Get your checkbooks ready -- the free-agent market is officially open. Where should the biggest names available end up? We play matchmaker on Day 1 of free agency.
1. LeBron James should sign with the _____________.
Bradford Doolittle, ESPN Insider: Heat. The easiest path to the Finals is in the East, and with a little tweaking, a bolstered Miami roster would still be the favorite, even if Carmelo Anthony ends up in Chicago. But I'd keep long-term flexibility, because some marquee franchises will be in play next season if they can make the right moves over the next 12 months. Winning titles for the Knicks or Lakers could bolster James' eventual GOAT case.
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN: Heat, although the fact that he's requesting the maximum contract for next season, if true, would seem to complicate matters. The idea of all of the Big Three opting out was supposed to be to give Miami significant flexibility with which to sign free agents. If LeBron James takes the max, it wouldn't leave much room for improvement in the roster. Then, maybe, other options would have increased attractiveness.
Andrew Han, TrueHoop Network: Hawks. With their general manager and coach sporting strong San Antonio ties, the Hawks are like a Georgian franchise of the Spurs. Atlanta secured an 8-seed sans its All-Star big man and a healthy bench. Add James and the return of Al Horford? LeBron would be joining a system constructed on Spursian tenets, in a vastly easier East.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Heat. What a basic, boring choice, right? LeBron has something to gain from cultivating a local base of support in South Florida. Move around too much and you aren't remembered as fervently or fondly. Also, with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh opting out of their contracts, it looks like the Heat have room to furnish the roster with talent.
Royce Young, ESPN.com: Heat. The chips are falling exactly as they need to, or probably, as they were designed to. With Dwyane Wade opting out and likely to re-sign for a reduced rate, the Heat can add the necessary pieces around LeBron while still maintaining the top-level talent necessary. Plus, anywhere he goes, he's not finding another Pat Riley, the puppet master pulling all the right strings.
2. Carmelo Anthony should sign with the _____________.
Doolittle: Bulls. As long as Anthony can stomach a loss of income, Chicago presents the perfect mix of fit, coaching and existing talent. Melo and the Bulls need each other.
Gutierrez: Bulls. He's probably OK with the idea of being a Knick for the rest of his career and chasing a single championship there. But if he wants more of a certainty, he'd sign with the Bulls. What's the bigger gamble: that Phil Jackson can build a champion in the next five years, or that Derrick Rose can return to MVP form? That might be a question Melo asks himself.
Han: Bulls. In the Thibodeau era, the Bulls have struggled to consistently put points on the board. Anthony has lacked consistent engagement defensively. Is there a more potentially symbiotic situation between star and team? Melo's arrival would take the offensive burden off Derrick Rose, who is now a distinct question mark after a two-year hiatus. And as long as Melo buys in, Thibodeau has proven to be able to build a stalwart defense with nearly any player.
Strauss: Bulls. The fit just makes too much sense. Anthony gets to play in a big market, surrounded by great team defenders who have a need for his shot creation. One note: I propose we have a moratorium on the phrase, "With a healthy Derrick Rose." I'm not willing to consider that possibility till I actually see it happen.
Young: Bulls. There's a glaring, obvious hole at small forward in Chicago, along with a glaring, obvious hole for defense. Anthony's main issue has always been the defensive end, but Tom Thibodeau's genius would either mask that, or work around it. A healthy Derrick Rose plus the tenacity of Joakim Noah means that Anthony would not only maintain his spotlight, but he'd be stepping into a situation instantly more competitive than the Knicks.
3. Dwyane Wade should sign with the _____________.
Doolittle: Heat. Even when the big three disperse, which may or may not happen in a few days, Wade has earned a late-career joy ride in Miami. Then he can buy into the team when he retires.
Gutierrez: Heat. He really can do no wrong by re-signing with Miami. It only ensures he'll have a position with this franchise for as long as he wants one. And if LeBron leaves, he still has Riley working to get a competitive team around him.
