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WAITING TO BE GREAT - WALSH, D'ANTONI BIDING TIME 'TIL SHOT AT LEBRON Knicks team president Donnie Walsh isn't trying to trick the savvy New York Basketball fan into thinking he has built a playoff team. When last season's 32-50 campaign ended, Walsh admitted to being impressed coach Mike D'Antoni squeezed that many victories out of a flawed roster.

With no significant summer upgrades, Walsh can't change his tune and proclaim the Knicks much improved. Walsh only can confidently claim the Knicks lead the NBA in cap space for 2010.

According to Walsh, if the six Knicks with expiring contracts are renounced, the club will be roughly $26 million under the salary cap, based on the latest league estimates. That is enough to sign a maximum free agent starting at $17 million in addition to another solid player with the rest - David Lee in that mix.

D'Antoni's rep as a fun guy and offensive genius is the strongest magnet. The hope is the remaining cast - veteran Jared Jeffries and prospects Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Jordan Hill and Toney Douglas - are also a pull in luring an All-Star free agent. The short list includes longshots LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and more attainable studs, Amare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson.

That's where this 82-game schedule that begins Wednesday in Miami gets in the way. If the Knicks stink badly, if Gallinari does not show great promise, why come?

"I understand that argument," Walsh told The Post. "The truth is, I have no way of knowing how people will think when we get to next summer. But I want to be a good team. We want to be competing for the playoffs. We'll see if we're good enough to do that as the year goes on."

The nightmare is if the Knicks are used next summer the way Jason Kidd, Grant Hill and Andre Miller used them last summer.

"There are so many factors and you got to get lucky that hopefully they choose factors we do have," D'Antoni said. "It depends on the player, how they are wired. How they arrive at a decision: Is the city involved, amount of money involved, winning, styles. You can't generalize. It's a case-to-case basis."

"I think we have to be competitive and be close [to the playoffs]," D'Antoni added. "The other thing would be you try to get guys who feel they'll win no matter where they are. They're difference-makers."

The Knicks might not have a difference-maker on the roster and their lottery pick, Hill, didn't crack the rotation.

The belief, though, is Gallinari, in his first full season, will evoke comparisons with Hedo Turkoglu. He struggled in preseason with his 3-point shot, shooting just 30.6 percent. One problem is his teammates don't look for him enough.

D'Antoni's spin is the Knicks were 14-14 with Gallinari last season and can replicate that pace over 82 games. But he will begin as a reserve.

"He will do things that make you say, 'This guy's 21 years old and really playing his first full year, he's got a great future,' " Walsh said. "He'll show that."

The Knicks have no All-Star candidates, with Al Harrington the closest thing to a leading man. He was first in Knicks scoring last season (20.7) but didn't step up in the clutch. Harrington said he believes fatigue was a factor in his late-game woes and 10 pounds of extra muscle will give him the strength to carry the club in the final possessions. Harrington also is playing for a new contract.

"We want to win now, a lot of people are writing us off," Harrington said. "A lot of guys in the locker room will do everything we can to get in the playoffs and show Donnie he has good players right here."

During preseason, the Knicks looked more cohesive and communicative on defense. But their outside shooting was shockingly off target. For a team that hoisted an NBA record for 3-pointers last season (2,284), that has to improve dramatically as it is the centerpiece of D'Antoni's speedball attack.

"They're going to fall," Nate Robinson said. "You got to get kinks out early. The thing about our team, we can score if we're shooting good or not. And our defense has picked up a lot. It's good to see us out there talking."

Here come the Knicks

FIRST GAME: Wednesday in Miami

THEY'RE NEW: PF Jordan Hill, PG Toney Douglas, C Darko Milicic, F Marcus Landry.

THEY'RE GONE: G-F Quentin Richardson, F Chris Wilcox.

BIGGEST QUESTION ANSWERED: Few have been, but Milicic should aid shotblocking woes and Douglas will improve the perimeter defense.

BIGGEST NEW QUESTION: Is there enough competent outside shooting? And will Danilo Gallinari or Al Harrington step into the role as go-to scorer in final possessions?

3 GAMES TO WATCH: Nov. 6, home vs. Cleveland (LeBron James visits Garden just once); Nov. 13, home vs. Golden State (Rookie Stephen Curry brings his stuff to Garden to further torture Knicks fans); Dec. 25, home vs. Miami ( Knicks haven't played on Christmas in years).


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Added: October 28, 2009


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