Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Case for Keeping David Lee

I might turn off my cell phone for the next 24 hours. I might just altogether not open my laptop, or turn on ESPN, and hope that the next time I turn on a Knicks game, he'll be there, number 42, to set the pick for Chris Duhon and drop to the basket for an open layup. Oh, how happy I'll be to hear Clyde Frazier mention for the 325,000th time (I'm counting) that the Knicks' best player is ambidextrous. That's how desperate I am for the Knicks to hold onto David Lee.

It's silly to note, but I know where I was when I found out the Knicks had dealt Jamal Crawford. I remember my dismay, having foolishly held out hope the Knicks could hold onto Crawford and still clear cap space for 2010 by unloading Eddy Curry somewhere, anywhere. Crawford was one of the hardest working and longest-tenured Knicks, a good guy who worked hard under every coach thrown at him, and seemed prime for a huge year under Mike D'Antoni's system, which, despite what some initially believed, was a great fit for Crawford's game.

Three months later, the Knicks are probably as good of a team as they were without Crawford, and I hardly miss him. I understand that the Knicks are gearing for some huge free agent signings in 2010, and feel idiotic for lamenting the loss of a guy who never won anything in four plus seasons as a Knick.

But I won't just accept any cap casualty, and I stand firm in declaring that it would be a huge mistake for the Knicks to dump David Lee at the trade deadline instead of re-signing him in the offseason. I do not care who they can unload in the process, be it Quentin Richardson or Curry.

Look, I'm not an irrational fan clinging to an exciting player without understanding the direction of the franchise and how managements plans on getting there. I understand the huge benefit of moving Eddy Curry's deal instead of having it count against the cap the offseason when, potentially, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire, Steve Nash and a ton of impact players will be available. But to sacrifice Lee for the sake of trying to sign not just one, but two superstars is to forgo a great opportunity to lock up a legitimate franchise piece (not The Guy, but nonetheless, one of the most valuable big men in the Eastern Conference) to a bargain contract. And why? So the Knicks can fantasize about signing two superstars in a league where there is absolutely no precedent--if you're thinking Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, keep reading--and no likelihood of that happening.

There is simple logic, simple math, and even a little bit of basketball data behind why the Knicks will not land two superstars in the 2010 offseason, and why they should instead invest in keeping David Lee long term.

1. This isn't baseball

Plain and simple. Per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NBA has what's called a salary cap. So despite all the grandeur and appeal of New York and the huge money poured into its market, there's the reality that, for example, the Cavs can match the Knicks dollar-for-dollar on a contract offer to LeBron James, and they can offer higher annual percentage increases in salary.

Now, the financial counterpoint is obvious, but it's trite. Many speculate that LeBron would receive all kinds of endorsements and various other opportunities to make money by playing in a bigger market--after all, for a superstar, the non-NBA salary usually exceeds his paycheck for, you know, playing basketball. But I'm fairly certain LeBron's already been showing up in ads for Nike, State Farm, Vitamin Water to the tune of $25 million. Wherever he plays, LeBron won't need to worry about opportunities for more money. He can start his brand of whatever he wants, wherever he wants, and he'll make a lot of money. This doesn't apply to him alone. The NBA superstar is marketable wherever he is. If you don't see Amar'e, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade on TV enough, it's not because they're not signed to endorsements and doing countless commercials. Yao says eat the head!

2. The Knicks aren't the Yankees

Furthering the baseball comparison helps refute the widely-held notion that there is great appeal in playing in such a storied building as Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of basketball. What nonsense. You know what's fun to do in basketball? Win games. The Knicks haven't done much of that. What appeal is there for an established superstar in joining a franchise in a complete rebuild phase that likely will not have made the playoffs since 2004. I'd be pretending if I were to say that New York is not a sexy landing place for most stars. But in examining the case of the biggest name of all, LeBron, I don't think the Knicks have a chance.

This year's Cavs team is the reason why. Unfortunately for the Knicks, the Cavs have made the next step in their ascendancy to the top of the league. Mo Williams has been a better addition than almost anyone expected, and the Cavs right now are as much of a favorite as Boston or LA is. This team is almost unbeatable at home, and has always been much better in the postseason than the regular season. Some would say LeBron is the only reason why, and he can bring that wherever he goes, but that does not mean Cleveland is easy to leave behind. There's a great chance the Cavs win a championship within the next two years, and even if they don't, it's hard for a competitor like LeBron to leave behind a contender for a franchise looking to get off the ground. As much as New York would view him as a savior, Lebron's home state would call him a traitor, and so would his teammates, given how close they are to winning a championship.

