The plan remains to make their noise next summer.
Though they wanted to keep two of their most popular and productive players, the Knicks refused to part with their precious salary cap space for 2010, so Lee and Robinson are back on one-year deals.
New York didn't do much else to upgrade its talent, so it will open training camp next week with much the same roster that went 32-50. Knicks president Donnie Walsh largely sat out the second half of the summer and kept hopes alive of making a big score when LeBron James could lead a star-studded free agent class.
"I think we did the best we could do in trying to be competitive for this year and yet retain salary cap flexibility that we want next year and the year after," Walsh said. "That was the goal when I got here and that remained the goal. And this summer was going to be a test of that."
Walsh tried to make moves early in the summer, losing out on bids for Jason Kidd and Grant Hill. Then the NBA warned teams of a potential deep drop in the 2010-11 salary cap, and Walsh decided that to avoid jeopardizing the space he created with trades last season he would only offer one-year deals.
Lee hoped for more than that, and probably deserved it after averaging career highs of 16.9 points and 11.2 rebounds last season while leading the NBA with 65 double-doubles. Instead, he settled for a deal worth about $8 million after the Knicks found no sign-and-trade proposals they liked for the power forward.
"I tell David all the time, why would we sign and trade him?" Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said. "So we take money in a year? No, we're not going to do that. So we sign and trade you for somebody with a one-year contract? Wait a minute, you've got a one-year contract, and he's better than anybody we could trade for him. So there was no reason."
Robinson's 17.2 points per game were also a career high. He finished third in the voting for the sixth man award and also won his second slam dunk competition. The Knicks paid both restricted free agents well more than their qualifying offers required.
"I think the fact they wanted to be Knicks, they wanted to stay in New York, that helped the situation," Walsh said. "And I think the fact that we were willing not to just treat them according to the system counted with these two guys."
Neither has been on a winning team and the wait might continue. Even D'Antoni acknowledged the Knicks were "going to have to overachieve, without a doubt."
They are high on second-year forward Danilo Gallinari -- "the best shooter I've ever seen," D'Antoni said -- and the coach likes the team's versatility. But the best thing about the Knicks is their salary situation, with Walsh saying they'll have more than $20 million available next summer.
"I know that we're going to have a lot of room, and as of today I think it's more than anyone else," Walsh said. "So I think that's good. We're No. 1."
In the meantime, the Knicks could be looking at a franchise-record ninth straight losing season, but D'Antoni hopes it won't just serve as a countdown toward the opening of free agency next July 1.
"Season tickets are good, people want to come, they're waiting. Maybe they're trying to get in line for 2010, but maybe we'll surprise them, they'll come and say this is not bad," D'Antoni said.
"So we've just got to make it fun for them and be competitive, play as hard as we play and put a product that they're proud of and New York's proud of. And maybe 2010 will be a glimmer in there, but it won't be their main focus."
The Knicks also signed Ron Howard and Marcus Landry, bringing their training camp roster to 20.