to have the makings of a top sixth man.

      Both will be restricted free agents this summer, meaning the Knicks can match any offers they receive. D'Antoni said he wants both back, but Walsh will have to decide if keeping them will be too damaging to his future budgets.

      "I think I will be back here next year. I think I'll be a Knick," Lee said Wednesday before the season finale. "It's where I want to be. But because this is a business, regardless of if the Knicks want me back and I want to be here, this is a business. I think I've had a very good season. I think the team is much improved. I think we have some great promise and I'd love to be a part of that."

      The Knicks also hope Eddy Curry wants to - or at least gets in shape so they can trade him. Curry played all of 12 minutes this season, limited to knee pain that likely was caused in some way by being overweight.

      D'Antoni insists Curry can play in his system, but has to be committed to putting in the work. Perhaps he is, as Walsh said Curry will spend part of the summer in Detroit working out in a center specializing in physical fitness.

      Walsh's moves this season paved the way for a better future, and he said he believes New York fans understand his plans and the salary decisions that go into them.

      However, they're also getting impatient. The Knicks will enter next season tied for Minnesota for the longest active playoff drought, having not made the postseason since 2004. And unless the roster is changed, there's little reason to believe things could be much better quickly.

      "I think before the season, the only two guys that I heard say they should make the playoffs is me and him," Walsh said, motioning toward D'Antoni. "And now we're being criticized for not making the playoffs. I think it's a difficult job because of what the roster is - was - and it wasn't going to be done in one trade."