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John Schuhmann

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David Lee isn't as hyped as others in this free-agent class, but he's more talented than most.
David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Consolation prize? Lee hardly fits that free-agent billing


Posted Jul 5 2010 12:03PM

Free agency is seemingly on hold, waiting for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to make up their minds. At this point, no team has been told it's out of the running for James, the summer's biggest prize. So just about everybody waits.

The Knicks have decided not to hang around. They are reportedly close to formalizing an agreement with 6-foot-10 forward Amar'e Stoudemire on Monday or Tuesday. That would leave the Heat as the only LeBron suitor without a starting-caliber big man.

Stoudemire's pending deal with the Knicks also means it's likely All-Star David Lee -- who played last season in New York -- will be one of those free agents that actually changes teams this summer. Another All-Star, Carlos Boozer, probably is also on the move.

Either will make a great addition to a team in need of frontline help. But while Boozer is the bigger name, Lee may be the better acquisition. He is the ultimate role player, an energy guy who rebounds and has become one of the more skilled big men in the league.

Lee ranked third in the NBA in efficiency last season, behind only James and Kevin Durant. Yes, he was playing for Mike D'Antoni and the up-tempo Knicks, but on a per-possession basis, the Knicks were a below-average offensive team. After adjusting for pace, the only free agents with a higher efficiency than Lee last season were James, Bosh and Boozer.

Lee, 27, has proven to be pretty durable, too, averaging 74 games in his five seasons with the Knicks -- playing in 81 in each of the last three. He has steadly improved, becoming one of the best pick-and-roll big men in the league. His jumper has become reliable out to 18 feet (he shot 47 percent from 15-18 feet last season) and he's by far the best passer of the free-agent bigs.

Defense is an issue, but it is with all of the prominent free-agent big men. And the Knicks have had anything but a defensive mentality lately. Even when defensive-minded Larry Brown was the coach in Lee's rookie season (2005-06), the Knicks were 27th in the league defensively.

There's a lot of interest in Lee. He spent all of Saturday in Minnesota. The New York Post reports that the Knicks have sign-and-trade offers of Al Jefferson from the Timberwolves and Monta Ellis from the Warriors on the table.

"There are a million different conversations going on," his agent, Mark Bartelstein, said Sunday night.

But depending on what else the Knicks do in free agency, they may not be able to execute a sign-and-trade with Lee. In order for New York to do that, it must maintain his Bird rights with a salary cap hold of $10.5 million, which prevents the team from signing a second major free agent after Stoudemire. The salaries of both Jefferson ($13 million) and Ellis ($11 million) exceed Lee's cap hold, so there's no relief in making one of those deals.

Lee's cap hold and Stoudemire's starting salary of $17.2 million would put the Knicks' cap space at $6.9 million. So if they still hope to land James or Wade, the Knicks can't make any firm plans to sign-and-trade Lee. They would have to renounce his rights to sign James or Wade.

Another New York Post report has the Nets interested in Lee, but unable to make a move until they hear from James. New Jersey would seemingly be a great opportunity for someone who's already comfortable living in New York. And the Nets give Lee the chance to play power forward, his natural position.

For both Boozer and Lee, their best opportunities to play for a winner come from those teams waiting on the Big Three. No matter what James, Wade and Bosh do, Chicago and/or New Jersey will have young talent in place and a need for a power forward. And if Wade returns to Miami (but Bosh doesn't join him), Flash will need a sidekick.

As a restricted free agent last year, there was little chance that the Knicks would let Lee leave. Now, after five years, it's all up to him. He just has to say when.

"It's something we discuss every day," Bartelstein said. "We have to make a decision in the next day or two if we want to keep waiting or maybe look at things that are available to us now."

This much is clear: With his combination of size, skills and energy, Lee will be a lot more than a consolation prize wherever he ends up.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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