Examining free-agent destinations
Team's appeal is based on money, market, current talent and front-office stability
Knicks have most money, largest market, but also intense media, lacking talent
New Jersey, Chicago have cap space, large markets, while Miami could tout Wade
At 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, the most anticipated free-agent class in NBA history will hit the market. Representatives from a number of teams will dispatch representatives all around the country in a recruiting war that will blow any college process out of the water. Seven teams figure to be the biggest players. Let's examine what each has to offer.
Pros: Stability on the sideline; experienced, stable front office; cap space to sign multiple free agents; major market.
Cons: Lack of talent on roster; intense media market; few draft picks
Skinny: The Knicks were considered frontrunners for LeBron James -- and every other free agent, really -- when the Summer of 2010 fever started to take hold two years ago. But the depletion of the roster (Danilo Gallinari is the only potential All-Star New York has under contract) and the emergence of the Brooklyn-bound Nets as a viable alternative has reduced the Knicks to just another candidate in the field. Two player agents told SI.com that the pressure of playing in New York in front of an unrelenting media horde is a factor for any free agent who is considering relocating to Manhattan. Some players can handle it; some can't.
Still, the Knicks have big chip in Mike D'Antoni, a popular figure around the league for his free-flowing offense, who cultivated strong relationships with the NBA's elite while working as an assistant for USA Basketball, and team president Donnie Walsh, who is regarded as one of the top team-builders in the game. And playing in New York does have its advantages -- with a brighter spotlight comes more opportunities to showcase their skills in front of a worldwide audience. The most enticing factor, of course, is their cap space: The Knicks have $34.5 million to spend in free agency -- enough for two max players -- and if they unload Eddy Curry's $11.3 million expiring salary, they'll have enough room to go for a star free agent in 2011. While their roster is depleted now, it won't be in a year or two.
Pros: Deep-pocketed owner; young talent on roster; strong head coach; future in Brooklyn; cap space to sign multiple free agents
Cons: Lack of stability in front office; currently in Newark
Skinny: Of all the presentations James is likely to hear this week, the Nets could be the most intriguing. With a star-studded delegation traveling to Akron, Ohio -- including billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov and minority owner and long-time friend to James, Jay--Z -- the Nets will try to sell James on being a global icon (Prokhorov's investments are spread all over the world) as well as locally in Brooklyn, the hometown of Jay-Z, an influential figure among NBA players.
Two things, however, are working against New Jersey. The building of the Barclays Center has been delayed more often than flights out of JFK and there are no guarantees it will be ready by the 2012-13 season. And although Newark's Prudential Center is a stark improvement over the Meadowlands, it's still in, Newark. Team president Rod Thorn plans on traveling to Ohio, but Thorn is expected to officially step down sometime this month, leaving the Nets rudderless at a critical time. The Nets well of young talent -- including Brook Lopez, Devin Harris and top draft pick Derrick Favors -- is enough to entice a top free agent though, and the Nets will have plenty of options to fill their $30 million in available cap space.
Pros: Solid core of young talent; cap space to sign multiple free agents; major market
Cons: No head coach currently; ball-dominating star in place
Skinny: Derrick Rose could be the Bulls most appealing and most unattractive asset. On one hand, Rose is a dynamic point guard on an All-Star track. On the other, Rose is more of a scorer who needs the ball in his hands to be successful, as do most of the other top free agents. The consensus among NBA scouts, however, is that the positives outnumber the negatives. And the combination of Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng give Chicago a more talented nucleus and a better win-now option than any salary-cap friendly team. That could be appealing to Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson, two elite free agents who are believed to prefer teams with strong supporting casts.
It will be interesting to see what role Tom Thibodeau plays in negotiations. Thibodeau is well-respected and considered one of the finest defensive minds in the NBA. And he is represented by CAA, the same agency that reps James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade. But Thibodeau is a rookie head coach on a team that needs strong leadership working for a front office that gave a quick hook to a coach (Vinny Del Negro), who made the playoffs the last two seasons. However involved Thibodeau may be in free-agent negotiations, he will need to present a strong front.
