THE SUMMER of2010 is expected to produce a free-agent free-for-all, with general managerswaving nine-figure offers and a handful of elite players filling outchange-of-address forms. But before LeBron-a-Palooza or Dwyanemania (chooseyour moniker) begins, G.M.'s will have to decide if they want to spend some oftheir money this summer. While the 2009 free-agent crop could include marqueeplayers (Allen Iverson, Carlos Boozer, Ron Artest), rising stars (HedoTurkoglu, Anderson Varej√£o) and intriguing young talent (Raymond Felton), oneof the biggest draws will be restricted free agent David Lee, the Knicks'25-year-old power forward.
Lee's appeal hasgrown with his offensive game. Always a tenacious rebounder, he was limited todunks and put-backs before this year. "I don't think I shot five jump shotsat Florida," says the 6'9" Lee. "And when I got to the NBA, I wason a team with scorers so I focused on rebounding. But when we hired [coach]Mike D'Antoni, I knew I had to step up my game." During the off-season Leededicated himself to developing a 15-foot jump shot, and he has become a viableoutside threat. "When he first came into the league, the scouting report onhim was 'leave him open,'" says 76ers coach Tony DiLeo. "Now you haveto get out there and defend that shot."
Under D'Antoni'shigh-tempo pick-and-roll system, Lee and point guard Chris Duhon play rolessimilar to the ones that Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash had in Phoenix. TheDuhon-Lee combination first jelled during a loss to the Pistons in November,when Lee was surprised at how easily he was able to score on the pick-and-roll."Chris and I talked after that game, and agreed that we had to work harderon that play in practice and go to it more often," says Lee. Three nightslater Lee scored a career-high 37 points and Duhon handed out a team-record 22assists in a win over the Warriors. At week's end Lee was averaging 15.9 pointsto go with 11.7 rebounds. "Besides Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler, I can'tthink of anyone who is running the pick-and-roll better right now," says aWestern Conference scout.
But Lee'simprovement complicates the Knicks' future. Their plan has been to createsalary-cap space to sign two max-level free agents (think LeBron James andChris Bosh) in 2010, when the cap is likely to be around $60 million; they'recurrently committed to four players who'll make $23.6 million. Now, with Leelikely to command $10 million a year, team president Donnie Walsh has todecide: Does he match offers for the restricted free agent, a homegrown,up-and-coming player who wants to remain a Knick? Or does he let him walk, keepthe cap room and hope two top free agents will come to New York?
The early signsare that the Knicks will keep Lee, locking down the power forward positionwhile maintaining enough flexibility in 2010 to bring in one max player and asecond-tier free agent, such as Nash or Ray Allen. With the Feb. 19 tradedeadline approaching, Walsh has cooled teams' interest in Lee by indicatingthat they will also need to take Eddy Curry, who's owed $11.3 million in2010--11. "David is the fourth-leading rebounder in the league," Walshsays. "Why would I listen to anyone?"
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On Thunder second-year small forward Kevin Durant, whoat week's end had averaged 26.1 points since Scott Brooks took over as coach onNov. 22:
For starters, he's finally at the right position. Idon't know what P.J. Carlesimo was thinking playing him at shooting guard.Offensively he's basically unstoppable. He can score in so many ways. It'sscary to think what he is going to be able to do once he puts some muscle onthat [6'9", 215-pound] frame. Defensively he has issues. He doesn't movehis feet very well, and he can be overpowered. But he's so long that he has thepotential to be a very good help defender and shot blocker. If he can become atwo-way player—he's only 20—we're looking at a future MVP candidate.
NED DISHMAN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (LEE)
UP FOR A RAISE Lee is averaging 15.9 points, nearly six above his career mark.
GREG NELSON (DURANT)