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Price Check on James

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Cleveland--Uh oh. The New York Knicks are sitting pretty. In less than 25 games the team will have as clean a slate that can be achieved in the modern NBA economy. The 2010 offseason will usher in a New York shopping spree, the likes have never been seen before. Team president, Donnie Walsh, has eight current players that are not guaranteed a penny next season. Should all eight depart the Knick locker room, 80% of the current payroll walks out the door.

Any other team would be devastated to lose eight players to free agency. Not the Knicks; July 1, 2010 is the unofficial date for fans to come out of a decade-long hibernation. Most New Yorkers would be okay if they turned their heads and 100% of the team was missing from next year's roster.

is breaking up a dynasty, but not of the winning variety. In a league where more teams make the playoffs than those that miss, it is tough to explain New York's absence from the post-season the last ten years. The team currently sits 18 games under .500, still taking on water despite the acquisition of Tracy McGrady. To his defense, he was not brought in to be the savior. Well, not directly. And not by putting the ball in the hoop.

The value of the McGrady move was more about what the Knicks could get rid of in return--departures Jordan Hill and Jared Jeffries (as well as Larry Hughes and Nate Robinson) were owed money in 2010 and beyond. The only number management looks for out of McGrady is zero, as in the amount of dollars the Knicks are scheduled to pay him next season.

If everything goes according to plan, McGrady may earn himself a Christmas card from Donnie Walsh next year. In it, Walsh will thank him for the role he played in the new winning culture surrounding the Knicks. If it were not for McGrady’s arrival and swift exit (after an injury-riddled half-season) none of the good times would have been possible.

For years, the organization has gobbled up expiring contracts like I used to collect Pogs.

That is the bright spot for a flailing team.

Rather than rebuild with youth, the business plan is to synchronize a mass-exodus; and Walsh has crossed his “T”s and dotted his “I”s to perfection. He has the dream of every team president--the ability to build a winner from scratch--in just his third year on the job.

The Knicks’ payroll will drop to $17.7 million, with a potential to fall even lower to $6.5 million should Eddie Curry exercise free agency. This is unfathomable. For some perspective on these values, Michael Redd made $17 million this season and Anderson Varejao, $6.3 million. In other words, the entire Knicks’ roster (as of July 1, 2010) will cost owner, James L. Dolan, as much as the going rate for one injured star or one bench player. That is six or seven players for the price of one, with $40-$50 million under the salary cap. Talk about financial wiggle room.

It was not always this goal-oriented. In the Isaiah Thomas era (as coach and as team president), the team became the haven for egos, locker room cancers, injury-prone journeymen, ball hogs, and rookie draft picks that were mediocre college players. If you can believe it, the monetary compensation was worse than the player selection. A player that was past his prime would typically necessitate a long-term deal. Most would call it a gamble, but the Knicks must have known something other GMs did not—after all, plenty of guys get better (and healthier) in their late 30s.

When the New York payroll dwindles to $17.7 million next season, the Knicks will own the contracts to only five players that have played for them this season. The talent level of "left-overs" would have trouble starting for any other team. Obviously, Donnie Walsh cannot rely solely on returning players to produce victories. Time for the Knicks to go shopping:

LeBron James has a player option to receive $17,149,243 from Cleveland next season. If he wants to be paid like a back-to-back MVP (and the best player in the NBA) he could carry a record price tag.

Down aisle two is Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They have similar player options for 2010 with the exact same dollar value as James. All three stars can receive the largest salaries from their current teams. For instance, Bosh can earn almost $30 million next year from Toronto. No other team can match that. It is the beauty of the newest NBA collective bargaining agreement; its intent is to keep players where they signed their first contract. It gives players like Bosh the incentive to stay, for that salary is one that scouts claim is well over market-value. The same is true of LeBron. Cleveland can offer him more money than anyone.

The wild card may be found near the checkout counter. Amare Stoudemire. His player option is the highest among 2010 free agents. Stoudemire is intriguing; he possesses more plot lines than most 8-year NBA veterans, especially for someone who has played for only one team. His game is top-notch, but someone that is eternally on the trading block makes you wonder what issues cannot be measured by talent scouts or team doctors.

