Updated: February 19, 2010, 10:13 AM ET

1. NBA Trading Deadline: Everybody's A Winner

By J.A. Adande

So many teams got exactly what they were looking for that it feels less like an NBA trading market and more like a Saturday youth soccer league. Certificates for everyone!

About the only way to lose was if you didn't participate, which is what happened to a Phoenix Suns team that couldn't find a way to move Amare Stoudemire and now risks losing him for zip-zero in return as an unrestricted free agent, or watching him stick them with a $17.7 million tab if he exercises the option for the final year of his contract.

According to one source, the Rockets tried to make a last-hour run at Stoudemire, offering Shane Battier, Luis Scola, Brian Cook, a Rockets draft pick and one of the picks the Rockets acquired from the New York Knicks. Because of the lateness of the hour the Suns wanted to waive the physical examinations for the players involved. The Rockets didn't want to do that for Stoudemire, who has had two major knee surgeries, so the proposal died and the Suns didn't make the long list of satisfied customers.

The Cavaliers got their sought-after "stretch 4" and held onto J.J. Hickson. The Wizards satisfied their search for financial relief, young talent and a draft pick as they began the tear-down phase of their overhaul. The Boston Celtics got a boost for their bench in Nate Robinson. The Knicks got the coveted cap space to make a run at two max free agents, which is what they've promised their fans over the past two seasons of mediocrity. The Kings moved the heavy contract of Kevin Martin, who became the scoring threat the Rockets craved. The Trail Blazers got Marcus Camby to replace their two injured centers. The Bucks got shooting guard John Salmons to fill in for the latest knee blowout of Michael Redd. The Bobcats bolstered their front line with Tyrus Thomas. The Grizzlies added to their undermanned bench by securing Ronnie Brewer. The Clippers and the Bulls got the cap space to enter the summer free-agent sweepstakes.

That's more than one-third of the league meriting kudos. Congrats. Enjoy it for a little while. Bask in the euphoria.

Then brace for the harsh reality that this will be the most heartbreaking summer in NBA history. Six teams have cleared sufficient salary-cap room to offer a maximum contract to free agents this summer: the Knicks, Bulls, Heat, Nets, Clippers and Wizards. And it's possible none of them ends up with LeBron James. Or else he does go somewhere, disappoints the other five suitors and absolutely devastates the city of Cleveland.

And yes, I realize there are other free agents. That's exactly what they are -- others. As one general manager put it, there's LeBron and then there's the rest. He is the only one who can single-handedly elevate a team into contender status. Sure, Dwyane Wade has shown he can lead a team to a championship. He also couldn't get the Heat past the first round of the 2009 playoffs coming off the best season of his career.

There are plenty of perfectly fine players among the group of Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer and Joe Johnson who figure to command big salaries. But how many can sell tickets and boost TV ratings? How many are puppet-campaign-worthy?

Anyone who gets them will improve their team. They'll also be settling for the consolation prize. And some teams will get shut out entirely. Six teams with max slots and only five players worthy of that kind of money. This is going to be the world's most expensive game of musical chairs.

The real story is finding a throne for King James. And I think those of us who aren't in Cleveland can't understand just how much is at stake. One of the most depressing sentences I've ever read in sports came in Bud Shaw's Plain Dealer column this week.

"Not winning a title with James would waste a Heaven-sent stroke of good fortune in a city struggling to keep its chin up everywhere except inside The Q," Shaw wrote.

So LeBron is the only thing the city has going for it? That means it only takes one man signing his name to a contract that doesn't have "Cleveland Cavaliers" in the letterhead and the city is done.

It would take a strike of Broadway actors, a fire that razes Central Park and a vermin infestation that shuts down every restaurant in town to make New York sour. Miami and L.A. will stop being attractive destinations when the sun burns out, and by then the rest of the planet won't be too appealing, either. No need to worry about the fate of either metropolis. Besides, Miami fans took their time getting to the arena the last time James came to visit. Not sure they'd really appreciate the opportunity to watch him on a nightly basis. And Lakers fans still have the option to go see Kobe if LeBron doesn't join the Clippers.

Bulls fans should be used to free-agent snubs. Chicago was the supposed destination for Kevin Garnett once. Or Grant Hill. Or was it Tracy McGrady? Ever see any of them in red and black?

