Knicks will try to keep Lee


Published: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 10:42 a.m.

With every game and every double-double, Former Gator star David Lee shreds another piece of conventional wisdom: That he can’t shoot, can’t score, can’t play for Mike D’Antoni, can’t be an everyday starter. One stubborn assumption still stands: That Lee can’t stay with the Knicks.

That premise needs a re-examination as well.

It is generally understood that the Knicks are conserving salary-cap space for 2010, also known as the Summer of LeBron. Spending tens of millions on Lee, a restricted free agent in July, would seem to run contrary to that goal.

But Knicks officials believe they can retain Lee, and there are forces working in their favor: a poor economy, a deep free-agent class and a small pool of teams with significant cap space.

Lee, 25, is expected to seek at least $10 million per season. Based on current projections — and assuming the cap stays flat, which many executives expect — only seven teams will have $7 million or more in cap room this summer.

Three of those teams — Miami, Atlanta and Minnesota — can be scratched off the list immediately:

* Miami has to renounce the rights to Shawn Marion to get under the cap (by about $7 million), and the Heat, like many teams, is holding cap space for 2010.

* Atlanta has to renounce the rights to Mike Bibby and Josh Childress to create cap room (about $11 million), and the Hawks also have a decision to make on their own restricted free agent, Marvin Williams. Atlanta’s frontcourt is already well stocked, with Josh Smith, Al Horford and Williams.

* Minnesota could have up to $14 million in cap room, but the Timberwolves have a budding All-Star at center, 24-year-old Al Jefferson, and a promising rookie power forward, Kevin Love. The Timberwolves have greater needs in the backcourt.

That leaves Oklahoma City, Memphis, Portland and Detroit as the most likely suitors for Lee. Again, there are qualifiers.

The Trail Blazers could have about $10 million in cap room, and they are fond of Lee. But Portland has one of the best young frontcourt tandems in the league, with LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden, so they would most likely be spending $10 million to make Lee a backup.

The Pistons can clear about $20 million in cap space by renouncing the rights to Rasheed Wallace and Allen Iverson. Detroit is primed for a roster overhaul, but would prefer to spend those millions in 2010, potentially on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh.

If all of those assumptions stand, it leaves two teams to chase Lee: the Thunder and the Grizzlies. Both should have about $20 million in cap room. Both need frontcourt help. If Lee is willing to sacrifice big-city glitz for a big-time payday in a small-time market, these are likely destinations.

Still, there is the broader market to consider. Not every team will use its cap space. There will be more than a dozen desirable free agents this summer. Simple math dictates that some will have to accept less than they want.

The list includes five current or former All-Stars (Iverson, Wallace, Marion, Jason Kidd, Ron Artest) and three top-shelf veterans (Mike Bibby, Andre Miller, Lamar Odom). Carlos Boozer, an All-Star power forward, could also be on the market if he opts out of his contract with Utah, which he has hinted he will do. The younger tier includes Childress, Williams, Ben Gordon, Raymond Felton, Linas Kleiza, Paul Millsap, Charlie Villanueva, Nate Robinson, Trevor Ariza and Leon Powe.

Lee will be a restricted free agent, so the Knicks will have the right to match any offer. If the market is indeed depressed, they may not have any problem doing so. If Lee commands $10 million or more, they have a tougher decision. But it is not automatic that they would let him walk.

Having shed the contracts of Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph this season in trades, the Knicks’ 2010 payroll stands at $23.6 million — about $35 million below the current salary cap, with room to sign two superstars to maximum deals.

Signing Lee could put a crimp in those plans, though the Knicks would still have ample room to sign one superstar. They can further improve their position by moving Eddy Curry ($11.3 million in 2010) and/or Jared Jeffries ($6.9 million).

In any case, the Knicks are unlikely to trade Lee before the Feb. 19 deadline, and they are not actively shopping him. He earns just $1.8 million, which makes it difficult to acquire a player of equal value. And teams may not be willing to give up much, knowing that Lee could walk away this summer.

A Western Conference executive said that Lee would be “one of the more sought-after guys” this summer, because of his youth, his production and his rapid improvement. (The executive spoke on condition of anonymity because of league tampering rules.)

“He’s someone you could make one of your top four players,” he said.

The Knicks think so, too, which is why — contrary to conventional wisdom — they will do everything reasonably possible to keep him. LeBron James needs good teammates, after all.

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