By Chris Sheridan
So here we are, inside of 72 hours before the start of free agency, and there are those who are convinced the Chicago Bulls are the leading candidates to land LeBron James.
There is a compelling argument to be made in favor of that supposition (Chicago has the most talent in place with Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah already under contract for 2010-11), but will that argument hold up under further forward-looking scrutiny?
It's an important question, because in my conversations over the weekend with several league sources keyed into the maneuverings surrounding the start of free agency July 1, the dialogue consistently circled back to one pertinent point: When LeBron looks at what will surround him on his future team, especially when weighing Chicago vs. New York, he is going to have questions of his own.
• Will the owner (Jerry Reinsdorf) be willing to spend whatever it takes to surround him with the right type of supporting cast?
Let's not forget that Reinsdorf has a well-earned reputation as being one of the more frugal owners in the league (he broke up a dynasty following the 1998 three-peat in large part because he did not want to commit long-term dollars to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen for what would be the downsides of their careers). Noah becomes a restricted free agent in 2011, and Rose in 2012. Is Reinsdorf willing to commit $150 million or more in long-term dollars (plus luxury tax money) to those two players on top of what he would be paying James and another top-tier free agent?
James will have no such qualms when it comes to the wallet-opening tendencies of Jim Dolan, who has shelled out luxury tax payments from Cablevision's deep coffers to pay for horrible teams over the better part of the past decade.
• What do I know about the new coach, Tom Thibodeau?
The answer: Practically nothing when compared to what he knows of Mike D'Antoni. If you count up all the hours LeBron has spent on planes, trains, hotels and buses with D'Antoni since 2006, when the James first started playing under D'Antoni (and Mike Krzyzewski and Nate McMillan) with Team USA, you start running into the high triple-digits.
D'Antoni and James have been together for dinners at the Wynn resort in Las Vegas, at U.S. military bases in South Korea, at Morton's in Macau, at Starbucks in Shanghai, and inside the locker room in Beijing when James celebrated the greatest accomplishment of his professional career by winning an Olympic gold medal in 2008.
• Who is my 3-point shooter?
It won't be Kirk Hinrich, since he is heading to the Wizards on July 8. It won't be Rose, because he can't shoot the 3 (27 percent last season). It won't be Jannero Pargo, since he will be an unrestricted free agent and is not guaranteed to return, and it might not be Deng, because he may have to be used as a sign-and-trade chip to acquire that second max free agent (especially if that second player is Chris Bosh, who stands to make $30 million extra if he changes teams through a sign-and-trade deal).
With the Knicks, James would at least have Danilo Gallinari, who can stroke it so well that D'Antoni (in a mouthful of comment last fall) has described him as the best shooter he has ever seen.
• Can Rose play off the ball?
That is one of the great unknowns in this whole equation, because Rose has shown himself (like James) to be a player who is most effective when he has the ball in his hands to run the offense. Can Rose subjugate his game to be the type of spot-up shooter that Mo Williams was in Cleveland?
And what about the defensive end? Can Rose defend opposing point guards better than, or as well as, Toney Douglas can? Granted, Douglas is somewhat of an unknown on that level in the pros, and D'Antoni probably hurt himself in that department by limiting Douglas' minutes in favor of Chris Duhon last season. But Douglas was the defensive player of the year in the ACC during his final season at Florida State, and there's no taking that off his résumé.
• Can the Bulls improve themselves in the summer of 2011 as much as the Knicks can?
If the Bulls hang on to Deng and sign James and another max free agent, they will be over the cap in the summer of 2011 and will have only the mid-level exception to use (and there is a caveat there, too, since owners want to eliminate the MLE in the next collective bargaining agreement). If Deng is moved in a sign-and-trade, the Bulls will still be committed to at least $51 million in salaries for 2011-12, which would theoretically leave them some $5 million-6 million under the cap, thereby depriving them of the use of the mid-level exception (The MLE is not available to under-the-cap teams).
The Knicks, on the other hand, will have Eddy Curry's $11.3 million salary coming off the books a year from now. If New York has two max players, plus Gallinari, Douglas, Wilson Chandler and Bill Walker on the books for the '11-12 season, that adds up to roughly $45 million in salaries. And if the 2011-12 cap comes in at $56 million again, New York will have $11 million to spend on putting supplemental pieces around their core -- an especially salient point given that the owners are seeking a hard salary cap in the new labor agreement.
Just a little food for thought for y'all to chew on until, and after, 12:01 a.m. arrives Thursday.