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|Talk about LeBron James going to New York heated up when the Knicks dealt themselves in Friday.|
Why do the New York Knickerbockers have to stop there?
The Knicks made two payroll-slashing trades Friday that suggest they have far more grandiose ideas about the delicious free-agent summer of 2010. Friday night, I ran this past a few people who would know how they think in the executive suite at Madison Square Garden, and I wasn't exactly dissuaded from the following claim: Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni are brazen enough to think they can sign LeBron, Chris Bosh and Steve Nash for his last hurrah when the bidding opens, oh, about 575 days from now.
And here's the thing: That might just be mathematically possible now.
It is often said that those of us in the media tend to get a bit hysterical when we start talking about the NBA signing frenzy that looms in July of Twenty-Ten. To which I can only say: Us?
We're really only taking our cue from the teams we cover.
Seriously. Thanksgiving 2008 is still days away, and we've already seen Detroit and New York combine to push through three league-shaking trades, each of them with a run at LeBron that can't start for more than 19 months accounting for most, if not all, of the trigger-pulling motivation.
No one seems terribly interested in that famed cautionary tale which reminds us that Shaquille O'Neal is the only max-contract free agent in league history to switch teams and win a championship, racking up three after leaving the Magic for the Lakers. As noted in our LeBron opus earlier this month, no fewer than 15 teams -- including the Cavaliers -- awoke Friday morning with less than $40 million in committed salaries on their books for 2010-11, hoarding salary-cap space for a free-agent class so tantalizing that we scarcely talk about folks such as Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki and Joe Johnson.
Yet that list has a new A-Team after the Knicks managed to shed their long-term salary obligations to Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford in a matter of hours in separate deals with the Clippers and Warriors. Doing what Walsh has vowed to do since he arrived -- but doing it faster than even he could have dreamed -- leaves only four current players on the payroll beyond 2009-10: Eddy Curry (scheduled to earn $11.3 million in 2010-11), Jared Jeffries (unlikely to opt out of the $6.8 million he's due), Danilo Gallinari ($3.3 million) and Wilson Chandler ($2.1 million).
Although it'll take ongoing personnel diligence to keep that many spots open for the summer of truth, starting with the decisions that certainly have to be made soon on extensions for David Lee and Nate Robinson, it's suddenly presumed all over the league that team in the most irresistible market to James will have the financial flexibility to sign two elite players.
"Imagine how sick Danny Ferry must be feeling right now," one top executive said, referring to the Cavaliers' GM.
Imagine, too, what happens if the Knicks find a way to move Curry in the next 19 months and create more flexibility.
Remember that warning we ran last week from our Team USA insider about the likes of James and Bosh or Bosh and Dwyane Wade wanting to play together full time? "All of these players," he said, "want to play with each other in the NBA."
It shouldn't be too difficult, furthermore, to envision D'Antoni urging Nash to finish his career as a Stocktonesque setup sage who plays less for the young guns who plays less than 30 minutes a night in a city where the 34-year-old spends his offseasons playing soccer. Especially if the Suns don't start to rediscover the fun that clearly has drained out of some Phoenix faces since D'Antoni left.
I haven't budged from the belief that it's still way too soon for anyone to state with certainty that James is leaving Cleveland, especially when teams such as San Antonio, Miami, Detroit, Portland and Dallas also will be making pitches to the likes of LeBron, Bosh and Wade. I will likewise continue to say that the Cavs have much greater hope for re-signing their would-be Global Icon than Orlando ever had of keeping O'Neal, given LeBron's lifelong connections to Ohio, their owner's willingness to spend to keep James in perpetual championship contention and Shaq's thirst at the time to go Hollywood.
You're going to hear it ad nauseam until LeBron actually signs that next contract -- King James to the Knicks is a done deal! -- and we're going to keep countering with: Why would LeBron decide anything so soon?
Remember, things change fast in this league. Take Friday, for example. Years of wasteful spending in Gotham, which gradually sucked the life and hope out of the greatest basketball arena in the world, were seemingly undone by one afternoon of heavy New York trading.
Isiah Thomas, incidentally, does get an assist here. The Knicks plummeted so far on Zeke's watch that Walsh could interrupt an unexpectedly positive 6-5 start by dumping D'Antoni's top two scorers on the fourth Friday of the season and still immediately convince his fan base that waiting 575 days to see whom the Knicks finally land with all that spending money is the right play.
OK, OK. It's going to be a long time before we get any of those answers, so we'll try to show some restraint from here.
At least we'll try until Tuesday night. That's when LeBron's Cavs visit MSG and when the media pests swarm James with those uncomfortable questions that teams such as the Knicks won't allow us to save for a later date.Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.