Originally Published: July 7, 2010

1. A New Final Four For the East?

By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

That earthquake you just felt was the balance of power shifting south in the Eastern Conference. If reports are true that LeBron James will announce he's signing with the Miami Heat on his made-for-TV extravaganza Thursday night, we can immediately elevate the Heat into the ranks of the contenders and demote the Cavaliers to the also-ran scrap heap.

Forget about the black-and-blue battles between Cleveland and Boston; in 2011, the Eastern Conference finals are looking a lot more like the Florida state championship. That will be particularly true if Orlando's Dwight Howard gets his wish and the Magic are able to add New Orleans point guard Chris Paul later this summer. The one piece of good news for Hornets fans on that front is the higher-than-expected salary-cap number also diminished the Hornets' luxury-tax concerns.

Regardless, this move would create a new landscape in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland had the conference's best record the past two seasons; I'll go out on a limb and say it won't three-peat without LeBron. The Cavs would still have some pieces in place to put together a decent team -- in addition to quasi-stars Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao and Antawn Jamison, Cleveland would be $13 million or so under the cap once it got rid of Delonte West's non-guaranteed deal (incidentally, the Cavs might prefer having that cap space to the trade exception they would get from sign-and-trading LeBron, not to mention helping them avoid the stigma of trading the best athlete in the city's history). That said, without LeBron they're going to be scraping to make the playoffs the next two years instead of competing for championships.

Meanwhile, a move to Miami by LeBron would mean there's a new elite in the East. The list of favorites would have to begin with the new kid on the block, the Heat, though Team Trinity and the Miami Minimums would have plenty of question marks, as the three stars would probably have a slew of retreads and point guard Mario Chalmers surrounding them.

Would they be the East favorites? Here's how I rank them in midsummer:

1. Orlando. The Magic have won 59 games each of the past two years and proved their mettle in the playoffs, where they won the East in 2009 and made the conference finals in 2010. Additionally, only one weapon has proved effective against the Magic in the playoffs: a center who can check Howard. The Heat, despite their assets, lack that type of big man, and won't be getting one in the coming months for the wages they're offering. If they somehow stumble into Shaquille O'Neal or Kendrick Perkins, we can revisit this, but for now Orlando has the advantage.

2. Miami. It's tough to get excited about a team that lists "Replacement Player X" at six of the 10 rotation spots. But it becomes much, much easier if three of the other four spots are occupied by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. My previous analysis showed they'd be a 60-win team if they had good health from their three stars, and since the Heat will be a beacon for veterans waived late in the season, Miami should be even stronger in the playoffs. If it isn't the team to beat, it certainly is on the short list. Unfortunately, the Howard matchup looms large in any postseason scenario, and that's the one base the Heat haven't covered.

3. Boston. The one team that does have an antidote to Orlando's Howard is Boston -- we think. The Celtics won the East largely because Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace could single-cover Howard in the Eastern Conference finals, and the Magic offense got stuck in the resulting muck.

With Perkins recovering from knee surgery and Wallace contemplating retirement, however, it's an open question whether the Celtics can do it again. Additionally, their core players all are a year older, making it tougher for Boston to earn a good playoff seed. And remember, it might not get the desired matchup with Orlando if it draws Miami in the second round on the other side of the bracket.

4. Chicago. Adding Carlos Boozer won't do it alone, but the Bulls still have about $18 million to spend on shooters and wing players and may be able to parlay small forward Luol Deng into a wingman who fits their Rose-Boozer-Noah core a bit better. We don't know exactly what pieces they'll add, but if Chicago can use the cash to add some shooting and one more big man, it's going to be a handful. I think that's a reasonable assumption, and I think that makes the Bulls the fourth serious contender in the East this season.

As for the others, I suppose stranger things have happened, but I'm not feeling it. Atlanta had everything go about as well as it could possibly go, won 53 games and lost in four games in the second round. Its ceiling seems pretty well defined.

Milwaukee has made some interesting moves to add more scoring after a surprisingly successful campaign a year ago, but without any star talent it's tough to see the Bucks making a push for the upper crust either.

Charlotte and Cleveland were last year's other two Eastern Conference playoff teams. We noted Cleveland's problems, and I think that while the Bobcats will be competitive, they're not going to be in the top four. And none of last year's lottery teams seem prepped to make a run for glory either -- I think we can rule out a 2002 Nets-type scenario.

As a result, all eyes are on Florida. If LeBron joins the Miami Thrice attack, it appears that free agency will upend two of the top four spots in the Eastern Conference hierarchy … even if the Heat aren't able to emerge as conference champions in Year 1.

John Hollinger is a regular contributor to the Daily Dime.

Free Agency Dimes past: June 30 | July 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

2. Wilbon On LeBron, Wade And Bosh

3. Wade, Bosh To Sign With Heat

By Chris Broussard | ESPN.com

Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are teaming up together on the Miami Heat, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

ESPN's Shelley Smith also reported the pending move through independent sources.

Whether LeBron James -- the kingpin of this summer's celebrated free-agent class -- will join them remains to be seen. James will announce his decision at 9 p.m. ET Thursday during a one-hour special on ESPN.

Wade and Bosh are expected to announce their decision Wednesday afternoon, according to the source, and continue to lobby James, along with Heat president Pat Riley, to join them in Miami, despite the financial complexities involved for the Heat to make room for all three.

Both players are expected to get the maximum amount allowable under the league's collective bargaining agreement, though the addition of James could change the players' salaries. Contracts cannot be officially signed until Thursday.

To read the entire column, here.

4. Daily Dime Live Wrap

ESPN.com writers and TrueHoop Network bloggers chatted with fans, giving their opinions about free agency -- all in Daily Dime Live.


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