Weekly Countdown: Which max free agent will jump first?
The Knicks have offers on the table to Amar'e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson
Early signings reflect the market, and some (Drew Gooden) have taken cuts
Other topics: Richard Jefferson opting out, Doc Rivers, Phil Jackson returning
Counting down the days until sentences can be ended by a period instead of a question mark.
When will teams make offers? This question shows how leading stars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are indeed holding the power right now. A variety of teams are courting them and other players, but are the teams making official financial offers to them?
Consider the Knicks, who have met with Joe Johnson and Amar'e Stoudemire. When did they make offers to both players? Did they do so without shutting the door on the potential of James coming to New York? The Knicks are moving forward on signing Stoudemire to at least a five-year deal -- they hope he'll arrive in New York Friday night or Saturday to finish the verbal agreement -- and they have an offer on the table to Johnson. A Knicks source says both players remain open-minded to taking less money should James reveal later this weekend that he wants to join them in New York. But that three-headed gambit remains a longshot.
In the first couple of days there has been a lot of pitching and promising, but where is the big money? It's still on the table of what is turning into an enormous game of poker. Has Chicago made an offer to Johnson? Could Miami work a sign-and-trade for Bosh that would leave them with max room for Wade and James? Are the Nets in with a chance at signing James?
Johnson figures to be a key indicator here. If he accepts a reported six-year max offer from Atlanta and takes himself off the market, that will dump further pressure on the Knicks and Bulls and other teams to make an outright offer elsewhere. Because Johnson and James are the only big-name wing players available now that Paul Pierce and Rudy Gay are gone.
In the meantime, there are at least six teams waiting to hear a decision from James over the holiday weekend, and they're being careful to not make a move that could damage their chances of landing him. At the same time they're pursuing other stars to either team with him or replace him on their envisioned rosters. Gamesmanship is a crucial dynamic now -- which owner or GM will emerge as the best poker player, with the most informed and cool-headed reading of the other players at the table?
Who will sign first? If Johnson surprises the market and decides to leave Atlanta, then the team that lands him will have a huge advantage. Likewise will the Knicks feel a sense of relief and momentum should they take Stoudemire off the market and onto their roster.
I spoke with a college recruiter yesterday -- because this is recruiting as I can never remember in the NBA -- and he pointed out that the key is to sign the first player. Once you have the first guy, now you have a foundation to attract others to come, he said.
And that makes sense. Because, by signing Johnson or Stoudemire or Bosh, now you've removed the hypothetical. Now James will look at that player's new team and think realistically about joining with him there. Once one of these big names leaves the market, the frenzy is going to grow because no team will want to be left out. Someone may jump at a sure thing instead of holding out for LeBron.
Money off the court? The Knicks created news by assuring James he could earn $1 billion on the side just by playing in New York, according to a Forbes report. Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire, is selling his ability to make James a global brand. Chicago is another large market with enormous money-earning potential for James. So how will the small-market Cavaliers be able to appeal to James on those terms.
They'll appeal to his sensibilities. James knows himself that his fame will be hollow if he doesn't win NBA championships. That's why he has repeatedly maintained his decision will be based on basketball. Of course his earning potential is an important consideration, as well as the understanding -- shared by most people -- that winning those championships would have the biggest impact in New York, just as Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant have become bigger stars through their association with Los Angeles than if they'd played in smaller markets.
The Cavs will also know how to engage with James in a personal way. Before the Nets met with him Thursday, minority owner and friend of James', Jay-Z, was able to help New Jersey assemble a presentation that saw the future from James' point of view. Were the Knicks able to step outside their corporate perspective and connect in a personal way with the 25-year-old MVP? Probably not.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert has a big advantage in having developed a strong relationship with James and his management group over the years. By now Gilbert should understand James' priorities and how to marry them with Cleveland's ambitions.
But first things first: If James moves to New York or another big market and he doesn't win, then he'll deal with the same misery faced by Alex Rodriguez over his first six years with the Yankees when he was belittled as the big-money MVP who couldn't deliver titles. I continue to view the Cavs as favorites to retain James because they have an owner who has spent big money to win a lot of games in recent years, they still have the talent that helped win those games, and if James wins in his hometown he'll create a heartwarming biography that will draw fans to him. Especially if he decides to stay home after rejecting offers from the more glamorous cities.
That's why I continue to view Cleveland as the leader in this race. But who knows what he is thinking?
Too much money already spent? The Grizzlies shocked everyone by outlaying $82 million over five years to restricted free agent Rudy Gay, rather than wait to match a rival offer sheet that would have been front-loaded to the harm of their franchise. Could they have paid less money to keep Gay a year ago? Yes, but it was much harder to realize Gay's value a year ago, before the Grizzlies' breakthrough 40-win season. In the end this was a promising sign that Memphis is willing to spend money in order to make money. Of course it's more than owner Michael Heisley wanted to spend, but this is the price of doing NBA business. This is the market.
There has been similar surprise at some of the other early signings. Darko Milicic received $20 million over four years from the Timberwolves, who believe he can mature in their system to be a productive big man. Amir Johnson remained in Toronto for $34 million over five years, while Milwaukee gave Drew Gooden five years worth $32 million.
These are all middle-class signings. Gooden's last multi-year deal was worth $23 million over three seasons, so this amounts to a cut in pay that reflects the market. If the Bucks derive 12 points and eight rebounds per night from him, he'll be well worth his salary compared to some of the other contracts forthcoming in the NBA.
If the Bucks re-sign John Salmons, as expected, they'll have committed more than $100 million over the last month to him, Gooden, Corey Maggette and Carlos Delfino, whose option they picked up at $3.5 million. But this is how owner Herb Kohl runs the Bucks. He has long been willing to spend in a big way in spite of the size of his market. At least now the Bucks are offering middle-class salaries to middle-class players, which was something the NBA stopped doing in recent years.
Are the owners sending the "wrong message" to the players' union with these early signings? After all, the players are being asked to absorb salary cuts and shorter contracts in the next collective bargaining agreement. My own feeling is that these contracts are the start of a more cost-efficient trend. The league needs to rebuild its middle class. You can argue whether Milicic or Gooden are worthy of their new contracts, but the bottom line is that the contracts aren't enormous by recent league standards.
The real test will come when one or two of the teams with major cap space is unable to sign a big-name free agent. Will those shut-out teams spend their money extravagantly to make a splash? That will send a message to the players that things aren't nearly so bad as the owners are making it out to be.
Is the circus bad? This should be a dead month for the NBA, yet pro basketball is dominating the news with video of James entering a building in downtown Cleveland. I have heard people asking whether commissioner David Stern is upset by the idea of a "free agent summit" involving James, Wade and Bosh, or whether James last month was drawing attention away from the NBA Finals. I don't see it that way. Just the opposite: He has created a 24-hour news cycle for the NBA that never existed before. We haven't seen the last of it either, especially if James signs a short contract to renew this free-agent recruitment all over again two years from now.