LeBron James sits at the top of the free agent pyramid. The best bet is that no team with a chance at him will lock up its cap space before he has made up his mind, and that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will find out what James is doing before they sign anything. In the poker analogy, everybody wants to see some more cards before going all in. However, what if that changed? What if some of the other free agents made a power play? Totally hypothetically, what if Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh went to the Bulls and said: You have 24 hours to sign us both, or we're going to Miami. I realize this is insane. For that to happen, everybody involved would have to put James on the backburner, which won't happen. However, if the Bulls end up with Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Joakim Noah, on what planet could anyone say any player or team had been foolish? Similarly, I suspect teams have some opportunities here. Second-tier free agents like David Lee are, of course, more than good enough to make a difference in the NBA. But their offers are going to be light until this James thing is sorted out. But what if some team made Lee their top priority right now? It may well appeal to him to end the waiting.
I was with Chris Broussard, Jonathan Abrams and Jim Gray talking LeBron James on Charlie Rose on Friday, and no one thinks the Knicks are high on LeBron James' list. Brian Windhorst is tweeting similarly. Not everyone agrees about who's in the lead -- I say Chicago and Miami, with a side-helping of the Nets. Other plugged in reporters add the Cavaliers to that list. But even though there's a certain logic to it (best market, rich owner, fun coaching style) why are the Knicks not seen as running with the lead dogs? Some educated guesses: neither the cap flexibility of the Heat nor the roster quality of the Bulls, Mike D'Antoni not the draw he was assumed to be, lack of a quality point guard to make D'Antoni's system work, a high cost of living and burdensome taxes, and an owner who isn't viewed among the NBA's best thanks to a track record of not inspiring greatness.
There has been a lot of talk about Maverick Carter, William Wesley and all who is or isn't influencing James these days. But what does LeBron James say? According to the man himself, his biggest influences are his mother Gloria, Michael Jordan and Batman. On a more serious note, my best information is that reports of fractures in the James camp are overblown. James is the man in the middle, and the other people in his inner circle are the same as they ever were.
There are free agents this summer who are bargains at a maximum salary. James and Wade, for instance, would fetch far more in a world without salary caps, because of their proven abilities to sell tickets, win games and drive media attention. However, many of the other free agents are likely to be terrible value. That's why players strategize to get to free agency -- to make more money than they could just negotiating with one team. This is where I think an owner telling his staff to use free agency as a way to win now is ludicrous. Do whatever you can to get one of those very top guys, who are excellent value. Or hold on your space. There are strategic opportunities galore rebuilding for a couple of years Oklahoma City-style. Usually it means bailing desperate teams out of contracts they don't want anymore, and in exchange you can ask for good draft picks. If there's one lesson of the Isiah Thomas era in New York, it's that overpaying pretty good players with long-term deals is a horrible scheme. You simply can't carry deals other teams find to be poor value and be building toward a title. That's a way to building toward being OK, but not a way to build to a title.
Marc Stein makes a great point that Joakim Noah is a key selling point for the Bulls as they recruit James. Noah has been an active part of recruiting for the Bulls, having spent time with Bosh and Carlos Boozer, for instance. Sources say Noah was willing to play a similar role with James -- but the plan was scuttled when word came that LeBron did not want players as part of teams' delegations to the pitch meetings in Cleveland. Noah and Derrick Rose had been planning to join the Bulls' delegation to make clear their commitment to being part of a winner, but instead stayed home.
John Krolik of Cavs: The Blog: "Hornets are adamant that they won’t move Chris Paul. Raptors are apparently not interested in a sign-and-trade with Bosh. If a move like that doesn’t happen, I don’t see how Cleveland has enough talent to entice LeBron to stay. It would be a remarkable display of loyalty, and I think it remains a legitimate possibility."
Worth really pointing out Donnie Walsh's quote to Chad Ford about the state of things with regard to Amare Stoudemire: "We haven't sat down and talked contract [with] him at all."