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The Heat and the Bulls are now the favorites in the free-agent sweepstakes
The summer of LeBron James begins Thursday, when teams can make their long-anticipated bids to recruit the best free-agent class in league history, and the Bulls and the Heat may have moved to the front of the pack. It's true that no team has accrued more cap space than the Knicks, who have an estimated $34.5 million to spend, but even if James and Chris Bosh moved to New York, the Knicks would need at least one more year to add complementary stars and role players around them. Chicago and Miami, both deeper, will be dealing from stronger hands.
The Bulls' bold decision to trade their No. 17 pick, along with Kirk Hinrich's $9 million salary, to the Wizards will probably leave Chicago with $29.9 million in cap space—enough for a max contract and another near-max deal—to go with its alluring core of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, each of whom is 25 or younger. The Heat unloaded its No. 18 pick along with the $2.2 million salary of Daequan Cook to the Thunder, and could have up to $27.5 million to spend on a max deal and another salary of close to $11 million on players to join Dwyane Wade, who is expected to re-sign with Miami.
The Heat also offers the championship résumé of team president Pat Riley, who leads his rival recruiters in credibility and charisma: League sources praise Riley for developing the underground intelligence and grassroots connections that could make all the difference on July 8, when free agents can be signed to new deals. "I've been at this for two years now," says Riley, who has hinted at returning as coach if it will entice one or more stars to Miami. "We'll go out there and see what the market's all about and where the pieces end up landing."
The market will hinge on whether James decides to play alongside Wade in Miami—a dominating yet potentially fragile partnership that would depend on the willingness of two peaking rivals to defer to one another. If James passes on the Heat, the pressure will grow on him to make a quick decision because he and Wade will suddenly be competing to recruit superstar teammates. The advantage may go to Wade, as he and Riley should be able to work together instantaneously to bid on players from a group that could include Bosh, Joe Johnson, Amar'e Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer.
Don't dismiss Cleveland as a contender to retain James. The Cavaliers have a deep roster capable of eliciting a sign-and-trade deal that would provide close to $30 million in additional salary for Bosh, Stoudemire or Johnson beyond what they could get on the open market.
As important as cap space has become over the last two years, the outcome of the weeks ahead will be dictated by inside information and audacious gamesmanship. That's why Riley could emerge as the biggest winner of all.