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Lee playing at high level to impress Knicks, other teams

New York Knicks #42 David Lee, center, is

New York Knicks #42 David Lee, center, is congratulated by teammates #1 Chris Duhon, left, and #8 Danilo Gallinari late in the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bulls. Credit: Jason DeCrow

David Lee comes from old St. Louis money, so understand that failing to ink the $12 million per year his agent attempted to set as his market value hurt only in the ego. For Lee, whatever contract he signs next summer as an unrestricted free agent may afford a nicer garage for his Bentley, but will mean more to him in status among fellow NBA players.

Consider it payback for countless hours he spends in the gym continually working on his game - make that his weaknesses, because it's easy to practice what you're good at - with a determination to be more than just a role player.

That was the label on him going into draft night 2005, when the Knicks selected him 30th overall. He's grown before our eyes to the point where, four years later, he's ready to earn some early consideration as an all-star reserve with 18 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. More importantly, he has been a catalyst in the Knicks' recent run of eight wins in the last 11 games going into tomorrow's nationally-televised Christmas matinee against the Miami Heat.

The Knicks signed Lee to a one-year, $7 million deal in September mainly to protect the 2010 salary cap rather than lock up one of the franchise's only assets - most NBA executives consider Danilo Gallinari the only other player with any real value - for the long-term. No matter how well Lee plays (his 21 rebounds in Tuesday's win over the Bulls tied a career-high), the Knicks cannot negotiate an extension during the season if they wanted to because he is in a one-year deal. They must wait, like everyone else, until July 1.

At that time, however, all of the attention will be paid to LeBron James and others (Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, etc.). But Lee could play a major role in whether the Knicks are able to get any of them.

His value as a potential teammate - a rebounder, an intangibles player and a blossoming wingman as a great finisher in the pick-and-roll - are an obvious attraction, but what hasn't been mentioned is Lee's value to the Knicks as a centerpiece in a potential sign-and-trade scenario. James knows that, by NBA rule, only the Cavaliers can offer him the highest salary at the longest term. But if he would prefer to play for the Knicks, he could ask Cleveland to work a sign-and-trade with the Knicks, who could offer Lee as part of the package. In this case, the Cavaliers don't lose James for nothing and James gets the full max while the Knicks retain his Bird Rights.

Of course this is all for a conversation at a later date. Right now Lee is aware there are no guarantees about his future in New York, so not only is he playing to impress Donnie Walsh, he wants the rest of the league to take note, as well.

"If this is, in fact, my last year in New York I want to enjoy the time here," Lee said. "And if I'm here for 10 more years after this then it's the start of something great hopefully."

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