Pros: Star second player in place; strong leadership in front office; appealing city; cap space to sign multiple free agents
Cons: Bare-bones roster; Team leader and superstar already in place
Skinny: Miami counts itself as one of the NBA's destination cities, with Wade widely expected to re-sign, giving any top free agent who joins him the opportunity to instantly form the NBA's top 1-2 tandem. And with Pat Riley in the front office -- and potentially down on the bench at some point -- players can be assured that the team's future is well-tended to. Reports circulated this week that James and Bosh were "strongly considering" teaming up with Wade, the situation is fluid and no final decisions will be made until after the pair hear pitches from other teams this weekend.
Any doubts about Miami start with the roster and smaller market in comparison to Chicago, L.A., New York and New Jersey. Wade may be staying, but the Heat have been actively pursuing takers for Michael Beasley, leaving Mario Chalmers and a trio of second-round picks as the only roster fillers. A Wade-James-Bosh troika would be as good as Boston's Big Three, but that group had Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and James Posey in supporting roles. Nothing Miami can do can match that. And while a top free agent would have the benefit of pairing with Wade to create a mini-dynasty-in-the-making, smaller-market teams are historically less successful. Just look at Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago, owners of the most NBA titles.
Pros: Owner willing to spend and make moves; new head coach eventually
Cons: Small market; no head coach yet
Skinny: The Cavs are focused on one free agent -- James -- though they could expand and look for sign-and-trade options should James commit to re-signing. Cleveland will appeal to James' Ohio pride and the Cavs will try to sell him on the merits of bringing his hometown a title. And they will point out that, although recent acquisitions (Shaquille O'Neal, Antawn Jamison) didn't work out, owner Dan Gilbert won't hesitate to cross the luxury-tax threshold by tacking millions of dollars onto the payroll.
But just who will be making the pitch? Danny Ferry is gone, leaving Gilbert and new GM Chris Grant to be the point men, and without a head coach in place, it will be difficult for them to fully lay out the direction of the team. A league source confirmed media reports that the Cavs were making progress towards a deal with Lakers assistant Brian Shaw but if no agreement is reached Cleveland could turn to former Hornets and Nets head coach, Byron Scott. Such turbulence at the top isn't a strong selling point to their franchise player. And if the Cavs don't get the franchise player, in all likelihood they won't get anyone else.
Pros: Young talent; major market
Cons: Instability in front office and on coaching staff; unpredictable, thrifty owner
Skinny: On paper, the Clippers look like a solid situation. They have a potential All-Star frontcourt in All-Star Chris Kaman and former No. 1 draft pick Blake Griffin, who reportedly is healthy after missing all of last season with a knee injury. They have Baron Davis entrenched at point guard and Eric Gordon on the wing. A small forward (LeBron, Rudy Gay or Paul Pierce) is their top target, with the feeling within the organization that one more scorer could push the team into the playoffs.
But who is running the organization? Neil Olshey is an unheralded general manager. All signs point to either Dwane Casey or Vinny Del Negro being tabbed for the Clippers' vacant head-coaching position, but whether that happens is anyone's guess. The Clips are $16.8 million below the cap -- enough to offer a max contract to a free agent outright -- but marquee free agents are looking for stability, too, and the Clippers don't present a lot of it. They will get someone, but they will probably overpay to do it.
Pros: Strong roster; dedicated billionaire owner; amazing facilities; stable front office and coaching staff
Cons: Little cap space; aging roster; possibly no Dirk
Skinny: The appeal of the Mavericks is obvious: They have elite players (Jason Kidd, Caron Butler and, presumably, Dirk Nowitzki if he signs a new contract), an elite coach (Rick Carlisle), strong management (Donnie Nelson) and an owner (Mark Cuban) willing to break the bank to build a winner. As the only Western Conference team believed to be in the LeBron sweepstakes, the Mavericks could also offer Cleveland the opportunity to shove James as far out of sight as possible, while having the assets (Erick Dampier's non-guaranteed $13 million contract, rising guard Roddy Beaubois) that could be enticing to the Cavs in a sign-and-trade situation. If James passes, Johnson would be No. 2 on the Mavs wish list with Dallas able to make any equally appealing trade offer to the cost cutting Hawks.
But just how open would a championship window in Dallas be? Nowitzki, 32, and Kidd, 24, were All-Stars last season but both are on the back end of their careers. And while Cuban is always aggressively trying to upgrade the roster, there are no guarantees that a player the caliber of Nowitzki or Kidd can be brought in to eventually replace them.