Donnie Walsh gritted his teeth on Feb. 18 and went against everything he usually believes in. He surrendered future draft picks and a current rookie lottery pick in a blockbuster trade that cleared an extra $9.5M in salary cap space this summer. The move put his franchise in position to have well over $30M to spend in free agency (and trade acquisitions) come July.
It's as if he knows something.
While the common folk are mocking the desperate belief that LeBron James would ever leave that dynastic group in Cleveland to start over with an virtually empty roster in New York, people are losing sight of what's really in play here. The Knicks clearly can't compete with the ready-to-serve talent on the Cavaliers roster or the proximity to his Akron home (hey, Thurmon Munson used to regularly fly home to his family in Canton during the baseball season, so New York is not that far away).
The Knicks certainly can't offer LeBron the pampering he gets from the local Cleveland media. But let's attack that one head-on, folks. If people honestly believe LeBron's decision to not play in New York is based on his fear of criticism, then he's not the superstar we think he is. Let's have Earl Monroe, who came here in 1971 as the enemy, explain it.
"I always chuckle when people say it's too hard to play in New York," Monroe told Newsday's Barbara Barker last week. "If you are doing what you are supposed to do, this is the best place to play. It doesn't matter where you were before. If you give your best, the fans will embrace you here in New York."
The story was about former hated Dolphin Jason Taylor being accepted by Jets fans. But it also is about New York fans in general. If you are doing what you are supposed to do, this is the best place to play.
I was on the air with ESPN Radio's Bill Daughtry on Monday night talking Knicks and we got into the LeBron debate. Why on earth would he leave what he's got in Cleveland to come to the Knicks?
Why, indeed? All the Knicks have to offer is Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and the tarnished image of Mike D'Antoni. What could possibly be the attraction?
Silly, small market people.
It's all about the Benjamins.
The U.S. Treasury Department once printed bills as large as $100,000. Woodrow Wilson was the featured president. But those bills were put into distribution in the early 1930s. Today the largest denomination printed and put into circulation is $100, the Benjamin Franklin.
The NBA in 1999 created a new collective bargaining agreement to restrict the use of this currency by teams that have the most of it. It is when the league - like many sports - turned to socialism as a means to keep its small market teams from being engulfed by the large markets like we see in Major League Baseball. The NBA's CBA puts all the power in the "home" team (the team currently owning the contract of the player) to re-sign their player to a higher number (10 percent raises as opposed to eight for others) and longer term (six years as opposed to five).
In other words, the rule makes it a financial sacrifice for a player to want to leave his current team. Yeah, the NBA union really took a step backward for free agency (Curt Flood is rolling over in his grave).
And now here is LeBron James, the greatest basketball player on the planet right now. He has $17.1M on the table for next season if he wants it and then can sign an extension for incremental raises through 2015, if he so wishes to stay in Cleveland until he is 29 1/2 years old.
The Knicks, nor any other team in the NBA, can do better than this, by rule of the CBA. So if he wanted to leave Cleveland, he'd have to opt out of his current contract, walk away from the $17.1M and sign for a deal that, with a $56.1M salary cap as a table, take a salary of $16.5M next season. Already that's a $600,000 loss and we haven't even calculated the differences in the incremental raises.
Now, this is no secret. You don't even need an agent to explain this to you at 3 percent commission. You don't need Warren Buffet to explain it over dinner, which the two often do together throughout a year.
So then why hasn't James just gone ahead and signed that extension? If it was so cut-and-dried and so obvious, why has he allowed the issue to linger and hang over the beautiful Cleveland Clinic Courts complex, the spanking-new Cavs practice facility that looks like a resort spa?
Because it seems obvious that he is, at the very least, curious. And that's all the opening you need.
First, of course, LeBron wants to see if this Cavs team can get it done. If they are good enough to get beyond the stuborn Orlando Magic, who have a very young nucleus of Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson and aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Perhaps he wonders if he can attract others to want to make a long-term committment to join him in Cleveland, which is what it is as a city along the NBA Tour. There's no reason to take shots at it, but we all know it's not in the top 10 among favorite cities in the league and let's leave it at that.
[Bloghost note: I covered the Islanders for seven years and talked with many free agents about the prospect of coming to Long Island vs. playing for the Rangers. None of them cared that it was just a half-hour from New York City or that there were passionate fans here. The bottom line was it wasn't New York City. And that's that. You are who you are. Deep down, Clevelanders know this. Why else is it the Pessimistic Capital of the Sports Word?]
So let's agree that this is obviously not solely about base salary, because James would have signed an extension to stay in Cleveland if he was focused only on making the highest NBA salary he could.
But let's referece the well-worn LeBron quote from Dec. 2005: "In the next 15 to 20 years, I hope I'll be the richest man in the world. That's one of my goals. I want to be a billionaire. I want to get in a position where, generation on generation don't have to worry about nothing. I don't want family members from my kids to my sons' kids to never have to worry. And I can't do that now just playing basketball."
Magic Johnson proved that much and he spent his entire career in L.A. Magic is about halfway there with a net worth of $500 million (according to Forbes). Michael Jordan is slightly ahead of Johnson at $525 million.
Johnson told Steve Serby of the New York Post last December, "If [LeBron] said he wants to be a billionaire, or close to it, you gotta go to New York."
Sports marketing types contend that, with the internet and other technology that has brought the NBA to just about every square inch of the Earth, a player can gain global icon status from any market. LeBron's jersey sells well in China just as it does in the U.S. But selling jerseys don't make you a billionaire. That's just a small part of what makes the NBA a billion-dollar industry.
New York offers James countless opportunities to invest his money, expand his portfolio and his image and, of course, become the single-most popular athlete in the world. For one, the Garden has MSG Network and the obvious connection to Cablevision, which can do many things for LeBron at a-whole-nother level. Oprah Winfrey, you know, is a billionaire. No. 400 on Forbes' most recent list. TV is a magical money maker.
And this -- among many other ideas and offers -- is what Donnie Walsh has to include in his recruiting pitch on July 1. It's not nearly as much about the new Garden renovation plans and convincing Amar'e Stoudemire or Chris Bosh to come on board first as a lure or how much Danilo Gallinari has improved or how Mike D'Antoni would put the ball in LeBron's hands as a point-forward in his spread offense.
It's about the suits that need to line up from Wall Street to 33rd and 7th and up to Times Square, each with a blank check and offer in hand. At the very end of the line should be Donald Trump (No. 488) and, of course, the Mayor, himself, Michael Bloomberg, who, you know, is the weathiest New Yorker at $18 billion. David Koch ($17.5B) should also be involved in this conversation.
No stone -- and that includes diamonds, emeralds or rubies -- should be left unturned, unpolished and unpresented.
Fixers, this isn't about the Knicks signing LeBron. This is about New York acquiring him. And if it's overwhelming enough, he'd have to consider it. Winning on the court he can handle on his own. And, let's be honest, if he did sign here, players would come for discounts to be part of what would be the NBA's version of Beatlemania.
Maybe even Dwyane Wade.
"We play well together," Wade said of LeBron on Saturday.
Wade went as far as talking about the need to have two players who "got to want to share it."
Yeah, he, too, knows the deal we explained above. And yet he hasn't signed anything, either.
Perhaps they're just using the Knicks as leverage, like others have in the past, like Reggie Miller (1996) and even Jason Kidd (2009). The Knicks can't control that.
But they can take advantage of it by getting together a syndicate and make the kind of relentless, overwhelming pursuit that defines the town.
And if all else fails? Make sure you sign someone who can guard him.