Knicks brace for free agent market

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The summer of 2010 is still almost two years away, but on Friday the New York Knicks officially made themselves players in what is expected to be the richest free agent crop in recent history. In two bold strokes, Knicks president Donnie Walsh has shed a pair contracts that have hung around his neck like an albatross since he assumed control of basketball operations last April: Jamal Crawford, the offensively-effective-yet-defensively-putrid guard who was shipped to Golden State for forward Al Harrington, was owed more than $20 million on a contract that ran through the 2010-2011 season; and Zach Randolph, a stat stuffing machine who, along with reserve guard Mardy Collins, was sent to the Los Angeles Clippers for forward Tim Thomas and guard Cuttino Mobley, is scheduled to pocket $38 million through '10-'11.

All three of the players the Knicks acquired -- Harrington, Thomas and Mobley -- have deals that expire after the 2009-2010 season.

Under league rules, the Knicks are not allowed to openly court players that are under contract with other teams. But today's transactions sent a clear signal to LeBron James and Chris Bosh, who are believed to be the Knicks No. 1 and No. 2 potential free agent targets, that the door is open and there is a big cash prize waiting for you. By dealing Randolph and Crawford, the Knicks have reduced their cap number to $24.6 million after the '09-'10 season. The available space (the NBA salary cap number is set before the year) will likely be more than enough to offer either James or Bosh a "max" contract that will likely equal upwards of $120 million over six years and still leave room to replenish the rest of the roster.

But by no means are the Knicks finished dealing. Curry, New York's waistline-challenged center who hasn't played this season after reportedly arriving at training camp at more than 300 pounds, has the low-post skill to make him a marketable commodity -- if he can ever work his way onto the court. Curry's contract runs through the 2010-2011 season, when he will make $11.3 million in the final year of his contract. If the Knicks can find a taker for Curry (Charlotte has reportedly been interested and center-less teams like Miami and Oklahoma City could get in the running) they would be in position to offer max deals to both James and Bosh and have some wiggle room to spare.

While Friday's overhaul was a strong step in Walsh's effort to reshape the Knicks, he still has work to do. Besides dealing with Curry, Walsh will have to make a decision on whether to offer lucrative (and cap-eating) contracts to David Lee and Nate Robinson, who will be restricted free agents after this season. Likewise, Walsh will have to decide whether he wants to lock up emerging forward Wilson Chandler with an extension after the 2009-2010 season. Chandler, 21, has emerged as one of the Knicks most consistent contributors this season and his versatility (he can play both frontcourt positions) and athleticism make him a perfect player in Mike D'Antoni's system.

And while the Knicks will have the dollars to throw at James and Bosh, they may not have enough of a talent base to entice them. Right now, New York only has four players (Chandler, Curry, Jared Jeffries and rookie Danilo Gallinari) under contract for the '10-'11 season. Walsh could conceivably strike gold in the next two drafts and fill out the roster with solid role players, but the Knicks will not be the most appealing option. New Jersey will have millions in cap room in 2010 and likely a much stronger talent base (point guard Devin Harris and rookies Brook Lopez and Ryan Anderson, for starters) than the Knicks. Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry has proven he will spend whatever it takes to build a strong roster around LeBron James and Toronto has GM Bryan Colangelo, one of the shrewdest talent scouts in the business.

For the Knicks, the money will be there to spend. But even that, and the allure of playing on Broadway, might not be enough.