Knicks Cannily Gamble David Lee and Nate Robinson

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Robinson and Lee, sweating it. Photo: Gerry Images

David Lee and Nate Robinson were arguably the best two Knicks players last season, at just the right time for each of them. They entered the off-season as restricted free agents, with visions of multiyear contacts and substantial raises dancing in their heads. The Knicks had a right to match any offer any other team would make, but that was fine for Lee and Robinson: If the Knicks wouldn’t pay them, somebody would.

Yeah, about that: The NBA free-agent market has been open for a month, and despite concerns that the economy would tamp down prices, big contracts have been handed out to Ben Gordon (five years, $55 million from Detroit), Hedo Turkoglu (five years, $53 million from Toronto), and Jason Kidd (three years, $25 million from Dallas), among others. But none of that money has found its way to Lee or Robinson yet. No one seems to want them at all — perhaps not even the Knicks.

It takes guts to do what the Knicks have done, essentially lowballing their two most popular, established players, sticking to one-year deals, and maintaining as much cap space as possible for LeBron (or Dwyane Wade).

Despite reports earlier this week that the Knicks were close to signing a one-year, $5 million deal with Robinson, those reports were shot down, and the Knicks are exploring other options. (Including former Pacers point guard Jamaal Tinsley — Donnie Walsh knows him from his time in Indiana, he won’t want more than a one-year deal, and most important, he’s cheap. Last year, however, the Pacers were so tired of dealing with his numerous off-court issues that they benched him.) Robinson turned down a two-year, $10 million deal from Greek team Olympiakos, a better bargain than he’d get from any NBA team, but other than some flirtations from the Warriors, he’s drawn little because he’s considered by many to be a one-dimensional, somewhat selfish player. He’ll probably end up with the Knicks, but for only one year, and probably for a lot less money than he’d expected after his “big” year.

If you think Robinson’s frustrated, talk to David Lee. The Sporting News actually ranked him as their top-rated power forward going into the free-agent season, ahead of Paul Millsap (four years, $32 million from Utah), Charlie Villanueva (five years, $35 million from Detroit), and Rasheed Wallace (three years as the mid-level exception from Boston). Lee? The Blazers had shown some interest, but now that they’ve signed Andre Miller, they’re low on cash. Right now the Bulls are interested, but if they decide not to bite or sign-and-trade with the Knicks, he’ll be stuck here with a one-year deal. The Knicks can finish last in the Atlantic in the 2009-10 season with or without David Lee. (And they surely will finish last.) The Knicks have played this situation well — you can tell because Lee and his agents are furious with them.

Lee and Robinson had hoped other offers, or fan outrage, would force the Knicks’ hand. Neither has happened. The Knicks have been smart, and it has paid off — for everybody other than David Lee and Nate Robinson.