It’s been a busy week on the LeBron Watch front, and now that Trevor Ariza himself has said LeBron never promised to stay in Cleveland beyond next year, we can turn our attention to the next potential stumbling block: the faltering economy. The NBA announced yesterday that the salary cap for the upcoming season, which is tied to the league's revenue, would be lowered by about a million dollars to $57.7 million. In and of itself, this doesn’t matter; after all, no one cares about the Summer of Andre Miller. But the league also sent its teams a since-leaked memo warning that the cap for 2010-11 could be as low as $50.4 million.
We’re sure this means plenty of other things, but all that really matters here is that it throws a wrench in Donnie Walsh’s plans to free up enough cap space to sign two big-name players to max contracts next summer. Based on the Knicks’ current roster and the league’s tentative 2010-11 cap projections, they may only have enough cash for one max contract and a second smaller one. Which eliminates the Knicks’ biggest selling point: They were going to pair LeBron up with another megastar. As of right now, that’s probably not happening.
Of course, a lot of things can change by then. Newsday’s Alan Hahn crunched the numbers, not just in terms of the Knicks' salary commitments but in terms of the various contract options LeBron himself has. So, for example, unloading Eddy Curry — and his huge contract for 2010-11 — would be a game-changer. But the ball is really in King James's court. Consider this: If LeBron forgoes the final year of his contract and becomes a free agent in 2010, and the cap drops all the way to $50.4 million, he could sign (by Hahn's math) for a maximum of $19.4 million from the Cavs (who can pay him more than anyone else), or $17.6 million from the Knicks. But LeBron also has the ability to sign an extension with Cleveland this year, before the cap drops any further, that would bring his average to $22.4 million.
Our thinking, though, is that LeBron doesn’t really need the money, and will want to test the free-agency waters, even if he ultimately decides the Cavs are the best fit. This means at least waiting until 2010 to see what the Knicks (or Cavs, or whoever else) can offer, not just in dollars, but in terms of teammates worth playing with. And there’s always this scenario: Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that LeBron has already made up his mind that he wants to play in New York. Would he be better off exercising his 2010-11 option, letting the Knicks make one big move in 2010, then becoming a free agent in 2011, once Eddy Curry’s off the books and the salary cap is presumably higher? Of course, this all assumes the Knicks will even still want the guy by then. After all, if they’re looking for someone to get dunked on, they’ll just suit up Frederic Weis.