A league source with understanding of New York's plans told SI.com that the Knicks will recruit the Cavaliers' two-time MVP with a grandiose vision of surrounding him with Hawks shooting guard Joe Johnson as well as an elite power forward -- Chris Bosh of the Raptors or Amar'e Stoudemire of the Suns -- to form a starring trio capable of contending for championships for years to come.
A similar plan has been discussed this week involving a proposed move by James and Bosh to Miami to join with Heat guard Dwyane Wade.
The Knicks have decided to target Johnson instead of Wade because of concerns that Wade and James are too similar in style and could clash over control of the ball, according to the source. Though 6-foot-7 Johnson is a four-time All-Star who has led Atlanta to 100 wins over the last two seasons, he is viewed as a complementary player who is capable of joining with James and other stars in a constructive way.
Johnson's importance to this three-headed plan is underlined by the Knicks' decision to visit him first on Thursday in Los Angeles before circling back to Akron, Ohio, for their scheduled meeting with James.
The proposal of bringing three stars to New York marks a breakthrough in strategy for the Knicks, who have been seen as outsiders in the race for James. With an estimated $34.5 million in cap space, it has been assumed they would offer max contracts to James and another player -- with the veiled understanding that two stars probably wouldn't be enough to drive the Knicks past contenders like the Celtics and Magic, who have knocked James' Cavs out of the playoffs over the last two years, or the Lakers, who have won the last two championships. The Knicks may yet offer James a max contract as a secondary option.
But the recruitment of James, Johnson and a big man is a more inspired and promising idea. By dividing its cap space equally among three elite recruits -- another idea floated on behalf of Miami -- the Knicks would pay starting base salaries of $11.5 million each to James, Johnson and the power forward. That amounts to a salary cut of $5.3 million per year compared to the max salary each player could receive from another market.
Including bonuses, each can player can earn an average salary of $15.7 million over a five-year contract, the source said.
The Knicks will enhance the offer by pointing out the numerous off-court opportunities available to star athletes in the world's largest media market, enabling the players to ultimately make more money in New York than each could on a max contract in other NBA cities.
The source emphasized that the financial offer will be dwarfed by its prestige: If James and his two fellow stars bring success of the highest order to New York, which hasn't won an NBA championship since 1973, they will become the league's most lauded players since Michael Jordan left Chicago.
Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston have realized enormous success as large markets, James will be told, but nothing will compare to the opportunities that could be waiting for James and his teammates if they were to win championships in New York.
While Miami can put together a similar offer, the Knicks believe the three stars will be more comfortable in the larger setting of New York, where the Yankees have congregated large numbers of stars for decades.
The three new Knicks would be joined by an existing second unit of young shooting forwards, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, and second-year point guard Toney Douglas, leaving New York to round out the rotation by signing three or four contributing role players to veteran-minimum contracts for next season.
The Knicks' key recruiter Thursday will be coach Mike D'Antoni, who has been an assistant coach to James on the USA Basketball teams that have played in the Olympics and World Championships in recent years. Presentations will also be made by Knicks owner James Dolan and president Donnie Walsh.
Altogether, they plan to raise two additional points during their presentation: Next summer they will promise to use the cap space created by Eddy Curry's $11.3 million expiring salary to make a run at a fourth free agent, whether it's Carmelo Anthony or another star. This enhanced flexibility is something James won't find in another market, he will be told.
In addition, the Knicks can warn James that if he doesn't want to join them, then he should consider how he'll feel competing against Johnson, Bosh or Stoudemire and one or two more stars by 2011-12. As they'll tell James Thursday, they have no choice but to build a championship team -- with or without him. They will encourage him to decide quickly, in order to help them recruit a big winner.
It is very much a long-shot that the Knicks will be able to convince three stars to accept less money up front than they'll be able to negotiate elsewhere. It's also obvious they're targeting Johnson as the key element -- if they earn his blessing on the Big Three arrangement, then they can go to James in hope that he'll sign on too and help them bring in Bosh or Stoudemire.
Will this be enough to bring James to the Knicks? By appealing to his sense of destiny and the promise of commanding the world's largest stage as NBA champion, they believe they've come up with a dynastic plan as audacious as the city they hope he'll adopt when contracts can be signed July 8.