For months, Donnie Walsh had been “saving” the (not-so coveted) 15th and final roster spot on the Knicks.
After recently bypassing roster additions, most notably Allen Iverson, Walsh’s ultimate plan for the spot was unveiled as the Knicks took a chance by signing Jonathan Bender last week.
Bender, who was forced to retire after the 2005-06 season due to persistent knee problems, was the fifth overall selection of the 1999 NBA Draft by Walsh’s Pacers.
Since his retirement, he had been rehabbing his knee, with a comeback attempt always in the back of his mind. Walsh, obviously intrigued due to their history, invited Bender to work out for team officials this past summer.
"My potential is still enormous and I can still do a lot for a team," Bender told ESPN.com in July.
Coach Mike D’Antoni was visibly impressed.
“I thought he was ready to go then,” D’Antoni said of Bender at his summer workout. “I was trying to get excited for him in September.”
Bender, though, was not yet ready to jump at the opportunity, wanting to get into perfect shape. Soon after he felt well enough, Bender gave Walsh a phone call.
Although Bender’s contract is currently non-guaranteed, all NBA contracts become official Jan. 10 unless the player is waived by his team by then. If Bender were retained by the Knicks, he would be owed over $1 million prorated even at a minimum contract, seeing as how he is a seven-year veteran.
With D’Antoni already running a short rotation, leaving Nate Robinson out of it, it is questionable how he will fittingly allocate minutes for Bender over the course of the season. It all depends on whether Bender can prove that he is able to compete at this level again, but Walsh appeared optimistic after Bender’s first practice with the Knicks.
“I just saw him go for rebounds and he’s jumping," Walsh said. "So far, I like what I see.”
Since his first practice less than two weeks ago, Bender has appeared in two games, averaging 10 points in limited minutes. Although he says is not completely pain-free, no one can tell from Bender’s performance thus far, as he has shot 63 percent percent from the field, including 4-for-4 from three-point range.
D’Antoni has squeezed Bender into the rotation and he seems to have meshed well with the Knicks, who are 7-3 in their last 10 games.
While Bender has gained high praise from former teammates like Ron Artest on his remarkable comeback, his future with the Knicks will depend on if he can continue to contribute consistently once he starts playing meaningful minutes.
Nevertheless, D’Antoni feels Bender can be a piece of the Knicks’ highly coveted future.
“He’s the type of player who is a multi-purpose guy and no matter who comes in next year he could fit in,” D'Antoni said.
Based on that, it sounds like the Knicks are going to retain Bender for at least the rest of the season. The team should, however, be cautious about its future. Bender needs to prove himself completely healthy and capable this season. Even then, the Knicks will have to wait until next season to see if Bender can endure a full 82-game season and therefore would have to take a second risk on him next season.
The good thing about Bender is that he is in fact untested, and therefore he owes the Knicks for the chance they are giving him. If his comeback proves ultimately to be a success, Bender returning next season at a likely hometown discount could benefit the Knicks, who will more than likely be searching for bargains if they are able to gain multiple marquee free agents in 2010.
Bender and the Knicks face off against the Bulls tonight, and then will gain national exposure in their game against the Heat on Christmas Day at noon. Fans around the nation will get to see, for the first time, Bender embark on his tremendous journey.
Of course, Bender must consider this Christmas to be a very fortunate one, but for the Knicks, they are still waiting to see whether the gamble on Bender and his uphill battle will turn out to be a Christmas miracle.