GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- When it comes to the leaguewide race to clear salary cap space for the summer of 2010, Knicks president Donnie Walsh declared Friday: "We're No. 1."
As in, the Knicks will have more cap space next July than any other team.
Walsh is not usually prone to hyperbole, and the Miami Heat, New Jersey Nets and a few other teams, not to mention various capologists, might take exception to the accuracy of that statement, but it was close enough to the truth to offer a window into Walsh's mindset Friday after he completed his own endless summer earlier in the day by re-signing restricted free agents David Lee and Nate Robinson to one-year contracts.
So the roster is finally set for the upcoming season, there will still be enough cap space to offer LeBron James or another top-tier free agent a maximum-salary contract July 1, and the structure of the Lee and Robinson deals are such that they'll both foster goodwill with the players and make it much easier to trade them next summer should the Knicks do a sign-and-trade deal to acquire one of their top free agent targets.
"We created space last year, we protected that this summer. But now I also want to be competitive," Walsh said in a meeting with reporters who regularly cover the team. "We're younger and we're bigger, and we did the best we could do in trying to be competitive for this year and yet retain the salary cap flexibility we want next year, and the year after. That was the goal when I got here, and that remained the goal -- and this summer was going to be a test of that."
Walsh said he had only one serious sign-and-trade offer for Lee over the summer, but it would have been "financially devastating" for the upcoming season, and talks on various three-team deals had too many moving pieces, never progressing to the stage that there was anything concrete to make a decision on.
The Knicks could have played hardball with Lee and Robinson by forcing them to return for the upcoming season and play under the terms of their qualifying offers -- about $2.7 million in Lee's case and $2.9 million for Robinson -- but Walsh chose instead to pay the players closer to their true market value.
"We didn't play the leverage, because I want them to feel good about playing for the New York Knicks," Walsh said. "The fact they wanted to be Knicks, they wanted to stay in New York, that helped the situation. And I think the fact that we were willing not to just treat them according to the system counted with those two guys."
Both players will carry the dreaded base-year compensation status (a collective bargaining rule that hinders a team's ability to trade a player shortly after giving him a big raise) through the upcoming season, but that designation will expire after June 30 when Lee and Robinson become unrestricted free agents, giving the Knicks added flexibility should they decide to do a sign-and-trade.
And although both players will have huge cap holds ($12 million for Lee, $8 million for Robinson) when July 1, 2010, arrives, Walsh noted that the Knicks would still have the option of re-signing one of them (and we should also point out that Al Harrington is entering the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent with a monstrous cap hold, too) before they would ink a max free agent, a scenario that would reduce the Lee/Harrington/Robinson cap holds to those players' actual new salaries. That would free up the additional cap space the Knicks could then use to make a max offer to James, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade.
Committing early to Lee/Harrington/Robinson could be risky, because the Knicks would be making those agreements July 1-8 while the cap for the summer of 2010 was still being calculated. Walsh can still make things a heck of a lot easier on himself if he can find a way before the February trade deadline to move Eddy Curry (said to be down to 318 pounds, more than 40 from his peak) and/or Jared Jeffries, the two players clogging up about a third of the Knicks' projected 2010-11 salary cap, in exchange for players with expiring contracts.
But dumping Zach Randolph seemed equally impossible at this time a year ago, and the landscape can change quickly in the NBA.
"If you told me at the beginning of the year that these guys [Lee and Robinson] wouldn't get offer sheets, that they'd sign one-year contracts, which is what we felt was all we could offer, I would have said it was doubtful," Walsh said. "But I think the league kind of froze when the numbers [projecting a shrinking cap for 2010-11] came out, and so it's not a good market for them, and that opened the door for us and we got it done."
Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni did acknowledge there could be some "turmoil" with having so many players in their contract years, some of whom will be dissatisfied with their minutes.
But D'Antoni also sounded genuinely optimistic that the Knicks will be a better team than most expect, possibly even a playoff contender, and he was effusive in his praise for second-year forward Danilo Gallinari, calling him "the best shooter I've ever seen."
That's a mouthful for a straight shooter like D'Antoni, who couldn't resist the urge to interrupt one questioner who began his query with the statement that the top free agents will only want to go somewhere where they believe they can win.
"You still believe that?" D'Antoni asked, grinning but deadly serious.
"They go where the money is," D'Antoni continued. "And I would think any superstar would say: 'You know what? If I go there, I'll make a difference, and I'll win wherever I go. Now let's see where I want to go."
For an instant, it sounded like a conversation D'Antoni might have had with James (or Wade or Bosh or Kobe Bryant) in recent summers when they were together with Team USA.
Whatever the case, D'Antoni had a little extra swagger to him Friday, and he wasn't the only one. It was Walsh, after all, who threw out that "We're No. 1" line. And come next July, if he gets his prized catch, he'll have a whole new reason to repeat that same line.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.