1. Gallinari, Douglas Are Keepers, Is Lee?
By Chris Sheridan
NEW YORK -- The primary reason why the Denver Nuggets are now another game back in the Western Conference loss column is because two of the rarest commodities -- players the New York Knicks view as keepers -- were fantastic for a night.
Danilo Gallinari and Toney Douglas are two of the four players (the others are injured veterans Eddy Curry and Wilson Chandler) the Knicks have under contract for next season.
Galinari scored 17 of his 28 points in the third quarter, and Douglas had all seven of his assists in the same period as New York used a 34-21 surge in the third to defeat the Nuggets 109-104 Tuesday night.
The Knicks also got another double-double of 12 points and 16 rebounds from David Lee, but Lee does not necessarily fall under the same category as Gallinari and Douglas.
His numbers say Lee is a keeper, but the free agent market may dictate otherwise. And there is a very strong chance that Lee is about to play the final 11 games of his Knicks' career because New York will not be able to keep him for financial reasons if they hit the jackpot and bring in two of the top unrestricted free agents on the market.
New York is currently projecting itself to have $33-plus million in cap space this summer, enough to sign two max-salary players. But that $33 million also could be enough to sign one max perimeter player, be it LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant (yes, Bryant has an opt out, too, though the subject of him joining this summer's free agent class is almost never publicly broached), and then to use the remainder to re-sign Lee (at a starting salary in the $10 million range) while still leaving enough money to go out and get another player -- perhaps a center to take away much of the low-post defensive burden that Lee has had to shoulder for two seasons.
"At this point there's not much that can happen, so many different things, and a lot of it is a trickle down effect from what other guys do, what other teams decide to do and what direction the Knicks decide to go. So there's so many different factors, it's impossible to look at it right now and guess what the outcome is going to be," Lee told ESPN.com.
Tuesday night's double-double was Lee's 46th of the season, tying Utah's Carlos Boozer for third-most in the NBA behind Dwight Howard and Zach Randolph.
Lee led the NBA in that category last season with 65 double-doubles, and he is the first Knick to reach that mark at least 45 times in consecutive seasons since Patrick Ewing did it from 1992-94.
Lee also was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team this season, and the Knicks gave him a $7 million contract last summer when he was a restricted free agent as a reward for his four years of diligent service, rather than forcing him to sign his qualifying offer worth a fraction of that amount.
"When I got here, what I didn't understand was how good he was in the area of scoring around the basket," Knicks president Donnie Walsh told ESPN.com. "I mean, he's got phenomenal use of both hands, his shots around the basket are attempted while going at shot blockers -- and he makes them. So he's got a real ability to score. Last summer he spent the whole summer working on his shot as he did the summer before, but now he's hitting from the outside. So offensively he's a big guy that's very talented."
Still, the Knicks are not ready to commit to Lee beyond this season, because doing so might take them out of the running for James, their No. 1 choice.
That's because if James decides to leave Cleveland and sign with New York, he'll likely want to have a strong say in who is going to be lining up alongside him for the next 3-to-5 years. James and Lee have a cordial relationship, but if James tells the Knicks he wants Bosh as his running mate, and if Bosh is on board, too, guess who's going to be dangled in a sign-and-trade offer to the Raptors?
It'll be Lee.
"I wouldn't say I've been a victim (of circumstances) in a bad way. Last summer, I guess it happened for a reason. I guess I would have been a victim if I came back and had a horrible season, but the Knicks decided they wanted to save their money for the upcoming summer, and I still got a great one-year deal with it," Lee said.
"Now, you could say there's a lot more good players, but there's also a lot more teams with cap space. So it works both ways: It's a big buyer's market but also a big spender's market. There's a lot of supply, but there's also a lot of demand," Lee said.
Tuesday night's win was only the 26th of the season for the Knicks, and one of the knocks against Lee is that for all his statistical production over the past five seasons, New York has never won more than 33 games with him on the roster.
Granted, those losing seasons have been accompanied by all manners of fits, starts and changes in direction for the franchise, but how much of that failure can truly be pinned on Lee? And how much will that impact what he is offered when Miami, Chicago, New Jersey, Minnesota and the Clippers will all be flush with cap space as soon as the calendar turns to July 1.
One of Lee's veteran Knicks teammates said Lee should accept a starting salary of no less than $10 million in his next contract. Whether someone will be willing to bid higher remains to be seen.
"That is going to reflect on his market value in the sense that if you're playing him at a certain level, you expect that guy to take you to wins. But I don't think he's had the components around him that he can take the blame for that," Walsh said. "He's a very good player, and I don't think anybody at his position could have done any better than he did, so I don't think you can hang all the losses on him."
One factor that no one is quite certain about is how the timing of James' decision could impact the market.
If James makes up his mind by the fourth of July, the other dominoes will start to fall rhythmically.
But if James takes his time and drags his decision into mid-July or later, it'll be a mad scramble and an excruciating decision for teams deciding whether to act immediately or to wait.
"I'm not going to talk specifically about one player, but I expect these things to get worked out rather quickly because that's usually what happens," Walsh said. "I think if you really look at the practicality of it, there are going to be five, six, seven free agents that are top-level guys. Not at the very top, but some team is going to walk in and say 'OK, I'll give you this offer. You either take it by tomorrow morning or it's gone.' I don't think they'll do that with certain guys, but with some they will. So the market will start moving."
But where Lee lands in that market -- and whether circumstances allow him to stay in New York, his No. 1 choice -- will remain unknowns until this summer's free-agency madness begins to play out.
Only then will Lee learn if he is like Gallinari and Douglas -- a keeper.
ESPN Insider Chris Sheridan is a regular contributor to the Daily Dime