AT LeBron James’s signal, unleash free-agent hell.
The only thing at stake: The rise or fall of a staggering number of National Basketball Association franchises, who, at 9 p.m. Wednesday night, started officially wooing the most anticipated class of free agents in sports history.
This is unprecedented, even compared with Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal in 1996, Tim Duncan in 2000, Kobe Bryant in 2004 and other great free-agent bazaars of the past.
James is surrounded by his consiglieri, murmuring with other top free agents, and there, in Ohio, set to be wooed.
Right now, the NBA world revolves around James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson.
Let’s try to map out some possible scenarios for the days and weeks ahead…
The LeBron loyalty option: Yes, he could stay in Cleveland and leave the other free agents to find their own way.
So many millions of words have been issued about his next destination that it’s easy to assume that James is committed to a new challenge.
But what about the challenge of staying with his home team—which can pay him more over the life of a deal than anybody else—for either three or six more years?
Several NBA sources have insisted that staying with the Cavaliers would still be James’s first choice…if Cleveland can swiftly retool its roster and dump some of his old teammates.
Problem: The Cavs have little to trade.
Their best hope probably is for James to accept a three-year deal, see if they can win a title in that time frame, then go through this again in a few years.
If LeBron stays in Cleveland, look for Bosh to try to force Toronto to craft a sign-and-trade deal that gets him to Houston or Dallas.
The Miami mega-team-up: Lots of talk about Wade convincing James and Bosh to come to the Heat, who can (possibly) afford all three, thanks to the bold maneuverings of coach-in-waiting Pat Riley.
This is definitely the scariest scenario for the rest of the league and this is what the Heat has worked to achieve by stripping itself basically down to Wade and a couple of spare parts.
It’s a great idea. But, since Michael Beasley almost certainly must be off-loaded for the money to work and nobody seems to want him, it’s hard to see how this could happen practically.
The Chicago fallback: The Bulls are the logical comfortable option for a James-Bosh package deal, if they split from Wade.
There are money-squeeze issues here, too, but fewer than with the Heat.
Pair James and Bosh with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, and you’ve got a real shot at multiple titles, in Jordan’s echo—which, I believe, James would love.
If James accepts the idea of taking less money and if he feels he can partner with power-owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Chicago might be the place to be.
The Miami fallback: If James and Bosh go elsewhere, the Heat will keep Wade, sigh about the lost mega-possibility, and probably recalibrate with Boozer or Stoudemire and another player or two from the class.
The long arm of New Jersey: New Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov reportedly is getting the first audience with James, which speaks to Prokhorov’s aura as one of the richest men in the world and to Jay-Z’s presence as a minority owner.
Can they pull it off? They have Brook Lopez, Derrick Favors and Devin Harris. They have lots of salary-cap space. They have Prokhorov’s energy and worldwide vision.
Still, it’s a long shot.
The second-tier rewards: Amid the upper-level tumult, it looks like Atlanta’s Joe Johnson will land a $100-million-plus deal to stay. Phoenix’s Stoudemire is also negotiating to remain with the Suns.
Both will be overpaid. So it goes.
The old standard-bearers: Boston’s Paul Pierce and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki exercised options to become free agents, but both are expected to stay at home with longer deals.
The Gotham shutout: They’re the team that planned longest for this summer, and possibly suffered the most for it. After all this, could the New York Knicks end up with…nobody?
Since it appears that they will strike out on James, Wade and Bosh, it might be better for them if they resist throwing maximum money at a lesser talent and try again next summer, when Carmelo Anthony might become free.
Yeah, wait ‘til next summer, when they might strike out again. That’ll sell in New York.
Tim Kawakami, San Jose Mercury News