David Lee Running Out of Options

David Lee

David Lee Photo Credit: Icon SMI

Let’s get right to it: restricted free agent David Lee has been shat on this summer.

Billed as one of the premier restricted free agents (and overwhelmingly voted by ETB readers as the best one still available), Lee seemed like a lock for a semi-lucrative raise after an impressive showing in his fourth season with the Knicks: 16 points (55% FG), 11.7 boards, 2.2 assists, and 1 steal in roughly 35 minutes per as the team’s starting power forward.

Don’t listen to those whispers about Lee being the latest beneficiary of playing in a Mike D’Antoni system, either: in his previous two seasons, Lee averaged a combined 10.7 points and 9.5 boards in 5 minutes less per game in systems run by the legendary x’s and o’s prodigy Isiah Thomas.

Lee hustles. He hits the offensive boards (3.2 per, good for 9th overall in the league). He plays respectable defense, he dives for loose balls, he’s the consummate team player for a franchise that’s come up woefully short in that department for some time now.

At 26 years old, Lee is entering his prime. As Larry Brown might say, “he does things the right way.” He’s done what he’s supposed to. He’s earned the right to some security–a four-year deal, at least–and a salary on par if not exceeding the other restricted offers that’ve been inked over the past month or so. Let’s not forget that Christmas came early for backup Orlando Magic center Marcin Gortat, he of the career-per game averages of 3.7 points and 4.4 boards, after he was gifted a five-year, $34 million offer sheet by the Dallas Mavericks (which was puzzlingly matched by the Magic).

And, yet, a solid double-double machine like Lee remains in limbo. Donnie Walsh, his smug GM in New York, knows Lee’s options have become severely limited and has been purposely deliberate with his contract negotiations. Meanwhile, of the few teams actually spending money this summer in the first place, only a handful of them still have space to make Lee an offer the Knicks won’t match, though a five- or even six-year deal might be what gets it done given New York’s obsession with 2010 cap space.

Our man Kelly Dwyer over at Ball Don’t Lie touched on this yesterday in his breakdown of the eight best restricted free agents:

What will it take for New York to decline a match? That’s tough, as the Knicks still fancy themselves 2010 contenders, the cap is dropping, and the team is not going to be able to find a way to dump Eddy Curry. It’s not the size of the contract, it’s the length. I could very well see New York passing on even a great talent like Lee if his new deal ran after 2009-10.

Portland remains a real possibility: they already made a (failed) play for Utah Jazz power forward Paul Millsap, whose skill set compares favorably with Lee’s. If the Blazers pass or land Lamar Odom, a sign-and-trade could be pursued by Lee, his agent, and Walsh. Lee could agree to a modest extension with the Knicks; he could return to New York on his $2.6 million qualifying offer, then become an unrestricted free agent next summer. And, of course, a wild card with a midlevel exception could swoop in and steal him with that long-term offer.

Either way, Lee can’t be pleased with how his first free-agent experience has unfolded so far. As lesser players have been heavily recruited, wined, dined, and signed, he hasn’t even received an offer sheet. The best restricted free agent in the NBA remains unsigned.

Somebody give this guy a job. Please.

Related Reading:
Who’s the Best Unsigned, Restricted Free Agent?
Wheeling and Dealing With Donnie Walsh
The NBA’s Top Double-Double Machines Who Aren’t Household Names
Six NBA Players Poised for Breakout Seasons


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