Posted by Neil Paine on September 25, 2009
This week, the news Knicks fans have been hoping to hear finally came: David Lee and Nate Robinson re-signed with the club, each inking 1-year deals in the $5-7 million range that (most importantly) will not interfere with the Knicks' long-awaited free agent pursuit of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, or any of the other headliners in the star-studded FA class of 2010.
Both of these deals were essential to the quality of the team in 2009-10. As you can see from our projections over the past few weeks, the two sets that did not feature Lee and Robinson on the Knicks' roster called for the Knicks to be the NBA's worst team with a record in the neighborhood of 23-59, as a roster stocked with mediocre-to-bad players (the best of which were going to be Al Harrington, Wilson Chandler, Chris Duhon, and Larry Hughes) would have struggled mightily to break the 30-win barrier again. But the later set that assumed Lee and Robinson would eventually re-up with NY projected 37 wins for the team, just 1.7 behind Philly for the last playoff spot in the East, suggesting a postseason run might now be possible for the Knicks.
That kind of run might be important for the Knicks in their courtship of James, Wade, and/or Bosh next summer, to prove that a free agent signee would be stepping into a situation where winning isn't very far away. The system is already stacked against New York in the sense that the Larry Bird exception allows a player's current team to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players, meaning Cleveland, Miami, and Toronto can offer max contracts to their stars if they wish to retain them. The Knicks needed to have enough under the cap to be able to match that kind of money, while still maintaining a core that wouldn't put their newcomer in a horrible losing situation as soon as he arrived at MSG. With the global economic crisis reaching the NBA this year (the salary cap actually went down over the summer for the first time since 2003), New York's GM Donnie Walsh had an incredibly daunting task ahead of him if he was going to follow through on the not-so-unspoken goal of nabbing James.
That's why it was so important for the team to ink Lee and Robinson to 1-year contracts, meaning their salaries will come off the books next summer when the team will be making its grand free agent overtures. This was, in fact, the sticking point that prevented the duo from re-signing weeks ago, as Walsh absolutely wouldn't budge from a 1-year deal in his negotiating stance. It also helped the Knicks that no other team wanted to make Lee and Robinson the substantial offers they were looking for, as each player has a glaring flaw (Robinson's is obviously size, while Lee is a poor defender and is incapable of scoring unless he grabs an offensive rebound in point-blank range or is set up by someone else). At any rate, this worked out as well as it possibly could for the Knicks going forward.
That said, will it really matter in their pursuit of LeBron? By all accounts, we project Cleveland to be the best team in the East, while New York would likely have to lose either Lee or Robinson (and likely both) to sign The King next summer, leaving James alone in a wasteland of untalented vets and untested prospects. James is a singular talent that Walsh would love to build the post-Isiah Knicks around, but why would he leave a stacked Cleveland team that is likely the favorite to win the Eastern Conference for a rebuilding job in New York, especially in an era where a superstar doesn't have to operate near Madison Avenue to make huge advertising windfalls? Similarly, Bosh is on a Toronto team that -- according to our projections, at least --will have something of a renaissance season in 2010 (although they won't crack the Big 3 of Cleveland, Boston, & Orlando). The prospect of shedding Canada's exchange rate and cold climate could make NY more attractive to Bosh than to James, but the reality is that New York will have a difficult time persuading either star to sign with them if they are already in a winning situation.
Which brings us to Dwyane Wade. Despite Miami's success last season, our projections see Miami as a 36-39 win team that will have to scratch and claw their way into the playoffs (if they make them at all). That kind of disappointing campaign by the Heat in 09-10 could establish D-Wade as the most likely candidate to uproot himself for greener pastures in NYC next summer, as the Knicks' situation would be essentially equal cap-wise to Miami's. The difference would be young talent, though, which means Mario Chalmers has to build on his solid rookie season a year ago and Michael Beasley must show more of the ability that made him the 2nd overall pick in the 2008 Draft. If those two disappoint, it could set up a situation in which Wade leaves for the Knicks far more readily than either James or Bosh.
But, as is usually the case with the NBA, there will be a million twists and turns between now and next summer. New York inking Lee and Robinson to 1-year deals was the just the latest in a series of 2010-minded moves that are guaranteed to continue unabated throughout the season, reaching a fever pitch at the trade deadline & beyond. And that's a fact, my fellow NBA fans, which should only serve to make an already exciting 2009-10 campaign even more compelling.