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NBA Free Agency: The Clock Strikes Midnight

Posted on July 01, 2010 by Jonathan Stallsmith

LeBron James is the prize of a high-stakes free agent class.

“Bong!  Bong!  Bong!”  It sounds like the start of AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells,” and, last night, when the clock struck midnight, all hell broke loose.

Aside from the traditional Celtic playoff run, I don’t follow the NBA too closely.  (Although I did follow it closely enough to win two [of two] Fantasy Basketball leagues this year).  However, this offseason could be one of the most tumultuous we’ve ever experienced, so it’s time for me (and you) to clue in!

On July 1st (at midnight tonight), the bell will toll on the NBA’s free agency, and, this season, the bell tolls for several marquee free agents.

While the NBA tends to offer mega-contracts for mega-stars, there is talk that this year could be a re-shaping of values for some of the league’s highest profile players.

For about a year and a half, the NBA’s biggest rumors have circled around the league’s best player: LeBron James.  LeBron has spent his entire career with his local-in-Ohio Cleveland Cavaliers, and, at the age of 25, is entering his first go at the free agent market.  ESPN breaks down the pending free agency period, and, to put it simply, LeBron could command the maximum player contract.

While most expect LeBron to sign such a contract, there are rumors surfacing that he has met with two of the other top free agents: Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.  While those rumors were softly denied, it certainly raises some questions about the possibility of the three choosing to team together during this free agency period.

It’s widely expected among ESPN analysts that Wade will return to Miami.  The Heat currently have the most amount of money to spend and could easily sign two free agents to max contracts and still have money to spare for a third player.

The only other team with such potential are the New York Knicks, who, with $35 million available, are still $9 million behind the Heat ($44 million).  The Chicago Bulls and New Jersey Nets also have $30 million a piece which is just a little short of two max player contracts.

Whether Dwyane Wade stays in Miami or can be lured elsewhere will have a big impact on the rest of the signings.

With Wade likely staying put in South Florida, and, with the Heat’s available money, it could attract another star to Miami.  The question has been whether that would be James or Bosh.  Amar’e Stoudemire is also in the mix, and all three could provide a solid compliment in size to a floor master like Wade.

The rumored meeting of these big three, however, suggests that they might have more than just money on their minds.  Wade has already won a championship, but, already at 25, James will likely play out the rest of his prime with whatever team he chooses to sign.  That makes this choice significant because if he doesn’t lead this team to a championship, he might never get that chance.  LeBron’s decision could be the difference between playing for a dynasty that will go down in history or being the world-class player that never really won as much as his talent would have dictated.

A similar decision was made three years ago, when the Celtics rebuilt themselves into the renewed “Big 3” with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett.  The difference, however, was that the Celts pulled trades to draw Allen and Garnett to Boston, and all three players were starting to fade past their prime.  In 2007, those three knew that they needed to win then or it might never happen.  That was evident in this past NBA Finals, when a Celtic team with the same personnel lost to a similar Laker team that it had easily handled two years earlier.

Chris Bosh isn’t the most sought after but he will make a huge impact wherever he goes, especially if he can be coupled with another top player.

This opportunity is unprecedented since the institution of the salary cap.  With James at 25, Bosh at 26, and Wade at 28, these free agents have the opportunity to create a dynasty in their prime, instead of taking a desperate shot at a championship run at the end of their best years.

The NBA has rules on the amount of money a team can spend on players, but it has no regulation for preventing players from banding together to create basketball’s version of a monopoly.  If James, Wade, and Bosh could agree on contracts that didn’t all demand max player value, the three could conceivably end up on the same team for year’s to come (most likely, Miami, although New York could be in the mix).

I’m not going to make that guarantee, but the rumor of the three meeting together lends to that as a possibility.  Personally, I’ve always seen basketball as an individualized sport often focused around high profile players making a ridiculous amount of money and would support a potential paradigm shift, even if it ruined some of the league’s parity.

