You have to give New York's GM Donnie Walsh credit. When he makes a plan, he sticks to it.
With the news today that David Lee will sign a one-year deal, Walsh remained true to his word that he would not sign any multi-year contracts this summer. He passed on Ramon Sessions. He limited the contracts of Nate Robinson and Lee to one season. He steadfastly refused to commit a single dime of salary beyond this season. This is of course the continuation of the plan begun the moment that Walsh took over for Isiah Thomas in New York to clear cap space for the summer of 2010, and to do so at all costs. It seems almost impossible, but Walsh managed to move some players that many described as unmovable - Jamal Crawford, Zach Randolph and Jerome James. The contracts of Crawford and Randolph are worth a combined $27.4, and needless to say most of that money is now targeted towards a big name free agent next summer, like LeBron James or Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh.
We don't know how this story is going to end. We can't pass judgement on Walsh's plans until next summer at least, because there is of course no guarantee that the free agent he wants will take his money. There will after all be other suitors for all the big names, including a very wealthy Russian just across the Brooklyn Bridge. Meanwhile, the Knicks enter this season in the dubious position of having a roster comprised almost entirely of short timers. I suppose it's anybody's guess as to who will start in MSG this season, but here's an educated one: Chris Duhon at point guard, Larry Hughes at shooting guard, Al Harrington at small forward, Lee at power forward and Darko Milicic at center. Notice anything about those five guys? They're all in the final year of their contracts, along with sixth man Robinson. You know the last time I remember when a team started five free agents? That would be the notorious 02-03 LA Clippers - trust me, I've seen this picture, it doesn't end well.
Coach Mike D'Antoni could always eschew the short-timers and play the youngsters. But frankly, there are barely enough of them to field a team. Danilo Gallinari and Jordan Hill are the prize lottery picks - so obviously there are high hopes for those two. Of course, Hill is a rookie, and Gallinari might as well be having played just over 400 minutes last season. There are some later first rounders also on the roster (Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas). And that's about it. Four players on the roster that figure into any conceivable long term plan, none of them proven in the least, and a few of them long shots at best.
Now you might think that this is all just carte blanche to tank the whole season and get another high draft pick. Maybe put John Wall next to LeBron. But there are a couple of problems with that approach. One is that it's probably not a great selling point to potential free agents to have the worst record in the league. They'd probably prefer to join a good team, all other things being equal. More to the point - the Knicks don't have a 2010 first rounder, having traded it away years ago. (In a cruel book end to his tenure in New York, the draft pick was included in Isiah's first official act as the Knicks GM - trading for Stephon Marbury. Walsh had to buy out Starbury last year, and loses a likely lottery pick next year. Ouch.)
So the Knicks have every reason to push hard to have a good season. Back to the free agent question, if they play well then maybe New York will be a more attractive choice. Then again, let's assume for a moment that the Knicks actually do play well (I know it's crazy talk, but just as a hypothetical). It's not like a superstar free agent is going to be joining THAT Knicks team. Because once you pay LeBron his $17M, you've got very little money left to fill out the roster. You certainly don't have the room to re-sign Lee or Robinson for the money they want. And not that you'd necessarily want Hughes or Harrington or Milicic, but if one of them did happen to have a big season and contribute mightily to a Knicks resurgence, he'd then have to take a massive pay cut in order to play with Mr. Marquee Free Agent.
So no matter how you slice it, the Knicks are going to be asking a free agent to join Gallinari, Hill, Chandler and Douglas; the remains of Jared Jeffries and Eddy Curry; and whoever else they can convince to sign, for below market value. Oh, and they won't be adding a first round pick, which is probably a good thing since that salary cap amount can go to free agents. Maybe Gallinari and Hill will both have monster seasons and look like great potential teammates by next July. More likely, Walsh had better be hoping that the draw of the market is enough in and of itself, because he's just not going to have a lot to offer in the way of teammates.
I've mostly stayed on the sidelines regarding the Clippers and mega-name free agents in 2010. But by way of contrast, let's look at it briefly. We've previously established that the Clippers would have to move one more big contract (read Chris Kaman or Baron Davis) in order to play this particular reindeer game. Let's for the moment assume they trade Kaman for expiring deals (not impossible, and in fact much easier than several of the Herculean feats Walsh accomplished within the last year).
- At that point, the Clippers and the Knicks could both offer LeBron his maximum free agent deal, something north of $17M.
- The Clippers could offer as teammates Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, Baron Davis, DeAndre Jordan, Al Thornton, Sebastian Telfair and a first round draft pick.
- The Knicks could offer as teammates Danilo Gallinari, Jordan Hill, Eddy Curry, Jared Jeffries, Wilson Chandler and Toney Douglas.
Which team would you rather join?
This is not to suggest that the Clippers should necessarily jump headlong into that pool. There are many other teams to consider, and maybe they have even more attractive rosters to offer. The point is that it's hard to imagine a LESS attractive competitive situation than the Knicks. Look at that list of names. Are any of them legitimate NBA starters? Gallinari and Hill MIGHT be some day; but they aren't now.
This is one of the more fascinating salary cap experiments in the history of the NBA. Never before has a team so brazenly pursued free agency as essentially their ONLY plan. Two entire Knicks seasons have been sacrificed on the altar of 2010 free agency. Then again, the Knicks have been abysmal for five straight seasons, and before Walsh put this plan in place, there wasn't even hope. So it's something.
You can legitimately ask what is the downside of this approach; why not make a run at a major free agent? This problem is of course largely not of Walsh's making, even today. With Eddy Curry and Jared Jeffries still weighing down his payroll next summer to the combined tune of $18M, there's just not a lot left over to pay a super mega-star AND have a, whaddya-call-it, team. But the risk of putting all of the eggs in the free agency basket is in the opportunity cost - who are they NOT signing now. Look no further than Sessions, Robinson and Lee. We know that Sessions signed with the T-Wolves for 4/$16M. The Knicks certainly could have signed him long term at what seems to be a bargain price. Likewise Robinson and/or Lee were Knicks' restricted FA's, and might have been signed long term save for the moratorium on multi-year deals. Sure, if the Knicks are snubbed by all of their high value targets, they can always turn their attentions back to Robinson and Lee. Of course, they may have moved on by then, and even if they haven't, as unrestricted free agents, the Knicks are more likely to find themselves in a bidding war with another suitor. Are Sessions or Robinson or Lee difference-makers? Are the Knicks going to lament not locking them up? We'll see. But the simple fact is that good teams are usually built on a series of good personnel moves - not on one swing of the bat.
It's reasonable to assume that SOMEONE will take Donnie Walsh's money next July, so stockpiling the cash won't be for naught. Then again, if that someone isn't named LeBron or Dwyane, I'm not sure they're going to be worth what they're going to ask (not even Bosh, imho). Does $15M per year to a 29 year old Joe Johnson solve New York's problems? Or does it just create new ones? (New ones that seem a lot like the old ones.) How about Amare?
As I said before, we obviously don't know the end of this story. It will be interesting to see what happens next.