Knicks try to juggle cap in effort to keep Ewing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There are those who believe the New York Knicks shoul trade Patrick Ewing for a bushel of players and draft choices and start over.

Be advised that David Checketts is not among you. In fact, Ewing's presence, and the challenge of appeasing the Knick center's lofty salary demands -- while finally getting the club under the salary cap at the same time -- appealed greatly to a person looking for higher mountains to climb.

"We've got a chance with Patrick," Checketts said. "That's one of the big reasons I took the job. You've got a chance to be really good. You have to consider a lot of things when you're talking about Patrick and keeping him in New York. You consider the fact a premier center doesn't come along in this league very often."

Nor do the problems a huge contract such as Ewing's can cause in the dreaded salary cap.

Checketts' predecessors as general manager, Dave DeBusschere and Al Bianchi, never solved the cap and how to work within it, or get around it. As salaries continue to soar higher than the basket, it's becoming more apparent that this is an undertaking for business minds rather than basketball brains.

"The salary cap was a very complicated document that was put together by a number of top labor and antitrust lawyers," a noted players' attorney said. "In order to be successful in dealing in the NBA today, you not only have to have an extensive knowledge of the salary cap, you also have to have a creative mind and be willing to push [the cap] to its limits.

"A number of teams either have basketball guys who don't thoroughly understand the cap or have lawyers who look at the cap as a legal document and not one where you must use creativity to figure out ways to make it work for you."

Straightening out the Knicks' finances is the type of challenge a noted business whiz like Checketts thrives on. There are avenues he can take, such as restructuring the existing deals on several players.

"That's why I like it," Checketts said. "It's a big undertaking. And I think it's do-able."

Checketts has to deal with Ewing's contract right now because it contains a clause in which Ewing must be among the four highest paid players in the league following this, his sixth season.

If Ewing is not among the four top salaries, he automatically gets offered a one-year deal at 125 percent of his previous salary, Checketts said. Ewing was said to be making around $4 million this season.

Then, after next season, Ewing would become an unrestricted free agent, able to sign with any team without the Knicks receiving compensation.

Can you pay him more? "Yes," Checketts said. "There is a contract that gives him a chance to become an unrestricted free agent. We've got that to deal with. We're not going to let him walk."

Ewing already is in the upper crust as far as the bucks go, surpassing the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon ($3.15 million), Charles Barkley ($2.9 million), Isiah Thomas ($2.72 million), Michael Jordan ($2.5 million), Magic Johnson ($2.4 million), David Robinson ($2.265 million), Karl Malone ($2.26 million) and Larry Bird ($1.5 million).

Question is, how flexible will Ewing be in terms of leaving the Knicks a few dollars left to improve the team?

"If Michael [Jordan] wanted to go in and say 'Give me $6 million or I'm going to retire and play golf,' I think they'd give him $6 million," a high-level NBA executive said. "But I think Michael says, 'Lookit, go get some more players.' "

"Players are going to realize if they take one-third of your cap, then you aren't going to be able to have other good players on our team," Cavs general manager Wayne Embry said. "I've read where Magic, Isiah and Michael said, 'Hey, I want other good players on my team, so I'll take a little less money -- if it's going to allow me a chance to win a championship.' "

In his preliminary talks with David Falk of ProServ, Checketts is under the impression Ewing's agent is willing to work along with him in this matter.

"Will we put together a contract that will be a win-win, which means fair market value for Patrick and fair for the Knicks? Yes," he said. "Will it give us cap flexibility? Yes. I think Patrick and I think David are in tune to that.

"I mean, this guy wants to win in the worst way. I really believe that. He'd like to be remembered as a guy who played on winning clubs. Will he do the things, and is he willing to work with us, to help us sign those kind of people? I think the answer is, absolutely."

A discussion that becomes more prevalent each time Ewing fails to deliver down the stretch is whether a player who hasn't proven to be a clutch performer is worth a $5 million or $6 million long-term investment. The numbers Ewing is believed to be asking, far exceeds the salaries of guys who are proven, the likes of Bird, Barkley, Magic Johnson, Jordan, Thomas.

"Whether or not he delivers in big games is not a judgment I'm prepared to make right now," Checketts said. "I just know he's a valuable and important part of our club and I'd like to keep him here for a long time."

A poll of NBA executives generally contend that whether or not Ewing is a clutch player isn't that big an issue in determining his salary and value to a team.

"There are guys that can't deliver at the end," SuperSonics president Bob Whitsitt said. "But they can get you to the end and that's equally important."

* In addition to dealing with Patrick Ewing, Checketts' other major challenge is to add more talent to the club while staying within NBA salary rules.

The Knicks are almost $2 million over the $11.871 million salary cap, which goes up to about $12.6 million in August. Teams over the cap can't make two-for-one deals. The player a capped team acquires has to fit in an open salary slot on his new team's roster.

If the Knicks traded a player who had his deal redone, such as Mark Jackson going from $275,000 to $1.785 million, the Knicks could only replace him at his base compensation -- a number determined to be only $1.1 million, in a special league case.

Checketts said he has "more players than anyone in the league" whose base compensation is far lower than their current salaries, hence it's critical that the Knicks slip under the cap.

How can they get there? The Knicks would draw into range if they decided to renounce their claim on the contracts of free agents Kenny Walker ($875,000), Eddie Lee Wilkins ($400,000) and Greg Grant ($300,000).

"That's an issue, a tough issue," Checketts said of getting under the cap. "But my strengths are clearly in figuring out these kind of difficult issues. Basketball decisions, I'll surround myself with good basketball people."

Checketts' plan, regardless of who he hires as his director of player personnel, is to bring in some young veterans, in particular at the perimeter positions. However, the Knicks' salary cap problems most likely will keep them from going after restricted free agents the likes of point guards Sherman Douglas and Kenny Smith.

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