Here is one of the league's success stories, an undersized 6-foot-9 center who was the last player chosen in the first round of the 2005 draft because he couldn't make -- and dared not take -- a jump shot. Within five years, Lee has transformed himself into an All-Star, averaging 20.1 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists as the fulcrum of the Knicks.
Lee is so good that the Knicks no longer can afford to re-sign him. Over the past two years, team president Donnie Walsh has unloaded most of Lee's teammates and all of the Knicks' available first-round picks to dig out from more than $30 million in cap space this summer. To fulfill the ultimate plan of recruiting an elite pair of free agents, however, New York will first have to renounce the rights to its best player this summer: David Lee.
Of course, they could re-sign Lee in addition to a second star, but what would be the point of that? They didn't submit to so much pain in order to retain the status quo. So it's understood that Lee probably is auditioning himself for rival employers. "There's a lot of money out there this summer and LeBron [James] can't take it all," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers after watching Lee produce 29 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in a 109-97 Knicks loss Wednesday at Boston. "Somebody has got to take it."
Said Lee: "It definitely would be different [playing in a smaller market]. There are positives and negatives to both. New York, we all know, is the greatest place to be when you're winning and the toughest place to be, media-wise and fans-wise, when you're losing."
Who would have guessed that Lee would be the face of the Knicks as they approach the final days of this dissipated era? "Eddy Curry and I are the only ones still here from my rookie year," Lee said.
In spite of his improvement, Lee has been unable to command a long-term offer as a restricted free agent each of the past two summers.
"I think David has handled the last two years very well," said Walsh. "Last [summer] was very difficult because the market values went down. I think in the long run he accepted what happened, that he couldn't get the money he wanted."
More important than the outcomes of those failed negotiations has been Lee's professional response. "He's a smart guy, said Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni. "He understands it only benefits him to play well, and why wouldn't he? It doesn't make any sense for anybody to not play well and not focus. As a matter of fact, I can't think of a better motivation [than to play for a new contract]. He understood exactly what he had to do two years in a row, which is great."
Yet many players don't react so well after negotiations go dry.
"That's because a lot of them play the victim," said D'Antoni. "He didn't. But that's the reality: It's a business and he didn't let it bother him. Once the season started, he honed in on having the best season he could have."
It says much about Lee that the ugliness of recent Knicks seasons has not tainted him. Against the backdrop of this franchise, he has stood out as if he were an honest and competent politician on Capitol Hill. That he did not succumb as a young player to cynicism and selfishness is all the more reason to believe that he'll eventually contribute to a winning program.
"I remember getting drafted 30th and walking into [coach] Larry Brown's office and looking up on that depth chart and seeing my name about fifth at my position," said Lee. "I've always been a guy that can play hard and compete. You see everybody in college do that, but in the NBA if you can play hard night in and night out for 82 games, that's a skill in itself."
Lee admits he was afraid to shoot during his four years at Florida. "My weakness was 100 percent my jump shot," he said. "In college, if I caught the ball at the free-throw line and you were guarding me and you were standing under the basket, I would pass. There was no way. I never shot jump shots no matter how wide open I was."
Over the years he simplified his left-handed stroke, but more than anything he forced himself to believe as D'Antoni and his assistants -- Dan D'Antoni in particular -- urged him to keep shooting. "It turned around about a month into the season, and then he just started knocking it down and getting more confident," said Mike D'Antoni. "It's deadly now from 15 feet and in, and that's opened up his whole game."
Now that he views his mid-range jumper as a strength, Lee promises to focus next on the three-point line. "In practice or summer time he shoots [the three] really well," said D'Antoni. "It's a different mindset. I wouldn't doubt him, and that would be great if he could make a high percentage. But if he doesn't, his offensive game is good enough where I don't think [making threes] is a necessary part."
While Lee has trouble defending the bigger centers and power forwards, he routinely punishes them at the other end with his scoring and playmaking. "He's really their point guard," said Rivers. "They run everything through David Lee, they give him the ball and they run their offense through him. It's pretty amazing."
Rivers was a fan of Lee's and begged the Celtics to acquire him in the 2005 draft. "It's the one I stuck my chest out about because I was in the minority in the draft room that night," said Rivers. "But I had the advantage of being in Florida and I'd seen him, and my oldest son had played in a ton of pickup games with him and he said, 'All I know about David Lee is every time I play a pickup game, his team wins.'
"But he's even better than I thought he could be because he has a high basketball IQ, and his quickness is so much better than you thought it could be."
Teams have been wary of making a big offer to Lee in fear that his numbers will dwindle once he stops playing for D'Antoni, even though the Knicks have slowed their offense and reduced his scoring opportunities this season. But some team -- likely one that can pair him alongside a longer shot-blocker -- will target Lee as a versatile big man who can pass and move without the ball. "I'm happy with what I've accomplished, and there's still a lot more [improvement] to be done," said Lee, who anticipates a change of position next season. "I think I'm more of a '4' than a '5.' On a championship-level team I'd be a '4' probably."