Jeff Van Gundy: Knicks are close

Whenever he returns to New York City, Jeff Van Gundy is stopped by fans who inquire about the Knicks. The last coach to lead the Knicks to the Finals often delivers an encouraging scouting report before breaking a bit of bad news:

He still believes the Knicks are one elite player short if they want to contend for their first championship since 1973.

"I do, I do," Van Gundy said Saturday by phone, "and only because of how good Miami is. Miami is so good that New York will have to add one more really good piece, and then keep building around those pieces with winning supplemental players, too."

Speaking after the announcement that NBA owners and players had reached a tentative labor deal and planned to play a 66-game season starting Christmas Day, Van Gundy -- who weathered a turbulent 50-game season after the 1998-99 lockout to drive the eighth-seeded Knicks to a Finals matchup with San Antonio, which they lost in five games -- said Mike D'Antoni's Knicks are talented enough to make significant progress in the Eastern Conference.

"I think they can move up into the top four or five in the East," Van Gundy, now an ESPN analyst, said, "and then become a championship-level team, depending on the moves they make going forward. [Then-team president] Donnie Walsh did an unbelievable job in his time of giving the Knicks an opportunity to get back in the championship mix.

"What he accomplished in getting (Carmelo) Anthony and (Amare) Stoudemire and in getting the Knicks under the salary cap has been undersold. The building blocks are there for a team that's got a real chance."

Van Gundy even had charitable things to say about his former boss, team owner Jim Dolan, who is forever cast as a major hurdle in the Knicks' quest to end their title drought.

"Jim Dolan's always been willing to spend his money; he's always willing to try," Van Gundy said. "He's done his part by putting his money out there. But it still comes down to who is executing the personnel decisions, and Donnie Walsh made all the right moves."

The Knicks will be under immense pressure this season to honor last year's big, noisy moves, and Van Gundy understands what D'Antoni will face better than most.

During his own frenetic post-lockout season, after the Knicks acquired Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby, Van Gundy was nearly fired amid a power struggle with general manager Ernie Grunfeld, who lost his job, and earned a contract extension by upsetting Miami, Atlanta and Indiana in the playoffs.

"I think Mike's in a different position than I was in," Van Gundy said. "I think Mike will be the coach in New York for a long, long time. Heaven forbid if both parties decided to part ways after the season, Mike will have 10 teams trying to hire him because he's really good at what he does."

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m. ET, on ESPN New York 1050.