One of the reasons I got so excited about the Boston Celtics rejuvenation was the clear belief that each player was a part of the team, not a compilation of individuals wearing the same color jersey.  It would certainly go against the Jerry Maguire-ized “show me the money” image of the NBA and professional sports, in general, if James, Wade, and Bosh all took pay cuts in their most lucrative free agency period to win championships with one another.

As I said, I’m not sure that will happen, but with many general managers preparing for this moment for the past couple years, there is enough cap space on a few different teams to land multiple stars and create a few new powers in the NBA.

Here are my slightly under-researched predictions on where some of the top free agents will end up.

LeBron James – 1. Chicago Bulls, 2. New York Knicks, 3. Miami Heat – James will probably take a little longer to sign and by that time the Heat might have locked down Wade and either Stoudamire or Bosh.  The Knicks have long coveted James, but the Bulls are a stronger organization and a better bet to build a winner (James’ idol, Michael Jordan, proved that Chicago can be a winning city!).

Dwyane Wade – 1. Miami Heat, 2. New York Knicks, 3. New Jersey Nets – The latter two are included more for a formality of listing three teams.  Miami loves Wade and Wade’s always supported them.  With so much money to spend on him and a compliment of players to keep him happy, it’s unrealistic to see him going elsewhere.  With the ability to sign two max player contracts, the Knicks have something to offer.  The Nets don’t.  The Bulls don’t even make the list because, with Derrick Rose developing into a star, they won’t spend the money on Wade.

Chris Bosh – 1. Miami Heat, 2. Chicago Bulls, 3. New York Knicks – Bosh should try to make a move early.  With Wade expected to return to the Heat, he should make the commitment quickly.  The longer he waits, the more likely he’ll end up an odd man out of the tango or have to accept less money to join in the dance.  Chicago could be a good fit, but will probably be focused on LeBron.  The Knicks would probably be a worst-case scenario for both parties, unless they managed to surprise and land one of the previous two free agents.

Amar’e Stoudamire – 1. Phoenix Suns, 2. Miami Heat, 3. Chicago Bulls – I’m one of the few to mention Stoudamire’s name with the Bulls.  I think Stoudamire would like to play with Wade in Miami, but Bosh will beat him to the signing.  After those two are gone, LeBron will probably sign with the Bulls, who have the money for another high-profile free agent and could use a big man.  In the end, however, they might not offer the best money and Stoudamire will reluctantly return to Phoenix.

Joe Johnson – 1. Chicago Bulls, 2. New York Knicks, 3. Los Angeles Clippers – To get LeBron, the Bulls need to secure another top free agent.  Johnson fits the bill well and will ultimately blow to the windy city to compliment LeBron.  The Knicks would likely throw all the money they could at him once they started slipping on the other players’ lists.  Like, a muffin-top girl in the middle of the bar at 1 AM, the Clippers are always just a Plan D or E for most free agents, but they’re there if you’re out of other options.

Carlos Boozer – 1. New York Knicks, 2. New Jersey Nets, 3. Miami Heat – Most teams will likely chase the other free agents before addressing Boozer, which means that he’ll probably go to the biggest losers of those jackpots.  The Knicks seem like the kind of team that would offer Boozer more money than would be expected and, thus, give him no option but to sign.  Like a team situated just outside of New York City should be, the Nets are like a suburb of the Knicks (in short: see previous sentence).  Since Miami has so much cap space, they could make a pass at Boozer after signing Wade and Bosh, but couldn’t offer as much money as the two favorites, plus the frontline would be crowded with Bosh and Michael Beasley already there.  The Bulls could also come into play if they don’t spend their money on landing LeBron and Johnson (as I predict they will).

David Lee – 1. New Jersey Nets, 2. New York Knicks, 3. Utah Jazz – The Knicks probably hope to keep Lee, but might not pay enough attention early on, which would open the door for another team to court him.  The Nets are a good fit.  Once they get put on a secondary list by many of the other free agents they hoped to sign, they could snatch up Lee before the Knicks make an offer.  The Jazz could use him to replace Boozer.  Utah’s always loved their goofy, white guys!

