With the lack of big name free agents, the conservative salary cap projections for next year, and the well publicized salary cap cutting for the summer of 2010, this NBA off-season has not been the most exciting. However, one of the more intriguing free agent stories of the summer has been that of the New York Knicks and their restricted free agents David Lee and Nate Robinson.
In any negotiation, it is all about leverage. As an agent you need leverage mostly in the form of a player’s productivity, his overall value to the team and interest from other teams. This off-season’s climate has made Mark Bartelstein and Aaron Goodwin’s (Lee and Robinson’s respective agents), job significantly more difficult. Both players had the most productive season of their careers, with Robinson averaging 17ppg, winning his second dunk title and finishing third in Sixth Man voting, and Lee averaging 16ppg and 11.7rpg and finishing the year with an NBA best 66 double-doubles. Interestingly enough, neither player received an offer sheet from any other NBA team.
With the likes of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, etc. hitting the open market next summer, NBA GM’s are simply not willing to offer players long term deals and tie up valuable cap space. Players like Lee and Robinson, who in other circumstances may have cashed in on the free agent market after a productive year, are now being forced into accepting one year deals.
So with no other offers on the table for their players and no acceptable sign-and-trade agreements to be had, both agents were left with few options. It looked as if the Knicks would be able to get away with giving both players one year deals for their “qualifying offer”, $2.6 million for Lee and $2.9 million for Robinson. However, Donnie Walsh signed Lee for $7 million and Robinson for $4 million. Bartlestein himself even seemed surprised and deemed the deals “unprecedented”. We can only speculate on the nature of the negotiations, but Walsh a 20 year NBA front office veteran, certainly would not have overpaid out of generosity.
While they were unable to secure the long term deals that they hoped for, both agents were able to land their clients one year deals exceeding their qualifying offers, and they will be eligible for the significantly more lucrative free-agent market next year. The Knicks also were able to retain two of their most productive players from last year, who are familiar with the system and will help them stay competitive, without having to cut into next year’s cap space.
Perhaps more importantly, they are also able to retain their two most marketable stars, both of whom are fan favorites and significant sources of revenue. Robinson and Lee’s jerseys were the # 10 and 14 best selling for the 2008-2009 season according to an NBA press release in January. Their marketability certainly must have helped make Mr. Walsh feel a little more generous with the Knicks checkbook. After all, someone has to help sell season tickets before LeBron and/or D-Wade arrive.