Han: Spurs. Wade missed 28 games this past regular season. You know who's at the forefront of player rest? Gregg Popovich. If Wade has interest in playing and winning for as long as possible, the consensus best coach in the league can no doubt help accomplish that while also shaping a role to best fit Wade's career trajectory. And Wade's seen it first hand: the past two Finals have been an in-action résumé.
Strauss: Heat. Other than rejuvenating his career with the help of the Phoenix Suns' medical staff, it's hard to find plausible alternatives for Wade. Miami makes the most sense, as it's a franchise he built from the ground up. Wade is historically underrated because the national spotlight wasn't on Miami till the Decision (it wasn't like the 2006 Finals drew massive ratings), but there's nothing wrong with maintaining your status as a revered local figure.
Young: Heat. Hitch that wagon to LeBron and never, ever let it go. There's plenty of sentimental value in the Bulls, sure, but really, there's as much or more in staying with the Heat, too.
4. Chris Bosh should sign with the _____________.
Doolittle: Heat. If James stays, there's no reason for Bosh to leave a city that by all accounts he really likes. Miami may be the best place for Bosh even if James leaves. There's no better backdrop for coding than the beachfront.
Gutierrez: Heat. Best-case scenario for Bosh is this: LeBron re-signs and he'll still be on a championship-caliber team for years to come. Worst-case scenario for Bosh is this: He and Wade re-sign in Miami, and Erik Spoelstra is forced to feature Bosh more in the offense, which is what he'd get if he left.
Han: Warriors. If Klay Thompson is too high a price to pay for Kevin Love, in some ways, Bosh would be an even better fit. He's an excellent midrange shooter, and while not quite as prolific from 3-point range as Love, Bosh is more than acceptable. The real difference is that Chris Bosh is a vastly superior defender, giving the Warriors the potential to have the best offense and defense in the league.
Strauss: Heat. I'm just basing this off Bosh's own words, since he floated the idea of taking less money to stay even before opting out of his contract. He loves it in Miami, even if he'd get more shots and money elsewhere. While the idea of Bosh in Houston is intriguing, he'd still have to cope with being a third option. Miami makes the most sense.
Young: Spurs. If we're playing a game of who should Bosh sign with, the Spurs are a pretty tremendous fit. Bosh is already a two-time champion, so he doesn't have a lot to prove in that regard, but he could resume his role as being a primary option while still being able to fit within an offense, which is obviously his preference. Bosh is an incredibly unselfish player and would seemingly fit in beautifully alongside Tim Duncan, and eventually maybe become an ideal successor.
5. Lance Stephenson should sign with the _____________.
Doolittle: Pacers. Someday, Lance Stephenson may be ready to step away from the strong support system he has in Indiana, but I don't feel like he's there yet, and it's doubtful the Pacers' offer will be blown out of the water.
Gutierrez: Rockets. That team might be shooting higher than Stephenson in free agency, but if Houston swings and misses at Melo and LeBron, Stephenson would add the right amount of nasty to that Rockets lineup, while still keeping him in a situation where he's not carrying too much responsibility. Plus, he can handle some point guard duty if Houston moves Jeremy Lin. If that happens, the Rockets can also bid high on Lance.
Han: Bucks. It may seem like a step back after being key to a back-to-back conference finalist, but there were clear locker room woes this past season. The Bucks can offer a higher salary than almost any other team, have a positional fit next to Brandon Knight and can offer Stephenson the chance to captain an exciting younger roster under the newly minted Coach Kidd, widely respected by players. This could be an opportunity for Lance to sell high and buy on the rise.
Strauss: Pacers. I feel like we'll end up seeing all chalk. Everyone's signing with their original teams. The Pacers need Stephenson, as they lack cap room and perimeter ball handlers. Stephenson needs the Pacers, as other teams wouldn't be so invested in his development. It's a good match.
Young: Hawks. It just seems as if Stephenson's time, while often brilliant, has run its course in Indiana. The Hawks are desperate for wing help and would likely provide Stephenson plenty of room within the offense to express himself. Alongside Jeff Teague with the interior help of Paul Millsap and Al Horford, he could fit in a lot of the same ways he did with the Pacers, just with a possibly necessary change of scenery.