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Leitch: How the Knicks Can Survive the Next Eighteen Months

The Ping-Pong balls have handed down their judgment; LeBron is playing the Eastern Conference finals, the results of which may draw him closer to the Knicks — or not; and Nate Robinson has done his last local celebrity appearances. The New York Knicks now face their future. The goal is to clear cap space for 2010 for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Steve Nash — anybody, really. They were more successful than anticipated last year, unloading Zach Randolph (whom the Clippers are now desperate to trade themselves) and Jamal Crawford and removing a few hurdles in LeBron’s way. But there’s a ton more work to be done. What must they do this off-season?

1. Don’t match a multiyear offer for Nate Robinson.
Robinson’s not a point guard. He’s more popular with fans and dunk-contest judges than he is with his teammates and coach Mike D’Antoni. If anyone offers this restricted free agent a multiyear deal, the Knicks shouldn’t match it. Robinson’s fun to have when he’s cheap, but an albatross when he’s not (think: lower-rent Gilbert Arenas). If he really wants to stay here — and he clearly does — he can either sign a one-year for a below-market price, or just wait and see if LeBron, who really likes him, comes here.

2. Don’t sign David Lee unless the market forces you. If it does, trade him.
This is a tougher call. The forward, coming off his best season, is also a restricted free agent and said to believe he’s worth $10 million a year, which might be pushing it. He’s the type of rebounding fool more valuable to a team in need of a complementary piece — not the Knicks, with their empty cupboard. He’s the best player on the team, but not a superstar, and he shouldn’t be paid like one. Some team (Oklahoma City? Memphis?) would be willing to pay, though, and the Knicks could match an offer just so they can trade him and chase their desperately needed youth and cap space.

3. Call Eddy Curry to make sure he’s on the treadmill.
Next year’s sacrificed first-round pick aside, Curry is Isiah Thomas’s last toxic remnant. He keeps tweeting about how diligently he’s working out, and the Knicks hope he is, because they want to get rid of him — which is only possible if he performs early next season. And they can’t drop him on the Clippers like they did Zach Randolph: They’ll need contending teams with gaping holes in the middle (maybe he can follow Stephon to Boston!) and an appetite for risk. Maybe Florida International?

4. Draft Stephen Curry.
Curry’s not a point guard, he’s a little short for a shooting guard, and overall he’s extremely slight, but if there’s ever a complete team, he’ll make the perfect complementary player. He’s also charismatic, has a fan base, and is ridiculously fun to watch. That’s more than teams usually get with the eighth pick in the draft.

5. Trade for Tracy McGrady.
The Knicks are going to be rough next year. Quick fixes meant to appease “impatient” fans got them in this horrific situation. But the Knicks have done such an efficient job ridding themselves of excess that they only have four players under contract for the 2010 season, and one is Curry, whom they’re trying to pawn off. The other three are rehabbing prospect Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Jared Jeffries. (Of course, they’ll have at least one guy from this year’s draft, and probably two.) If they don’t sign Lee or Robinson, there aren’t going to be very many players left.

The good news: They have five contracts expiring after this year: Cuttino Mobley (who’s retired), Al Harrington, Larry Hughes, Chris Duhon, and Quentin Richardson. And all of them have trade value; everybody wants expiring contracts off the books. The Knicks plan to let some of these contracts expire. But you have to give fans some reason to come to the Garden next year, and McGrady — whose Rockets ascended to new heights once he had season-ending surgery — needs to get out of Houston, where he has worn out his welcome. He’s also a free agent after this season, meaning his contract wouldn’t impact the 2010 salary cap. Hughes and Mobley’s contracts might do it. Houston loses the guy they’re ready to see leave, the Knicks sell some tickets, and the LeBron 2010 plan is not jeopardized. Even if McGrady isn’t 100 percent healthy (and he probably won’t be), at least it’ll look like the Knicks are trying.

6. Stay patient.
Even if the Knicks bring in McGrady or an equivalent quality player, it’s going to be another long season. But the 2010 plan remains in place: If LeBron doesn’t come, there will be a bevy of other options (Wade, Bosh, Nash, Shaq, etc.) that they’ll actually be able to pay. The trick is making it through this year without the fans losing the faith. If the Knicks can get rid of Eddy Curry and/or bring in another first-round pick, that’d be great, but pulling either of those deals off will make getting LeBron look like a cakewalk. Still: Walsh will be dominating the free-agent game next summer, and the Knicks don’t have the financial troubles of other NBA teams. Ultimately, they’re counting on LeBron (or another star) to swoop in here. That remains their main play. But they’re in a better position to make it than we guessed a year ago.

Leitch: How the Knicks Can Survive the Next Eighteen Months