Someone is missing a big opportunity by not making a fantasy game out of guessing where all of the NBA’s free agent pieces will land this summer. Indeed, the impending free agent frenzy has all of the feel of fantasy basketball, but with very real stakes. This is reality basketball at its hot-stove finest, and tracking the action – much less predicting it – will be nearly as difficult as keeping up with the trade induced hustle and bustle of last week’s NBA draft.
The Fourth of July is right around the corner, but in NBA circles, the fuses are lit and the fireworks are set to begin at midnight on Wednesday, or as it could soon be known, the First of LeBron. Free agent to be, LeBron James is the most anticipated and most coveted of what’s shaping up to be an All-Star cast of free agents, and will certainly have his impact on the shifting of the basketball landscape, but he won’t be alone in determining the collective fates of not only the rest of the market’s free agents, but also the basketball relevance going forward of a number of desperate cities.
When it comes to desperation, no player in this drama could be feeling more of it than the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland. Having famously lost their football team a little more than a decade ago, and having seen their baseball team part company with the likes of CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Casey Blake, and Victor Martinez from a team that was 1 game away from the World Series just 3 seasons ago, it’d still be fair to say that losing LeBron would trump them all in terms of disaster for a sports city.
If Cleveland can’t keep the prodigal son home, to play for a team that he’s led to the best record in the NBA in each of the past two seasons, then how do they manage to convince anyone else to play there?
LeBron’s decision to play in Cleveland though should go beyond simply what he means to the city and their sports dreams. At every turn so far in his career, LeBron has shown a healthy dose of historical perspective, and respect for those who have come before him. If he were to leave Cleveland, align himself with superstars, and emerge an NBA champion, he’ll be just that, a champion. But if LeBron wants to be considered alongside the all time greats, then he’ll need to see through the job he began in Cleveland, the job he began as the consolation prize to the NBA’s worst team, the job that he was seemingly born to do.
And for their part, Cleveland has done everything possible to try and build themselves into a sustainable contender around LeBron. The fact that they haven’t quite gotten there is testament to how difficult it can be, but the Cavs are close, and they’re trying. LeBron will be able to stay there, hand pick his coach and GM, and at least a new running mate or two. Besides, how many balls do they plan on using in Chicago? There’s no way LeBron, DeWayne Wade and Chris Bosh could all coexist in a system that already has Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
My money says LeBron is staying in Cleveland, to do otherwise would be heartless, on a number of levels. I’m also guessing that Carlos Boozer winds up back there with him. Boozer’s game has come a long way since the one season he spent with LeBron in Cleveland. Throw in a shooter like Ray Allen or Mike Miller, and LeBron has a team that could challenge for a title, while leaving no doubt about who’s driving the bus. Historical legacy intact, there should be a title or two in James’ and the Cavs’ futures, but not before LeBron gets a chance to hear just how badly everyone else needs him too.
The big spending Bulls will probably lose out on James, but should still be able to cash in big in free agency. With seemingly the most financial flexibility of the major contenders, the Bulls not only have the money to hand out a couple of max contracts, but also have some players left on the roster, meaning that sign and trade deals, which pay more, are very possible with Chicago, as opposed to Miami who has only Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers and future draft picks to use as trade bait.
My guess is that the Bulls land Bosh and Wade to pair with Rose and Noah, leaving new head coach Tom Thibodeau with a loaded roster and other worldly expectations, and leaving Miami scrambling to spend their free agent money. This would also leave Eric Spoelstra likely employed as head coach of the Heat, as Pat Riley won’t likely be back to coach a team not primed for championship glory.
The scrambling Heat will likely, in my estimation, end up with Rudy Gay, David Lee and Jordan Farmar; a far cry from the star studded class likely in Miami’s crosshairs at present. Still, if the Heat are unable to land Bosh or James, it’s doubtful that Wade, perhaps the most outspoken of the prospective free agents about his desire to align with a loaded team, if not to build one in Miami, would stay. In Gay and Lee, the Heat would land 2 young stars, but not max deal superstars, leaving them some financial flexibility to navigate through the remainder of the exceedingly deep class of free agent role players. If Paul Pierce opts out in Boston, the Heat could make a run at him too. Otherwise they may be content to stand pat until next season, saving some financial flexibility for an offseason that won’t be as deep in star power, but one that will also be taking place under new, perhaps more owner friendly collective bargaining.
That leaves the Knicks with lots of money and seemingly few options, but in the absence of LeBron and/or Bosh, you cab bet that the Knicks would look to reunite head coach Mike D’Antoni with a couple of familiar faces. Reports are already circulating that the Knicks plan to offer Joe Johnson a max deal. If they do, he should jump on it, after the post season that he and the Hawks put together, that type of offer, for Johnson, could be fleeting. Expect the Knicks to go, guns blazing, after Amare Stoudamire too. Both players are familiar with D’Antoni and his system, as is D’Antoni with them. The Knicks have been gearing up for this summer for longer than anyone. Should they lose out on LeBron, don’t expect them to go quietly off into the sunset. Let’s also not forget though, that even with MVP Steve Nash at the helm, Stoudamire, Johnson and D’Antoni came up short in Phoenix, there’s no Steve Nash on the Knicks current roster, and I’m not sure how they’d pay him even if they could land Nash, who could be on the trade market this summer too.
Lastly, don’t expect the Nets to sit back quietly with all of their new money and nowhere to spend it. Ravaged by illness and injuries last season, the Nets are far more talented than last season’s NBA worst finish would indicate, and began to play that way at season’s end. Having addressed the 4/5 spot in the draft by adding Derrick Favors to Brook Lopez in the frontcourt, perhaps new head coach Avery Johnson could coax Dirk Nowitzki to forego the final year of his current contract, and join him for the opening of the Nets’ new arena in Newark. With Devan Harris and Courtney Lee in the backcourt and Favors and Lopez up front, Dirk could play a true 3 in Jersey and would be a perfect mentor for the underachieving Yi Jianlian.
Phil Jackson retires and Byron Scott takes over in LA.
Doc Rivers takes off a season and Brian Shaw takes over in Boston.
Cavs try to persuade Jeff Van Gundy, Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, Mike Kryzewski and John Calipari unsuccessfully before settling on Lawrence Frank, Mo Cheeks or Sam Mitchell.
Yao stays in Houston
Tyson Chandler to Dallas or Phoenix
Al Jefferson traded to Raptors or Suns
K-Mart stays in Denver
Michael Redd to Orlando.
Shaq to Houston
Richard Jefferson and Manu Ginobilli stay in San Antonio.
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