THE SUMMER of 2010 is expected to produce a free-agent free-for-all, with general managers waving nine-figure offers and a handful of elite players filling out change-of-address forms. But before LeBron-a-Palooza or Dwyanemania (choose your moniker) begins, G.M.'s will have to decide if they want to spend some of their money this summer. While the 2009 free-agent crop could include marquee players ( Allen Iverson, Carlos Boozer, Ron Artest), rising stars ( Hedo Turkoglu, Anderson Varej�o) and intriguing young talent ( Raymond Felton), one of the biggest draws will be restricted free agent David Lee, the Knicks' 25-year-old power forward.
Lee's appeal has grown with his offensive game. Always a tenacious rebounder, he was limited to dunks and put-backs before this year. "I don't think I shot five jump shots at Florida," says the 6'9" Lee. "And when I got to the NBA, I was on a team with scorers so I focused on rebounding. But when we hired [coach] Mike D'Antoni, I knew I had to step up my game." During the off-season Lee dedicated himself to developing a 15-foot jump shot, and he has become a viable outside threat. "When he first came into the league, the scouting report on him was 'leave him open,'" says 76ers coach Tony DiLeo. "Now you have to get out there and defend that shot."
Under D'Antoni's high-tempo pick-and-roll system, Lee and point guard Chris Duhon play roles similar to the ones that Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash had in Phoenix. The Duhon-Lee combination first jelled during a loss to the Pistons in November, when Lee was surprised at how easily he was able to score on the pick-and-roll. "Chris and I talked after that game, and agreed that we had to work harder on that play in practice and go to it more often," says Lee. Three nights later Lee scored a career-high 37 points and Duhon handed out a team-record 22 assists in a win over the Warriors. At week's end Lee was averaging 15.9 points to go with 11.7 rebounds. "Besides Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler, I can't think of anyone who is running the pick-and-roll better right now," says a Western Conference scout.
But Lee's improvement complicates the Knicks' future. Their plan has been to create salary-cap space to sign two max-level free agents (think LeBron James and Chris Bosh) in 2010, when the cap is likely to be around $60 million; they're currently committed to four players who'll make $23.6 million. Now, with Lee likely to command $10 million a year, team president Donnie Walsh has to decide: Does he match offers for the restricted free agent, a homegrown, up-and-coming player who wants to remain a Knick? Or does he let him walk, keep the cap room and hope two top free agents will come to New York?
The early signs are that the Knicks will keep Lee, locking down the power forward position while maintaining enough flexibility in 2010 to bring in one max player and a second-tier free agent, such as Nash or Ray Allen. With the Feb. 19 trade deadline approaching, Walsh has cooled teams' interest in Lee by indicating that they will also need to take Eddy Curry, who's owed $11.3 million in 2010--11. "David is the fourth-leading rebounder in the league," Walsh says. "Why would I listen to anyone?"
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