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NEW YORK -- In a different life, back when he was in charge of assembling his hometown Knicks, Ernie Grunfeld said there was only one thing more frightening in the NBA than the prospect of clearing salary cap space:
Clearing that cap space and having no worthwhile free agents willing to take it.
So thanks to Grunfeld, Knicks president Donnie Walsh should be afraid. Very, very afraid.
Grunfeld's Washington Wizards just cut a deal with the Chicago Bulls that e-mailed New York the kind of presidential message once famously sent by a Daily News headline writer posing as Gerald Ford.
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Grunfeld to City: Drop Dead.
All because the Wizards' president was willing to take Kirk Hinrich's $9 million wage and the 17th overall pick in exchange for a future second-rounder -- a deal first reported by ESPN's Ric Bucher -- the Bulls now have enough cap space to sign LeBron James and the Chris Bosh/Amare Stoudemire/Joe Johnson/Carlos Boozer sidekick of his choosing.
So the one significant advantage the Knicks had over the Bulls in the great free-agent chase of 2010 -- the room to sign a second max-out player -- is a significant advantage no more. When someone familiar with the Knicks' thinking was told Thursday night that Grunfeld didn't exactly help the master midtown plan, that someone replied, "Nope."
Of course Grunfeld intended no harm to his former employer. Of course Grunfeld was thinking of the Wizards' best interests and nothing more.
But your average, beaten-down Knicks fan has every right to ask this question: Why, Ernie, why? On the night you used the first overall pick to draft John Wall, the franchise maker once meant to save the New Jersey Nets, why wreak your havoc on the more vulnerable side of the Hudson?
And aiding and abetting the Bulls, of all teams? The same dynastic foe you spent every waking New York minute scheming to topple?
"I'll have to give Ernie a call; has he lost his mind?" joked Dave Checketts, the former Garden and Knicks president who had helped Grunfeld build the contender of the '90s before firing him at the close of the decade.
"Ernie and I hated Chicago more than anyone. We wouldn't do one thing to help them when we were running the Knicks. In fact, we even tried to kill deals we heard the Bulls were working on. We'd call agents and tell them, 'Why would you send your player there? Are you kidding? Don't you know what's going on inside that organization?'"
Checketts laughed, but he wasn't fooling around.
"We tried to convince Michael Jordan to come to New York when we offered him all of our cap space in '96," he said. "We even bid on Scottie Pippen once. A lot of time has passed, but it's still hard to picture Ernie doing a deal that would help the Bulls."
No, these aren't Jordan's six-time champs, and no, Grunfeld isn't worried about pleasing the Knicks' ownership or fan base anymore. Grunfeld has to satisfy a boss, Ted Leonsis, who is scrutinizing his subordinate's every step.
But let's face it: No NBA executive has made a deal this helpful to a would-be contender since Memphis gift-wrapped Pau Gasol and made Kobe Bryant and the Lakers whole.
"The Bulls' situation is really attractive now," Checketts said. "Two max contracts is a huge advantage for them."
It was a huge advantage for the Knicks until Thursday. In the war for LeBron's heart and mind, Chicago could offer Derrick Rose and a roster full of long and active friends.
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The Bulls couldn't offer James a full scholarship for a fellow blue-chipper, and the Knicks could. Walsh would have to explain away a decade of lousy basketball, most of it played on someone else's watch, but he could promise LeBron a Bosh or Stoudemire -- both better frontcourt players than Joakim Noah and Luol Deng.
With one powerful swipe, Grunfeld just erased that sales pitch from the Madison Avenue board. The same Grunfeld who grew up in Queens worshipping the Knicks. The same Grunfeld who served as a player, broadcaster, assistant coach, personnel man, GM and president for his boyhood team.
The same Grunfeld who shipped out Charles Smith, Monty Williams and Doug Christie to clear the $10 million in cap space that turned into Allan Houston and Chris Childs. The same Grunfeld who traded for Larry Johnson. The same Grunfeld who dealt Charles Oakley for Marcus Camby against Jeff Van Gundy's objection in 1999, but who was fired before Van Gundy and Camby made it to the Finals against all odds.
As Garden president, Checketts felt he needed to end the feud between Van Gundy and Grunfeld. He took the team president to a White Plains, N.Y., restaurant, talked shop during a 90-minute dinner and then terminated his friend over a serving of pie a la mode, an event Grunfeld would call "the Last Supper."
The exchange went like this:
Checketts: Ernie, I'm sorry, but I have to let you go."
Grunfeld: "Yeah, right."
Checketts: "No, I'm serious, Ernie."
Grunfeld: "Dave, you can't do this to me."
In serving the Wizards, and only the Wizards, Grunfeld might have single-handedly rerouted James from New York to Chicago.
"We want LeBron!" Knicks fans shouted inside The Theater at the Garden.
They got Andy Rautins of Syracuse and Landry Fields of Stanford instead.
Donnie Walsh still has his precious cap space, but Grunfeld just sent him this little note:
Good luck convincing LeBron James to fill it.
Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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