The fact that the Knicks are not a contender does not just hinder their chances at signing LeBron. Dwyane Wade wouldn't exactly be ditching Milwaukee for New York a la CC Sabathia. The Heat can pay him the same salary, and Miami is a big city market, too. With Michael Beasley, Daequan Cook, Mario Chalmers and cap space in 2010 to retain Wade and make other signings, he's not a likely candidate for New York.

3. It's the economy, stupid

The NBA salary cap is based on revenue. Revenue is down. The salary cap may also go down. If you don't believe the economy is going to alter the way teams spend in the NBA, then you must not think the 30-20 Hornets traded Tyson Chandler to improve their chances in the Western Conference. The NBA is a business, and teams want to make money. When they don't make as much as they expect to make, they're like to not spend their money as freely. So not only will teams be inclined to spend less, but they will also have less capacity to spend with the salary cap reduced. Per the genius of Bird Rights, the Knicks can defy the cap in keeping Lee.

And what a perfect time for Lee to the free agent market. Perfect for Lee? No, but it's a perfect market for the Knicks to retain him. Lee will probably make less than he deserves or requests (my guess is he asks for $10 million over 4-5 years and receives in the range of $8 million) even if he is one of the most appealing free agents. Not many teams have cap, and those that do may either be less inclined to give Lee a long-term contract given the economy, or they may be holding onto their cap space for the following offseason.

The Knicks probably will not match an offer sheet for above $8 million per season, but Lee may not receive this much. Carlos Boozer is a more coveted name and seems likely to relocate, as the Jazz have a lot of big contracts on board and will try to keep Paul Millsap at a cheaper price. Lamar Odom has been unhappy all year in Los Angeles, and even if his minutes increase with Bynum out and the Lakers win a championship, the team will probably have to hand out a huge contract to Kobe and let Odom walk. In light of teams holding out for the 2010 free agency class, the reduced salary cap and a few more targeted names on the market, Lee may be left without a suitor for the contract he seeks, ultimately re-signing with the Knicks for a contract they would be willing to pay him.

4. David Lee is worth the money

16 points, 12 rebounds. Numbers can be inflated. They can lie, deceive, or fail to tell the whole story. But the only other player currently averaging at least 16 points and 12 rebounds per game is Dwight Howard. Lee is at 16.4 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, and when you love him as much as I do, the number rounds up.
I know the reality of Lee's value. He is a mediocre defender; he has great hands and moves well, but he doesn't contest shots and is a poor post defender. But he is one of the most heads-up big men in the NBA right now. Lee sets great screens, is an awesome finisher, is learning to knock down a jump shot consistently, is a very good passer, and then there's the rebounds. Lee is the kind of rebounder who inspires the cliche about the ball finding him. He has great hands and is quicker than almost anyone he has to box out.

The rebound means a lot in the NBA, especially when Mike D'Antoni is so emphatic about maximizing possessions and long-range shooting. Lee is the rare big man with great endurance and athleticism. He is, simply, a great fit for D'Antoni's designs. His screens draw defenders to Chris Duhon, whereupon Lee can roll to the basket for his usual open dunk or contested layup (the guy doesn't miss those), or Duhon, drawing a second perimeter defender, can pass for an open three. Everything about the Knicks offense this year has worked because of Lee's presence. It's not hard to rely on stats to evidence Lee's value, though. He's tied for the league lead in double-doubles and is shooting 56% from the field. A 25 year-old with an improving game and this kind of production is a player worth re-signing.

5. 2010 is an illusion

The reality is, if the Knicks do keep Lee for the remainder of this season, there still is a dollar amount which they will not match for Lee. Assuming the salary cap for the 2010 offseason is around $55 million, the Knicks are looking at around $37 million in cap space. The starting year is the same for LeBron, Wade and Bosh, and would be around $17 or 18 million. That means the Knicks could fit in two of the three. They could probably also fit one of the three and Amar'e.

This, however, is delusional. The only time in the history of NBA free agency that two superstars have bolted to join the same team was when both Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady signed with Orlando almost ten seasons ago. McGrady left to return to his home state (LeBron already plays in his...) before he had had a true superstar season. The Knicks will not be so lucky in free agency. Both left just solid teams, too, with the hope of joining a contender. To expect that LeBron and another superstar would leave their teams to play in New York is a fantasy, a delusion. Kobe didn't sign with Chicago, did he? Tim Duncan stays with the Spurs at a discount. Even KG stayed in Minnesota.

When the home team offers the most money, it's hard to say goodbye. Each player worries about his legacy, and if you're expecting LeBron to leave a contender--or better yet, the defending champs--to play in New York, you're operating under a fantasy. Hopefully, Donnie Walsh and you aren't thinking on the same plane, or the Knicks could lose their best player. Two superstars aren't going to sign with the Knicks in 2010, and the Knicks better realize that before they let David Lee walk.

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