My gut feeling: LeBron will have to choose among three teams
LeBron has no choice but to narrow his choices to Cleveland, Miami and Chicago
A league source insists Chris Bosh has ruled out a sign-and-trade to Cleveland
My hunch: Bosh and Dwyane Wade will announce decisions before LeBron
This is an attempt to make sense of the market, which has been boiled down to four big names remaining in the pot (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer), five teams with max cap space (Miami, New Jersey, Chicago, New York and the Clippers) as well as the franchise with the most to lose (Cleveland). James will announce his decision Thursday night at 9 p.m. on ESPN, and my reading is that he will be left to choose from as many as three compelling teams that clearly are offering him the best opportunity to win -- and winning has always been the No. 1 criterion, according to James himself.
A league source insists that Bosh has ruled out a sign-and-trade to Cleveland. With the Cavs unlikely to sign-and-trade for Boozer -- whose bridge to Cleveland was torched when the Cavs made him a free agent in 2004 and he responded by signing with Utah -- it appears likely that the Cavs will make no major changes this week around James, other than to pair him with a new coach in Byron Scott.
Maybe Scott's impressive résumé is enough to keep James in Cleveland. After all, the Cavs won 127 games the last two seasons, and Scott -- who won three championship rings alongside Magic Johnson -- promises to command more respect from James while installing an up-tempo offense to feature him in the open floor.
The longer the three biggest names -- James, Wade and Bosh -- remain available while the Heat keep open their cap space, the more credible becomes the option of all three joining with team president Pat Riley in Miami.
But these three questions have to be answered first:
Can Wade and James play together? All the Shaq-and-Kobe warnings won't matter so long as James and Wade believe they can thrive as a tandem. Why should they care what anyone else thinks? If they think it can work, they'll have the opportunity to make it work.
Will each accept less money to make it work? The obvious way for each player to approach a max salary of more than $16 million next season is for Miami to acquire Bosh in a sign-and-trade that would send Michael Beasley to Toronto. But the Raptors are not interested in acquiring Beasley, according to a well-placed league source. Maybe the Heat can create the space by dumping Beasley's $5 million salary elsewhere. Or maybe James, Wade and Bosh can be convinced to accept less money than they could earn elsewhere -- which in itself would be a public-relations benefit as proof that winning championships together was more important than maxing out financially as individuals. Even so, this is a major obstacle.
Would Bosh accept being the No. 3 option? If James and Wade are willing to share the credit, shouldn't Bosh be willing to do the same? If Bosh doesn't come, Riley can turn to rival power forward Boozer -- the other remaining big name in play, who also happens to own an offseason home in Miami -- to serve as the finisher in the post.
Since James would be giving up the sixth year of his contract by signing outright with the Heat, he could reduce his risk by signing a shorter deal that could enable him to become a free agent in a few years, just in case things aren't working out for him in Miami.
If this is a game of poker, Riley has been sitting quietly at the table with the biggest pile of chips and the most mysterious hand of cards. If James, Wade and Bosh were to team together in Miami, they would be proving emphatically that winning championships is more important than the individualistic goals associated with young NBA players. They don't have to stay together forever -- when Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant broke up, each went on to win a championship or two on his own.
For the first time I'm viewing Miami as a serious option for James. Otherwise the Heat would have headed down another road by now.
A third credible option for James is to move to Chicago, where he would join with All-Star point guard Derrick Rose, center Joakim Noah and either Bosh (through a sign-and-trade, in which the Bulls would try to avoid losing Noah) or Boozer at power forward. Luol Deng could also start alongside James (forcing one of them to play out of position) or come off the bench.
Chicago has a rookie coach in Tom Thibodeau, and that is one concern for the Bulls. Another is the lack of shooting around James.
Miami faces similar questions of shooting and depth, but it has Riley to step in as coach if need be -- he's already hinted at that possibility. And the group dynamic of Riley managing James, Wade and Bosh or Boozer surely trumps Chicago's package of Thibodeau overseeing James, Rose and Bosh/Boozer.
The other contenders don't measure up. The Knicks have room for one max player to join with Amar'e Stoudemire, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler; they are now embarking on a longer-term two-year plan to add another star next offseason after Eddy Curry's contract comes off the books. Everything about the Nets is under construction: their Brooklyn arena, their hiring of a GM and their roster around young Brook Lopez, Devin Harris and raw rookie Derrick Favors. Then there are the Clippers, who are and always will be the Clippers.
My view is that James has no choice but to narrow his final choice among Cleveland, Miami and Chicago.
Can he play with Wade? That remains the fundamental question. Do the basketball math on a quartet of James, Wade, Bosh and Riley. The Cavs should be very worried indeed.
His default position is to re-sign with Miami -- just as James' default is to remain in Cleveland -- unless he's faced with a more compelling offer. What if James decides against moving to Miami and the Heat are unable to acquire Bosh in a sign-and-trade?
If no stars are headed to Miami to play with him, then suddenly the opportunities for Wade to play in Chicago, New York or even New Jersey may grow more attractive to him.
It makes sense for Wade to make his decision before James, because why should James declare his intentions before everything is in place? He has undoubtedly spent the last few days communicating with and gauging his fellow free agents while negotiating different scenarios that would put him in the best position to win. It figures that Bosh and Wade will be off the board by the time James makes his announcement.
This is the guy to watch. If he commits to Miami, you can expect Wade to join him there because Bosh is the most attractive big man on the market. If word should leak that both Bosh and Wade are willing to accept less money, James may be on the way to Miami too.
If Bosh goes to Chicago in a cap-clearing sign-and-trade that leaves the Bulls with enough room for another max player, that opens the door for Wade to join him there.
Here's a third one: Let's say Bosh goes to Chicago in a sign-and-trade and Wade ends up committing to New York. Would that mean Wade was unable to return to his hometown of Chicago because James has decided to go there?
And now for another possibility: Bosh could choose to accept a sign-and-trade to his home state of Texas -- in which case he's likely headed to the Rockets -- which would throw the market into further upheaval.
All season I've predicted that James will re-sign with Cleveland, and that may yet happen. But with decisions expected to come soon, it is going to be difficult for the Cavaliers to watch from the sideline as these maneuverings play themselves out.