Bracing for the 2010 sweepstakes
The 2010 free-agent class is generating intense buzz despite being two years off
LeBron's potential availability is fueling the story, though he could easily stay put
Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Knicks are other possible key players in 2010
The NBA's latest version of a long-running presidential election involves LeBron James and more than a dozen other high-profile candidates. The issue: Where will they land when they become free agents in 2010?
This promises to be the most provocative free-agent class of the post-Jordan world, with the Pistons, Nets and (launch Darth Vader intro music) Knicks among the dozen or more teams potentially lining up to recruit and sign one or more of the game's biggest names. But ... and a big but this is ... it's a story that won't be consummated until the summer after next. Indeed, nothing may come of all the speculation, should LeBron and his fellow stars decide to re-sign with their current teams, as they very well may do.
"I find it sort of strange,'' said Henry Thomas, agent to potential 2010 free agents Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. "The reality is it's two years away. I don't know why there's so much talk about it.''
It's because this is the NBA's Next Big Thing. The previous Next Big Things were the impending divorce of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant (which was realized), followed by the imminent departure of Kevin Garnett from Minnesota, which was anticipated for two excruciating years (and which happened), which begot the issue of Kobe's on-and-off desires to leave the Lakers (which is now off). That leaves us looking past the next two seasons to a summer of free-agent movement that may never come to be.
Adding relevance to the conjecture is the possibility of LeBron's moving to New York, enabling the NBA to seize its biggest market and instigating an N.Y.-L.A. rivalry of LeBron vs. Kobe that could dwarf the Celtics-Lakers wars of the 1980s.
So here's a primer to help get you through the two long winters of incessant blogging, talk-radio tirades and Internet predictions that lay ahead. We start by looking at the key players.
LeBron James, Cavaliers. His opt-out clause in 2010 is driving this story. "When I decide to make that decision, it is basically to put me in a position where I feel like I can win multiple championships,'' James said before scoring 31 points in a victory Tuesday at New Jersey. "If it's staying here, then I will be here. If it's moving elsewhere, then I will have to look at all my options.''
The chronic speculation that LeBron will bolt for New York (or to New Jersey, though that is less likely now that the Nets appear less likely to move to Brooklyn) has been based entirely on the provocative idea of his becoming the biggest thing in the Big Apple. But here, now, he is saying that winning championships is his most important consideration.
And of course that is true. If he wants to become the world's top star and surpass the global acclaim of Michael Jordan, then he needs to win at Jordan's level. Moving to New York and failing to win there would ultimately deem him a huge failure.
If the Cavs assemble the makings of a championship team around James, then how can he explain a decision to leave? Cleveland is, as he reminds us constantly, his hometown (he is from nearby Akron). It is not going to reflect well on LeBron if he were to abandon his valued home in order to go for the glitz of New York.
The Knicks would need to create a highly talented roster around him, in which case LeBron could make the criticism vanish by winning, much as Shaq made everyone forget the nastiness of his departure from Orlando by earning three titles in L.A. There is no doubt that winning multiple rings in New York (which won the last of its two championships in 1973) would be a bigger achievement than if he won on any other platform.
But it would also be a heartwarming story if he were to maintain loyalty to his hometown while turning the small-market Cavs into the capital of the basketball world. It would, as marketing people like to say, brand him as no other star has ever been branded, because it would give his mission the appearance of being about something more important than money. It would be a story of investing himself in his hometown.
To become the equal to (or eclipse) Jordan, LeBron must be universally loved. People would love him for staying in Cleveland.
Plus, there are billions of people in China who won't view LeBron any differently whether he's in New York or Cleveland. Most of his potential consumers around the world won't know the difference. They'll want to buy his jersey and shoes regardless of the colors.
I'm not saying he isn't going to sign with New York; all I'm saying is that when people say James is definitely leaving Cleveland, that he's made his decision already, I don't buy it as anything close to a sure thing. And you shouldn't, either, because it makes no sense for him to decide right now. He may be leaning one way or the other, or he may even be promoting rumors of his departure in order to pressure the Cavs to keep improving the roster because he wants to stay and win championships in Cleveland. Who knows?
If I have to make one prediction, let me start by saying this: He isn't going to move to Detroit, because that would be a lateral move. No upside for him there. I don't claim to know what James is thinking, but the only move away from home that makes sense is for him to go to either the Lakers (which isn't likely to happen, because Kobe isn't going anywhere) or the Knicks. Ultimately, I think it's going to be a simple decision: Cleveland or New York.
Chris Bosh, Raptors. For all of the other teams with cap space, Bosh becomes the top available target. Every city he visits brings questions of where he might be playing in 2010-11, Bosh acknowledges.
"There are too many ifs,'' he said. "I just work on being happy right now and helping this team and trying to be the best player I can be. By thinking about it too much, you won't end up thinking about playing basketball. You'll think about two years from now. I'm not a person who thinks like that.''
There is a feeling throughout the league that Bosh, a Texan, will consider a move enabling him to return to the United States and eventually raise a family on home soil. Rival NBA executives argue that Bosh hasn't been celebrated as much while playing for a Canadian team as he would be on an American roster.
Bosh, however, doesn't hint in public that he would be happier playing for another franchise. And, as Raptors president Bryan Colangelo points out, Bosh was voted by fans to start in the 2007 All-Star Game, a clear signal his association with the Raptors isn't necessarily hurting his profile. (Bosh finished third among Eastern Conference forwards in balloting last year behind Garnett and James, an outcome that no market could have altered.)
"Chris is in the MVP conversation this year, he's been an All-Star, he's been on USA Basketball and he was a key member of the gold-medal team last summer,'' Colangelo said. "All of the accolades have been coming to him.''