The Knicks will try to sell LeBron on the prospect of playing in Madison Square Garden 41 times a year.
It's the question the NBA world has been debating since Donnie Walsh took over the New York Knicks in April 2008 and vowed to clear salary-cap space to lure free agents to the Big Apple: Do the Knicks have a realistic shot at landing LeBron James?
Twenty-five months later, we still don't know.
We know about the Cavaliers' built-in advantages when it comes to keeping James, even if he chooses to become a free agent this summer, as expected: He is a local hero for a winning team, and in Cleveland he can make a higher salary for more years than elsewhere.
We know that the Bulls can make the case to LeBron that his future would be brightest in Chicago, given their young, athletic talent -- and that the Nets can say the same of New Jersey and Brooklyn, with a Russian billionaire and a hip-hop legend able to offer a unique combination of international appeal and street cred.
And we know that Miami Heat president Pat Riley is cooking up a plan to keep his own superstar, Dwyane Wade, while adding another star or two, with a wish list that starts with LeBron.
What we don't know yet is whether the Knicks can successfully use the bright lights of New York to trump those other teams in the contest for LeBron's services.
But here's one thing we do know now, thanks to a well-placed source with knowledge of the Knicks' thinking: exactly how the Knicks will try to lure LeBron.
According to the source, the Knicks have not contacted any prospective free agents or their agents, given the NBA's strict rules on tampering with players on other teams. But the Knicks have been plotting their strategy for more than two years, and now they're ready to make their move on July 1 -- to enact their game plan to get LeBron.
And it's not only LeBron who interests the Knicks, according to the source -- they are also very interested in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, as you'll see below.
When the Knicks brass makes its pitch to LeBron and his team of advisors, the source says these will be the talking points:
1. "You can play alongside another superstar."
In other words: "You won't be alone anymore, LeBron."
The Knicks are projected to have about $34 million in salary-cap space, which should allow them to sign two free agents at max dollars -- with the second star being Bosh, ideally, according to the source.
[+] EnlargeDwyane Wade
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesThe Knicks also have their sights on Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
And if LeBron says no, the Knicks will make exactly the same case to Dwyane Wade, according to the source.
Therefore, Plan A would be to pair James and Bosh, Plan B would be Wade and Bosh, and Plan C would be James and Wade.
Why is Bosh part of Plan A and Plan B? Wouldn't the Knicks rather have megastars LeBron and D-Wade?
While the Knicks greatly admire Wade and are very interested in him, the source said the Knicks believe that Bosh would be the ideal partner for James (or Wade), allowing New York to pair an elite playmaker with an elite big man with shooting range.
Said the source, "I'm sure LeBron and Wade would figure out a way to play together, but it's not an ideal fit. Bosh would be a perfect complement to both of those guys because of his ability to stretch the floor."
Of course, the Knicks realize that acquiring Bosh is no sure thing. But if he doesn't stay in Toronto, Bosh will want to work out a sign-and-trade with the Raptors and another team, with the Knicks a top candidate -- as I reported Friday, New York is one of five teams on Bosh's wish list.
Even if Bosh does decide that New York is his top choice, that doesn't mean it will be easy for the Knicks to execute their plan. Knicks free agent David Lee would almost certainly have to be involved, meaning he would need to agree on contract terms and a move to Toronto. And as Chris Sheridan has written, working out the timing of all this maneuvering might be very tricky.
While the Knicks will target James first, they are no less interested in Wade, according to the source. They recognize that LeBron is three years younger, more versatile and more durable, but Wade's championship pedigree and scoring prowess make him just as appealing, for different reasons.
Said the source, "If you're trying to win championships for the next five years, I think you go with LeBron. But if you were to pick one player to try to win it with immediately, Wade may be the better choice. You can't go wrong with either guy."
So what happens if LeBron leaves the Knicks in limbo? What if Wade and Bosh are ready to sign up while LeBron ponders his decision?
When I asked the source, he said the Knicks had discussed that possibility and would not hesitate: "If Wade and Bosh committed quickly, and LeBron was still unsure, I think you'd have to go ahead and move on. It's too much of a risk to keep players of that caliber hanging."
And what happens if James or Wade wants to join the Knicks but Bosh doesn't, and if James and Wade aren't a package deal? Plan D is Dirk -- more precisely, pairing James or Wade with Dirk Nowitzki, who is expected to opt out of his contract with the Dallas Mavericks, as reported Saturday by Marc Stein.
2. "You'll have a good supporting cast."
The Knicks' current roster has been much maligned, especially with All-Star big man David Lee quite possibly leaving in July. But according to the source, the supporting cast will actually be a critical element of the recruiting pitch to LeBron, Wade and/or Bosh.
The source said that Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni believes that the ideal way to maximize the effectiveness of LeBron or Wade is to put him in a role similar to that of Magic Johnson with the Showtime Lakers.
"Both of these guys [James and Wade] are at their best when they have the ball in their hands," the source said. "While neither guy has played point guard for most of their career, that's the right position to put them in."
The idea is to let LeBron or Wade handle the ball and surround them with long, athletic players who can spread the floor, opening up the lane for penetration and kickouts. In a column last week, John Hollinger used a statistical breakdown to describe a similar strategy, and the Knicks concur.
[+] EnlargeDanilo Gallinari
Chris McGrath/Getty ImagesLooking for young and talented teammates? Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler are a good start.