Ray Allen – 1. Miami Heat, 2. Boston Celtics, 3. Chicago Bulls – For everything Wade does well, he’s not a three-point shooter (he shot only .300 in 2009-10 with 73 makes, and is a .289 career shooter behind the arc), so Allen could fill that deficiency.  Allen could be a perfect veteran to help expand the floor for the Heat, and they should have the money to offer him a good, short-term contract; a win-win for both sides.  The Celtics will definitely want him back and he’s proven he fits in well in Boston.  The Bulls would be interested if they missed out on some other options (like Johnson), as they’re short at the 2.

Paul Pierce – 1. Boston Celtics, 2. Los Angeles Clippers, 3. New Jersey Nets – It’d be naive to say that Pierce is definitely returning to Boston.  He wouldn’t have opted out of his contract if that had been the case.  However, he stands a chance at going down as one of the more memorable Celtics of all-time and should be careful to spurn a city that has always villainized turncoats (see Johnny Damon, Babe Ruth, and Benedict Arnold, himself).  That said, Pierce grew up in LA and could return home if the money was right.  The Nets are in here, because, being an odd team out of the free agent shuffle, they could have money to throw at Pierce and won’t want to come out completely empty handed from the whole dance.

Dirk Nowitzki – 1. Dallas Mavericks, 2. Dallas Mavericks, 3. Chicago Bulls – It’s very unlikely Nowitzki leaves Dallas, as can be seen by options one and two.  Chicago was just included as a food for thought, as it’s the only team that might actually consider him (the other, Miami, will be throwing it’s money elsewhere) and that would offer him as much of a winning opportunity as Dallas (I couldn’t imagine him leaving the Big D to try to rebuild New York or New Jersey).

Rudy Gay – 1. Memphis Grizzlies, 2. New York Knicks, 3. New Jersey Nets – Not many people give the Griz a chance at retaining Gay, but his case is different as he is the only restricted free agent in the bunch.  This gives Memphis the chance to match any offer, which it would be wise to do, so long as it can afford it.  The Grizzlies were close to being a contender last year, the difference between having Gay and letting him walk is the difference between making the 2011 Playoffs and finishing in the basement.  He’s not just a “swingman” on the court.  The Knicks seem like a probable destination since they can offer the money and will fail elsewhere in spending it.  The Nets would have to better the Knicks offer to land him.

Biggest Winners

1. Chicago Bulls – Make no mistake: it’s always been LeBron…and everybody else.  The team that lands LeBron hits the lottery!  Combine the addition of Joe Johnson with Derrick Rose and you have an instant top team in the Eastern Conference.

2. Miami Heat – Retaining the face of the franchise, Dwyane Wade, is an expectation.  It would be an epic failure if he got away.  However, the addition of Bosh and the under-the-radar add of a pure shooter like Allen could make this team a favorite in the East.

3. Phoenix Suns – You can’t always appreciate something until you’ve explored other options.  Stoudamire will realize that Phoenix isn’t as bad as he thought it was and return to a team that made it to the Western Conference Finals this past year.

Biggest Losers

1. New York Knicks – The Knicks should really host that show “Biggest Loser,” as they seem to “win” this contest every year.  The Knicks have been clearing cap space for years in anticipation of signing LeBron and a complimenting player.  When they miss on LeBron and Wade, they likely won’t draw Bosh or Stoudamire and dis-enchant Lee in the process.  Boozer certainly wasn’t the reason they’ve been opening all this cap space!

2. New Jersey Nets – The worst team in the league last year, the Nets can’t seem to get anything to go their way.  They didn’t even win the NBA Draft Lottery!  Stealing Lee from the Knicks gives them something to chuckle about, but they certainly won’t get the last laugh in an unsuccessful offseason.

3. Boston Celtics – Man! This isn’t boding well for an already weak Atlantic Division (New York, New Jersey, Boston, and Toronto also loses Bosh, plus, you can’t say many good things about Philadelphia!).  The loss of Allen and threat of losing Pierce would end the chance for this team to make another run at an NBA title without significantly rebuilding around Rajon Rondo.

You can read more from Jonathan on his sports blog.

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