The uncertain economic atmosphere has most NBA teams in frugal mode for this year's free-agency period, especially with everyone saving their pennies (and salary-cap space) for the potentially bigger market in 2010. But there are a few must-haves available, and very high on that list is Knicks forward David Lee.
How hot-topic is Lee's status as a restricted free agent? Important enough that a comparable player, Utah Jazz forward Paul Millsap, says he wants to see what Lee gets on the open market before he signs a deal for himself.
And Lee, whom the Knicks very much want to keep, expects to know very soon - perhaps as early as 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, when the free-agency period begins - just what his league-leading 62 double-doubles, knack for defensive rebounding and terrific outlet passing are worth around the league. "I don't think we'll lack for interest," agent Mark Bartelstein said.
Nate Robinson is the team's other restricted free agent. It is believed that the franchise isn't as desperate to hold on to the 5-9 Robinson, who could be moved in a sign-and-trade scenario. But if interest is low, the Knicks - who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday - could keep him at a major discount, especially if there aren't any better options on the open market to fill the third-guard role in the rotation.
With only the mid-level exception (about $5.5 million per) to offer, the Knicks once again are limited with their spending. Multiple sources said free agent Jason Kidd is a target. Kidd, 36, would give the Knicks some credibility, though his game is fading fast. He turned down a three-year deal for about $8 million per season from the Mavericks, so it is hard to believe he would take a short-term deal at the mid-level to join the 32-win Knicks.
The Knicks can match any offer sheet made for Robinson or Lee, but if the number gets too high and impacts the coveted cap space in 2010, the decision will get tougher. Before the season, Lee was believed to be looking for about $10 million per season. Robinson was seeking significantly less, but because his popularity and marketability soared after his second slam-dunk title and he averaged 17.2 points per game, his number will go up.
The question for the Knicks is, at what number do they fold and explore sign-and-trade options for either?
Donnie Walsh's rebuilding plan involves having cap flexibility in 2010 and beyond. But although Robinson may be expendable, Lee is considered an important part of a core of players Walsh and Mike D'Antoni want to have to attract superstar-caliber players.
Lee has expressed a desire to stay in New York and it is possible he would be open to working his deal to protect the cap situation. But Bartelstein said the Knicks have had Lee, the 30th overall pick in 2005, at a major discount already.
"At some point," he said, "you've got to look out for yourself."