By Chris Sheridan
Tracy McGrady is likely going to end up getting traded at some time in the next seven months -- maybe in a sign-and-trade deal after he becomes a free agent July 1, maybe at the trade deadline in mid-February, or maybe even sooner.
The New York Knicks are hoping it is sooner rather than later, and they have been one of the most persistent pursuers of McGrady over the past several weeks, ESPN.com has learned.
But what is killing the Knicks' chances of landing McGrady, who would be a panacea for them next summer when they plan to be major players on the free agent market, is their insistence that Jared Jeffries be included in any deal with the Rockets.
It has been well chronicled how Jeffries and teammate Eddy Curry are standing in the way of the Knicks' master plan of plans, with their cap-clogging contracts (Jeffries is due to make $6.9 million, and Curry is on the books for $11.3 million) hindering New York's ability to go or come close to going after two max-level free agents next summer. But if they were able to move one of them (and trading Curry is a virtual impossibility) and take back an expiring contract in return, it would allow the Knicks to either go after a second max free agent in a sign-and-trade deal (in which David Lee and Nate Robinson would be the bait), or to have enough cap space left over after signing a max free agent to retain Lee.
As things stand now, the Knicks will have to either engineer a sign-and-trade centered around Lee, Robinson and/or Al Harrington, or renounce their rights to Lee, Robinson, Harrington and Larry Hughes, in order to clear their salary cap holds (the dollar amounts at which they are held against the Knicks' cap) and free enough cap space to sign LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade or another max-level free agent.
If Jeffries and Curry aren't traded for expiring contracts by July 1, there is virtually no way the Knicks can keep Lee or Harrington and still land a max free agent. Lee is viewed as more of a keeper than Harrington, and the Knicks already know they are likely to lose at least one of them and get nothing in return. Hence the flurry of Harrington rumors that surfaced last week, with the Knicks and Bulls reportedly discussing a swap centered around Harrington and Tyrus Thomas.
Harrington, earning $10.02 million, would almost certainly be a part of any proposed trade between the Rockets and Knicks, and New York can also offer the Rockets financial relief by including the expiring contract of Cuttino Mobley (whose $9.5 million salary is being paid by an insurance company) in the deal.
So if you start with Harrington, Jeffries and Mobley, you have about $26 million worth of contracts -- more than enough to satisfy trade rules that require all salaries in any trade between over-the-cap teams be within 125 percent of each other. (McGrady is earning an NBA-high $23.2 million this season, and it was being paid by an insurance company prior to McGrady's comeback Tuesday night.)
But the trio of Harrington, Jeffries and Mobley is not nearly enough to get the Rockets to bite, and one source briefed on the discussions between the teams said the Knicks -- even if they threw $3 million cash into the deal -- do not have enough sweeteners (New York does not own its own 2010 first-round pick, and Houston has no interest in any of the Knicks' young players except Danilo Gallinari, who is the closest thing to an untouchable player as the Knicks have) to get the Rockets interested.
Also, Houston sees the inclusion of Jeffries as a non-starter because his salary would prevent the Rockets having max room to work with in the summer of 2010.
So for now, there is no deal out there that both teams are willing to do. But the Knicks have remained persistent and are expected to continue to be persistent, perhaps by finding a third team willing to take on Jeffries if the Rockets remain adamant that they don't want him.
One source said teams including Portland, Miami and Cleveland were hoping that McGrady's tenure in Houston would end with a buyout, and he would be free to sign with the team of his choice provided he cleared waivers by March 1.
But that source said the Rockets are not at all inclined to go down that road, and a second source insisted that too much should not be read into McGrady's comeback Tuesday night when he logged 7 minutes against the Pistons, saying it was the next logical step in McGrady' comeback from microfracture surgery, and will help establish how much trade value McGrady has heading into the peak of the trading season. One source also cautioned that Rockets owner Les Alexander's fondness for McGrady is a potential complicating factor in any proposed deal, and third source cautioned that there could be gray-area rules complications in trading Mobley, a quasi-retired injured player.
But the bottom line is this: The Rockets are taking calls on McGrady, and the Knicks are one of the teams making them. For now, though, the deal-killer in this equation is New York's insistence on including Jeffries, whose line Tuesday against Charlotte of 11 points, six steals, five rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a 3-pointer -- along with his effective man-to-man defense against Bobcats point guard Raymond Felton -- did nothing to alter the Rockets' opinion of him.