His knees have been proved to be a deterrent enough; his resume also includes discontent over playing time, the coaching staff, and sulking during poor statistical seasons. Regardless of how far in the past these events are, his stock is slightly tarnished. Donnie Walsh should keep his shopping cart moving as it passes Stoudemire. Stopping would be an Isaiah Thomas move.

So it is time to check out, Mr. Walsh. What did you decide?

It would be the dream of every team president to have all of the above. A starting lineup with James, Wade, Bosh,
and Stoudemire would challenge for a championship immediately--and for the next decade. I could run the other guard position and this would still be true. The drawback is that such a move would cost upwards of $100 million per year, on just four players.

It is doubtful that such a deal could ever be pulled off. In actuality, the experts say Walsh will only be able to offer two of these free agents the max-contracts they demand. If Donnie Walsh is forced to put two of his items back on shelves, who will be left in the cart?

Cleveland fans will undoubtedly panic if Dwyane Wade signs early in the offseason with New York. Donnie Walsh would then use Wade as the lure to land the big one…the “Chosen One.” The quicker the bait is in the water, the longer LeBron has to fend off the questions; with the pressure and incentives increasing every day. He will also have to fight off history repeating. Alex Rodriguez has taught us all something; New York franchises ensure their one superstar has a boyfriend of equal brilliance to play alongside.

People presume LeBron and Wade are destined to join forces in a similar fashion. The two have expressed a desire to play on the court as teammates in more settings than the All-Star Game and the Olympics. New York does have the cap space to make it happen. But I am here to tell the world that if Dwyane Wade become a Knick, Cleveland should actually be relieved. While not the popular move, Chris Bosh is the better second course. Thus, Wade and James can each continue to play first fiddle; the ideal situation for all the parties involved (especially the NBA).

Reason one: money. Wade and Bosh would be cheaper than any other combination involving LeBron.

Reason two: players with a reason to leave their current teams. Wade and Bosh would not be leaving perpetual Eastern Conference contenders. Bluntly, to win a championship in the next five years, they have to leave their current cities; LeBron does not.

Reason three: addressing disparate needs. James and Wade are both back-court, last-shot-of-the game players. Bosh is a bona fide post player with length to block shots and range to present a match-up nightmare to the opponent’s 4-man. Donnie Walsh is an intelligent businessman, and the smart move is to spread the wealth. There is an abundance of holes across the court. Fixing one really well does not fix everything.

The Wade/Bosh signings could entice All-Star, David Lee, to accept the Knicks’ bid and not test the market. The trio of stars would likely bundle for a slick $53 million per year--a similar price of the Wade/James bundle. That in itself is an economic win: three All-Stars for the price of two.

Seeing all this talent come to New York, Eddy Curry would likely remain a Knick. That means the $17.7 million guaranteed for the 2010-11 payroll combines with the $53 million (Lee, Wade, and Bosh) to total $70.7 million. The Knicks are currently paying their players $84 million, with no reason to not sustain that level of spending. That means there is roughly $14 million disposable cash; plenty to go after a guard like Joe Johnson or Manu Ginobli (also 2010 unrestricted free agents).

In this way, Donnie Walsh could check out of the free agent marketplace--spending not a cent more than he is currently paying--with Joe Johnson and Dwyane Wade at the guards, Chris Bosh and Eddy Curry at the forwards, and David Lee as the center. That is a formidable starting five that has not been seen in the
home locker room at Madison Square Garden in years.

The trouble for the leagues is that the roster could get even better. The above calculations are all based on the assumption that New York will only pursue two of the four high-profile free agents and spend only what they are currently paying. What if this theory does not hold and Donnie Walsh makes an offer to four U.S. Olympians/perennial All-Stars? The blockbuster deal would make the 2008 Boston signing of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett look like the Cleveland signing of Ben Wallace and Wally Szczerbiak.