And of course this thing never works out for the Clippers. They flirted with Ray Allen once, only to settle for Cuttino Mobley. They snagged Baron Davis to go with Elton Brand -- except they lost the Brand part. Now they just cleared the cap space to go after LeBron by participating in the trade that brought Antawn Jamison to the Cavaliers and gave LeBron less of a reason to leave.

And the Nets? Do we really believe a premier free agent is going to join the remnants of a historically bad team to play out the final days of an outdated arena in the Jersey swamplands while the new Brooklyn digs are built?

Washington hoop fans are some of the savviest in the country and deserve so much better than what they have. Except the Wizards could possibly be trying to woo free agents at the same time they try to void Gilbert Arenas' contract. Not the way to create a player-friendly tone.

So cap space is just that -- an empty void. For now it can be filled by the imagination.

The reality is only 17 NBA franchises have ever won championships, the least diversity among the major pro leagues. And this summer's free agency, for all of its fanfare, doesn't figure to expand the pool of applicants.

Enjoy those certificates for participation.

J.A. Adande is a columnist for ESPN.com.

Dimes past: Feb. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 6-7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 16 | 17

2. Don't Count Out The Nuggets

By Brian Windhorst
Special to ESPN.com

CLEVELAND -- The Lakers are regarded as the heavy favorite to win the Western Conference, and the Utah Jazz are regarded as its hottest team at the moment. But the Nuggets served a reminder Thursday why no one should be discounting their chances to win the West or the whole thing this season.

Stepping into Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs had won 11 in a row and were riding a 13-game winning streak overall, the Nuggets defeated the NBA-best Cavs 118-116 in overtime. It was the second time since the new year the Nuggets have beaten the Cavs, who are a sizzling 28-5 over their past 33 games. The Nuggets have also won in Utah and in Los Angeles against the Lakers, another team they have beaten twice this season, since Jan. 1.

Denver did it despite absorbing a 43-point, 13-rebound, 15-assist game from LeBron James. The Cavs had been undefeated when shooting 50 percent or better from the field and had been 33-1 when scoring 100 points. Both of those trends fell by the wayside when Carmelo Anthony drained a 20-footer with 1.9 seconds left.

"It was a great win for us," said Chauncey Billups, who had 18 points. "This is an unbelievable way to start the second half of the season."

The Cavs are 4-1 against the Magic, Celtics and Hawks in the East. With the exception of the Nuggets, the Cavs are 10-2 against the top eight teams in the West. But the Nuggets have gotten them twice, both by two-point margins, to send a message.

Denver has had its share of bad losses -- home defeats to the 76ers and Timberwolves being at the top of the list -- but if the Nuggets somehow see the Cavs in the Finals, they may have a nice advantage.

The Cavs have one of the best big-man rotations in the league, led by Shaquille O'Neal. But the Cavs have trouble dealing with Kenyon Martin's quickness to the glass and Chris Andersen's activity. Martin had 19 points and 12 rebounds in the win in Denver and 18 points and 17 rebounds Thursday.

Billups, who knows the Cavs well from his Pistons days, has sliced up the Cavs in pick-and-roll offense, averaging 20.5 points in the two games.

"We seem to play with a little more pizzazz when we play the good teams," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "We talked about being able to turn up the seriousness and to tune up every game having a value."

Brian Windhorst covers the Cavs for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

3. Daily Dime Live Recap

ESPN.com writers and TrueHoop Network bloggers chatted with fans and gave their in-game opinions throughout Thursday's games -- all in Daily Dime Live.

4. Questions Loom About Del Negro's Future

By Melissa Isaacson
Del Negro

The atmosphere somehow just felt lighter at the Berto Center on Thursday. As did the Bulls' payroll.

By ridding the team of perpetual pouter Tyrus Thomas and unloading the contract of John Salmons and creating $20 million of cap room to play with this summer, Bulls general manager Gar Forman said the trades with Charlotte and Milwaukee, respectively, set up the Bulls for the future.

And indeed, the big picture looks a lot more promising for Chicago than it did Wednesday. But there is still the matter of the proverbial elephant in the room -- in this case the one with black hair parted in the middle who answers to the name "Vinny."

To read the entire Isaacson column, click here.


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