Breaking down LeBron's options, plus more free-agency thoughts
LeBron's feasible landing spots appear to be the Cavs, Heat, Knicks and Nets
Pat Riley's standing as the derby's most credible boss will net Miami a star or two
Just how realistic is the idea of teaming James with multiple stars in Miami or NYC?
Ten thoughts as the highly anticipated free-agency frenzy opens up.
1. Will LeBron James and Dwyane Wade play together? If finding the best basketball situation is James' priority, then this is the first question he must answer: Should he move to Miami to join with Wade and play for Heat president Pat Riley, whose return as coach would be mandatory to navigate the on-court relationship between James and Wade.
Most people in the league question whether James and Wade can coexist as scorers who have grown used to controlling the ball on the perimeter. If Shaquille O'Neal playing inside and Kobe Bryant playing outside couldn't get along, then what makes anyone think that James and Wade could share the same role on the perimeter? But it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. All that matters is what James and Wade believe, and if they're convinced they can pull it off then they should give it a try -- because if they play constructively together then they'll be a frightening combo, especially while playing for Riley.
2. James' options. Let's say James has doubts about teaming with Wade. It is going to be very difficult for him to leave Cleveland on the outskirts of his hometown of Akron, regardless of the Cavaliers' mismanagement over recent weeks. He could join with Bulls' point guard Derrick Rose, knowing they'll still have another $13 million to go after Carlos Boozer as the low-post scorer they've long coveted. He could to the Knicks, who have room for two or three stars but little else on their roster, or the Nets, who will spend the next two seasons in Newark during the construction of their new Brooklyn arena. Unless the Mavericks or another over-the-cap contender can lure James while convincing the Cavs to participate in a sign-and-trade -- highly unlikely -- James' feasible options appear to be limited to Cleveland, Miami, New York and New Jersey. (The Clippers have just enough cap space to offer James a max deal, but with one playoff series victory in 29 years of Donald Sterling's ownership they would represent a gamble not worth taking.)
3. Team issues. Many of the teams recruiting James have unsettled concerns of their own that he should find alarming.
The Cavaliers: Their season ended 47 days ago and yet they entered the final dozen hours before free agency without a head coach. Didn't they think it might be an important selling point to let James know they were well organized and ready for the new season? They already tried -- and failed, fortunately for them -- to hire Michigan State's Tom Izzo, whose lack of NBA experience would have repelled James. All the while Danny Ferry has been replaced by GM Chris Grant, who is respected but is nonetheless a rookie. All season I've been predicting James will return to Cleveland, but after watching the Cavs' performance over the last several weeks I can see why he would have second thoughts.
The Knicks: Donnie Walsh has been team president for two years and has yet to hire his own right-hand-man or heir apparent. He is 69 with a history of cancer, he has been limping on a painfully bad hip, and now comes a New York Post report that he recently underwent neck surgery for bone spurs and will attend the meeting with James in a wheelchair. ("I'm using the chair for precautionary reasons ... just to make sure I don't fall,'' Walsh told the Post's Marc Berman.) Walsh has successfully executed his two-year plan to clear cap space has successfully executed his two-year plan to clear cap space and the main recruiting pitch will be made by coach Mike D'Antoni, but James will have to wonder who will help Walsh run the Knicks over the next five years -- and why hasn't Walsh already hired that lieutenant?
The Nets: They will go into the meeting not being able to offer James a detailed basketball plan because they don't yet know who will be running their franchise now that Rod Thorn has announced he won't be back as team president. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov offers an inspiring presence, but he has been in the NBA for a few weeks and Avery Johnson has been coach for a few days. The Nets will recruit James without being able to tell him who he's going to be working for.
4. Pat Riley stands out. The Heat president will enter the recruiting week as the most credible and best-networked boss in the field. He has won championships as a coach and executive, and he has invested two behind-the-scenes years in developing contacts and selling his vision. If anyone is going to inspire confidence and stand out among his rival suitors, it is going to be Riley. He may not land James, but Riley will bring in one or two stars.
5. The Bulls. They've had few highs and a lot of lows since Michael Jordan's 1998 departure. They have a terrific point guard in Rose and enough space to sign James or Joe Johnson plus another player starting at $13 million (Boozer or David Lee?). But they're going to need time to mature as a contender, not only by filling out their roster but also as rookie coach Tom Thibodeau acquires experience.
6. The Big-Three play. Both the Heat and Knicks will be offering James an opportunity to surround himself with two stars -- with Wade and Bosh-or-Amar'e Stoudemire in Miami; with Johnson and Bosh-or-Stoudemire in New York. The New York scenario hinges on the players accepting less money in order to form a potential dynasty together; Miami can deliver three max deals if they get Bosh in a sign-and-trade. There are a lot of moving parts involved and it will be difficult for either franchise to pull this trifecta in this highly fluid market.
7. A sign-and-trade for Bosh? Unlike James, whose Cavaliers are not expected to help him leave, the Raptors are interested in participating in a sign-and-trade that would bring them talent in return while providing Bosh with a max salary worth as much as $125 million -- a $30 million advantage over the max five-year deal he could sign otherwise. Teams that already have a star power forward (the Lakers with Pau Gasol and the Mavericks, who are expected to re-sign Dirk Nowitzki) need not apply, as Bosh has no interest in becoming a center.
8. The power forwards ... Free agents, Bosh, Stoudemire and Boozer are among the best at their position. Nowitzki doesn't appear to be leaving the Mavericks and Stoudemire has been discussing a four-year extension with the Suns that could keep him in Phoenix; if Stoudemire is off the market then demand for Boozer could turn him into a max player.
9. Joe Johnson. The Hawks are expected to offer him the max, but Johnson could yet earn a six-year, $125 million elsewhere in a sign-and-trade with the Knicks or another team, which could send a second-round pick to Atlanta and leave the Hawks with a highly-valuable $16 million trade exception to be used over the next year. Every team with cap space covets Johnson in addition to teams like the Mavericks, who hope to acquire him in a more traditional sign-and-trade using the expiring contract of Erick Dampier.
10. Who gets left out? Depending on how many of the biggest names stay home -- with James, Johnson and Stoudemire among those who could -- then some teams with cap space will approach the second tier of free agents with big money to spend. In the meantime expect James, Wade and Bosh to make their decisions in the opening days of July, in part so they can begin to recruit stars to come play with them.