Experts call it impossible, but this is New York we are talking about. The 2009 Yankee pitching staff earned more money than the Cleveland 40-man roster. Even in basketball, New York has set the precedent for breaking the bank. In 2005-06, the Knicks payroll reached an all-time high--$124 million. Winning at sports is all about spending beyond your means, even if additional money must be spent to cover the penalties for doing so. Ultimately, if the salaries translate to victories, the luxury tax is well worth it.

The NBA salary cap is formally branded as “soft,” a term that means it has as many obscure rules and loopholes as Congressional legislation. It suits the NBA; all their rules on- and off-the-court are highly flexible. That could be why 28 of 30 NBA teams currently operate over the salary cap.

The Lakers currently spend the most ($91.3 million) to fund their championship aspirations. With the luxury tax threshold at $70 million, this

means Los Angeles indirectly pays the other teams an equal 1/30th of their $21.3 million overage. The salary cap is set for $57.7 million, so the Lakers are $33.6 million over that as well. Paying quality players can get expensive. A $91.3 million payroll turns into a $142.6 million expenditure in a hurry.

Very few teams can operate at this level, but (sorry Cavs’ fans) New York is one of them. The Knicks have an untouchable revenue stream--even during a streak of losing seasons--that could land them
everyone they want. I would not be surprised to see the Knicks challenge for the most expensive roster next year. $91.3 million is small potatoes compared to what they have been willing to pay in the past. In fact, the Knicks could increase their current payroll by 67% and still not eclipse their most expensive payroll in team history. And they could build this super-roster up from practically nothing. Uh oh.

It will take a very loyal LeBron James to turn down a max contract--not counting the unparalleled figures that Nike would shell out to have LeBron in the nation's largest market, smoothly filling the void of Tiger Woods as their top endorser. Additionally, it is hard to pass at the opportunity to play 41 games a year in a historic building where they just so happen to average 30.4 points per game. And lastly, LeBron will really have to love his supporting cast to choose it over playing with 1, 2, or possibly 3 other members of the U.S. Olympic team. This will obviously be the sweetest pot in the history of free agency. LeBron has proven to be quite savvy about his free agent implications, so he already knows this.

At that point, the Hail Mary for Cleveland is what I like to call the “Theory of Comfort and Unfinished Business”:

The Knicks are definitely willing and able to throw money at the feet of King James, but it is tough to buy him a feeling of home. Akron is not a New York City suburb. Checking in on his high school team would require a plane ride and not a 30-minute car trip. If you think these things are not important to him, ask yourself where he held his MVP Award Ceremony.

He calls the Cleveland Cavaliers his family. He has so many pre-game antics, sideline charades, and enough handshakes to make a man dizzy. This loose atmosphere is all the byproduct of winning. Early in his career, there were hardly smiles on the bench when LeBron was called upon to win games by himself. By leaving LeBron will return to those early days.

Times Square could easily construct more, and/or larger, Nike ads than the one off Ontario Street, but their impact is greater in downtown Cleveland. That billboard transcends marketing for a shoe company. LeBron is the hope of millions that hang on his every move. Jordan, even in his prime, could not make the people of Chicago stop what they were doing the way James demands attention from all Ohioans.

The second part of my theory relies on Cleveland’s inability to win championships. Typically, this is as safe of a bet as your grocery store carrying bread. However, the Fightin’ LeBrons are back to playing like the best team in the NBA. It is my opinion that Cavs’ fans cannot expect to have it both ways. If you want LeBron long-term, you might have to sacrifice a 2010 World Championship. It is true that LeBron wants his legacy to be the man who brought the city of Cleveland its first championship since 1964. He never once said that he would stick around for a second.

A championship this year suggests LeBron departs. There would be an alignment of events that point to his leaving. His contract ends, the drought would be over in Cleveland (his mission accomplished), Shaq would probably retire, and Delonte West will likely be headed for jail. It sounds like the family band would be splitting up. That gives LeBron a clean exit while the confetti falls at the parade. Then again, what more do you want from the guy? The Cavaliers would be the World Champions.

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