CHICAGO - There was a time the Knicks and Bulls used to compete for Eastern Conference supremacy. These days, it's for salary-cap space.
The Knicks were blown out by the Bulls on the court last night, 118-85, at United Center, but they're hoping to overtake them in a game with much higher stakes. Both teams are engaged in talks with the Houston Rockets to acquire fading star Tracy McGrady mainly for his $23-million expiring contract and the possibility of clearing more cap room for this summer's foray into free agency.
Then they'll compete for an even bigger prize: luring the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or Joe Johnson.
"We want to be under the cap as far as we can go to get as much flexibility as we can get," Mike D'Antoni said. "I don't really know what that goes into but that's the plan and that's what we're going to do. Whether we're there now and that's as good as we can do, then we're there now. Whether we can open up more room, we'll look at it. Nothing's off the table."
While various dot-com depots spent Tuesday volleying the status of the McGrady situation between the alternating agendas of each team. SI.com reported that the Knicks were "finalizing a deal" for McGrady and said the deal included the Knicks dumping Jared Jeffries' $6.8-million contract off the 2010 cap along with giving up rookie Jordan Hill ($2.4 million off the 2010 cap) and a 2012 draft pick.
Several insiders said that the Knicks - who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday - weren't entirely comfortable with giving up on a young player such as Hill or first-round picks, given that they don't own this year's pick, not to mention the uncertainty of what free agency will produce. But D'Antoni didn't seem to suggest it would be a deal-breaker if it meant opening up enough cap space potentially to allow the team to offer two max contracts or, perhaps, sign one and trade for another.
"Hypothetically, whatever's best for the organization, whatever gets us better, I'm definitely all for it," he said.
He would be after last night's effort. Derrick Rose had 29 points and shot 14-for-18 for the Bulls (26-26). Fellow All-Star David Lee had 24 points and 12 rebounds for the Knicks (19-33), who have lost four straight and are 61/2 games out of a playoff spot with 30 games left.
The Knicks are also in on other scenarios before tomorrow's 3 p.m. deadline. The Bulls are trying to shop pending restricted free agent Tyrus Thomas and have considered dealing him and Jerome James' expiring contract for Al Harrington in a move that would be to provide more room to grow for younger players such as Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler.
Another potential target for help at point guard is Sergio Rodriguez, who could be had for the Knicks' $1.6-million trade exception because the Kings are looking to shed some cash. A source also indicated that the Knicks consider Bulls guard Jannero Pargo as another cheap option to bring depth to the backcourt, especially if they wind up moving Nate Robinson to the Celtics, who are said to have strong interest in the three-time Slam Dunk champion.