The Knicks rolled to a win against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night thanks in no small part to a ninth straight double-double from David Lee. That consistent play is why he's got a good chance at making his first All-Star team later Thursday and why his future with the Knicks will be one of the most pressing questions for Donnie Walsh to answer.
Lee isn't going to be traded before the Feb. 19 trading deadline, not with the Knicks in position to make a serious run at a playoff spot. There's no way the team could get enough value in return for his $1.8 million salary to avoid a resoundingly negative reaction from the fan base. That means they will enter the offseason with Lee a restricted free agent with salary demands that could impact the team's plan to build for the 2010 offseason.
It's thought that Lee's desired salary would be in the neighborhood of $10 million, which is a big slice of the pie the team hoped to offer to the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Desired salaries may not be the order of the day in a recession, however, and Howard Beck of the New York Times laid out an intriguing blueprint for how the Knicks can remain in both the Lee and 2010 business.
Beck points out that only seven teams figure to be deep enough under the cap to offer Lee so large a contract. Portland, Atlanta and Minnesota all have bigger needs than adding another frontcourt body, though. Miami and Detroit are assumed to be building for their own run at the 2010 crop of free agents, which leaves Oklahoma City and Memphis as potential destinations.
There are also a slew of other free agents on the market, which should help keep salaries lower than expected, so he might not even get that big contract because Carlos Boozer may be a preferred target.
Lee's choice, then, may come down to taking a big money deal from an awful team or staying in New York for less money. Lee seems to enjoy the notoriety that comes with being a star athlete in New York, notoriety that will only grow as the Knicks record improves. That decision seems like an easy one, although he wouldn't be the first player to take money over a fuller complement of benefits.
Beck's theory may be shot to hell by a better team that thinks Lee is worth big money, but, for now, it seems like the Knicks may be able to keep Lee without throwing away a chance at a better future.