"Both guys are incredible, willing passers," the source said. "What you want to do is open up the floor for them and let them penetrate. If the defense collapses you need a number of players around them that can make them pay."
The Knicks, according to the source, believe that the supporting cast in place is ideally suited to the task, particularly if the Knicks can bring in James (or Wade) and Bosh. The face-up skills of Bosh would be a key part of the equation, but the team is also very high on several young holdovers, according to the source.
In particular, the Knicks believe 21-year-old Danilo Gallinari, who was second in the NBA in 3-pointers made (186-for-488, 38.1 percent), and 23-year-old Wilson Chandler, a slashing wing player who shot 52.4 percent on field goals inside the arc, would thrive alongside a star playmaker.
And while 24-year-old rookie Toney Douglas isn't a pure point guard, he is a 38.9 percent shooter from 3-point range and would be needed more for his marksmanship and defense than his ballhandling.
With Bosh in the middle, Gallinari at the 4, LeBron or Wade alongside Chandler on the wing, and Douglas at the point, the Knicks believe they could be a 55-win team next season, said the source.
But would that core be enough? Probably not, but the Knicks have also worked on a plan to build their bench, according to the source.
The Knicks are very high on 22-year-old swingman Bill Walker, obtained from Boston at the February trade deadline. In March and April, Walker thrived, averaging 12.7 points per game in 28.7 minutes and shooting 44.0 percent on 3-pointers.
To help fill out the roster, the team is eager to move the expiring contract of Eddy Curry -- $11.3 million for next season -- in exchange for a couple of veterans on longer contracts, according to the source.
The Knicks are also hoping, said the source, that LeBron, Wade and/or Bosh will be able to recruit a few veterans willing to play on minimum contracts for a chance at the title.
The source said that one target would be the Suns' Grant Hill. The Knicks tried to woo Hill to New York last summer, but he ultimately decided to re-up with Phoenix. Hill can opt out of his contract this summer, and the Knicks are hopeful he will bolt Phoenix if the Suns are unable to re-sign free agent Amare Stoudemire. While Hill would have to take a pay cut in New York (he's set to make $3.4 million next season if he doesn't opt out), the thinking, said the source, is that Hill might believe the chance to play alongside superstars and win a championship would be worth the loss in income.
Other veterans the Knicks might be able to get on the cheap include Brad Miller, Joe Smith, Earl Watson, Kurt Thomas, Rafer Alston, Quentin Richardson and Fabricio Oberto. And look for the Knicks to scour the market overseas for young Americans who have excelled in Europe.
3. "You'll be working with a coach and an organization that can win."
One of the key selling points for the Knicks, said the source, will be head coach Mike D'Antoni, who has built a relationship with James, Wade and Bosh the past few years as an assistant coach on the Olympic gold-medal-winning Team USA.
The source told me that the Knicks plan to use D'Antoni as their chief recruiter during the period. The source believes that when D'Antoni discusses X's and O's with free agents, they'll be persuaded he can maximize their talents.
[+] EnlargeMike D' Antoni
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesNew York is hoping top free agents will salivate at the thought of playing in Mike D'Antoni's offense.
"If you look at the Cavs and LeBron," the source said, "they had the wrong philosophy from front office to head coach. They tried to put some shooters around him and tried to make the pieces fit, but the focus was almost entirely on defense, and Mike Brown ultimately preferred those players. It put enormous pressure on LeBron to be the Cavs' total source of offense every night. Most nights, they were really successful, but I think it's taken a toll on LeBron."
As he showed in four highly successful seasons in Phoenix, D'Antoni wants players to push the ball and make plays. Because it involves a lot of freedom, running and shooting, with little micromanaging, the D'Antoni style of play is very popular with players -- especially those who have the talent to make it work.
"There's no secret that Chris Puhon wasn't as happy playing [in the D'Antoni system] as Steve Nash was," the source said. "But Duhon couldn't really run the system. Steve could and so could LeBron and Wade."
Likewise, the Knicks also plan to show players a revamped, more professional organization, said the source. In his two years, Walsh has streamlined and upgraded the front office, invested in state-of-the-art equipment and hired a world-renowned training staff.
"One big sell to players is the training staff," the source said. "One of the reasons [Steve] Nash and Hill re-signed in Phoenix was because their staff did a great job of keeping them healthy. The longer you extend these players' careers, the more money they make."
4. "You can own the world's greatest city, the basketball mecca."
The Knicks know they won't have to do much to sell New York City. The top free agents love the bright lights of the Big Apple and know its appeal and history well. But that won't stop the Knicks from reminding them. To that end, expect the Knicks to trot out a number of high-profile celebrities to help them make their pitch.
Despite the central place the Knicks, New York and Madison Square Garden hold in basketball lore, New York hasn't celebrated an NBA championship in 37 years.
That's what might make the Knicks' final selling point the most compelling of all, according to the source.
"Whoever can come in and win a championship in New York will own the city," the source said. "No one can replace Michael Jordan in Chicago, no matter how many titles you win. The Heat are coming off a recent championship and the city is far from the most rabid when it comes to basketball. I think there are more Knicks fans in Miami than Heat fans.
"If someone can come in here and do what no one has been able to do for decades, their legacy is complete. That matters to players and [the Knicks] are going to make sure they know it."