Zach Randolph, Nate Robinson and Quentin Richardson - Icon Sports MediaIf the NBA is, indeed, a players' league, then the New York Knicks’ front-office transformation this year will amount – to coin a phrase – to putting lipstick on a pig.

Basketball operations boss Donnie Walsh is universally well-respected. New coach Mike D’Antoni is universally well-respected. They are the lipstick – and the rouge, blush, mascara and everything else new and attractive about the Knicks. Neither, however, will play a minute for this year’s Knicks who, on paper, look an awful lot like last year’s train wreck.

A quick scan of the Knicks’ roster the week before training camps opens reveals only three departures from last season’s unremarkable and hapless cabal on 33rd and 8th Avenue: Freddie Jones (an unsigned free agent), Randolph Morris (a free agent signed by Atlanta) and Renaldo Balkman (a 2006 first rounder – taken one pick before Rajon Rondo – traded to Denver for a 2010 second –rounder.) Doesn’t exactly look like a house-cleaning, does it? In their places are free agent Chris Duhon, lottery pick Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Ewing, um, Jr.

So how good can the new-look Knicks be when virtually all of the old-look Knicks will still be around? Well, that voice of gravitas, Shaquille O’Neal, weighed in last week and said D’Antoni alone could result in 15 more wins for the 23-win juggernaut of a year ago. Then again, Shaq was also the one who offered that Kevin Garnett was not a legitimate MVP candidate last year and added that KG didn’t play any defense.

We know this much. As a coach, D’Antoni historically is probably somewhere in between Hall of Famer Larry Brown, who won 23 games in 2005-06, and franchise destroyer Isiah Thomas, who won 33 games in 2006-07 and, after being given an extension, won 23 games in 2007-08 with the league’s most underachieving and overpaid roster. So would 35-40 wins would be a realistic goal?

The 2008-09 Knicks will test the long-held theory that a coach in the NBA can make only so much difference. There will be a different style, for sure, and there will be an air of stability and possibly even tranquility that was absent (and unimaginable) a year ago. But unless there is a roster overhaul, it really is lipstick on a pig.

But, Knicks fans, have patience. (I know, that’s been the operative phrase for a while, but now it really means something.) Walsh and D’Antoni don’t really care a whole lot about this season, at least in terms of the Grand Vision. They’re better off in the short run making incremental progress while assembling low-salaried assets so that they can have a decent roster and a low payroll in the summer of 2010.

That is not only when payroll anchors Stephon Marbury (who could be – gulp – the second highest paid player in the NBA this season), Malik Rose, Jerome James (who still has a picture of Thomas over his bed) and Quentin Richardson will all be off the books. (Marbury, mercifully, comes off after this season, when he presumably will move to Salerno. The others will be off after the 2009-10 season).

That also is the summer that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all could become free agents. New York is New York. D’Antoni is a renowned players’ coach. The Cavs, Heat and maybe the Raptors will be going nowhere. You already know this story. But, for now, it is only a story, even though there are fewer people who actually knew the identity of Sarah Palin a month ago than who think James will be a lifelong Cav. He’s a Yankees fan. One of his buddies is Nets’ minority owner Jay-Z.

So look for 2008-09 to be your basic weed-out season, sort of like “running a lice comb through the budget process,” to quote ‘The West Wing’s CJ Cregg. With many of the big-salaried players near the end of their contracts, Walsh might find some takers who actually might desire ‘So and So and His Expiring Contract.’ Marbury would fall into that category if anyone actually wanted him.

Until then, try to imagine Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry playing in D’Antoni’s free-flow offense. Not an easy thing to do. At the other end, however, they’ll thrive in D’Antoni’s ‘Let The Opposition Wear Themselves Out Scoring’ defense. There will be a lot of interest in Gallinari and even in newcomer Duhon, a somewhat curious offseason signing given the number of guards, big and small, on the roster.

But what there is now in New York, undeniably, is hope. Walsh has a proven track record and is anxious to rebuild the team. In D’Antoni, he has a coach who loves offense, is easy on his players, and also can be viewed as a valuable recruiting tool. But hope is not a short-term thing. It’s a long-term thing. It isn’t going to be vocalized or used as any kind of sales pitch (Come See The Knicks: Back on the Way to Being Relevant!) because that’s bad form. Season ticket holders are paying too much money to have that message drilled into their heads, even if they’re smart enough to know. Which they are.

Instead, look for messages of “change” – there’s a concept! – and some form of restoration of dignity and respect around the league. That’s a big and important step. At this time last year, the Knicks and Madison Square Garden were a public relations disaster and a league laughingstock – and that was before the basketball team even played a game. Mercifully, those days are gone.

But with the roster still pretty much intact – and, apparently, not a lot of takers out there – it’s going to take time for the team to be competitive and back in the water-cooler dialogue again. Walsh and D’Antoni are a start. But the rest of the group doesn’t look all that promising, at least not for 2008-09.

The NBA a players’ league? The Knicks sure hope not.