Sizing Up LeBron James' Potential Suitors in 2010

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Sizing Up LeBron James' Potential Suitors in 2010

19 of the NBA's 30 teams made trades in February.

In all, 43 players changed uniforms and that doesn't include the five or ten players who are likely to get waived before the first of March and sign on with contenders.

With the exception of just a few of those trades—most notably, the Mavericks' trade for Jason Kidd and the Lakers' acquisition of Pau Gasol— each move was made with an eye toward the 2010 off-season when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh will more than likely opt out of their current deals and test the free-agent waters.

The jockeying for King James didn't just start this year. You can make the case that it started the moment the Cavs won the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery.

But with only two more off-seasons and two more trade deadlines before the summer of 2010, it's time to start sizing up the potential destinations to see which teams have positioned themselves best to make a run at LBJ23.

I've broken the teams up into three categories: Favorites, Maybes and Long-Shots. The teams on the respective lists will surely change as teams spend their mid-level exemptions, re-sign their own free agents, sign other teams free agents or trade some of their bigger contracts for expiring ones.

There is a fourth group that can't be overlooked--The No Way In Hells. We can go ahead and eliminate the Sonics, Jazz, Wolves, Clippers, Grizzlies, Kings, Hawks, Bobcats, Pacers, Bucks, Raptors and Sixers.

The list of teams with the potential to have significant cap space is longer than you probably think. There will be a number of general managers who will probably lose their jobs if the gamble doesn't pay off.

The guy who stems to benefit the most might be Carmelo Anthony because he doesn't hit free agency until 2011. The teams that strike out in their pursuit of the aforementioned three might have no choice but to hang onto their cap space for one more year and make Melo the biggest prize of the NBA's biggest bidding war.

Based on the current state of each individual team, this is how things stand now.

I present, LeBron Watch 1.0:

The Favorites (in no particular order)

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

Whether or not not the Cavs have the ability to hang onto LeBron will be determined by two factors: a) how loyal is King James? and b) has Danny Ferry put the team into a position where they can compete for championships over the long-haul?

This past week's trade for Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith added significant payroll and luxury tax payments but it didn't change the team's long-term outlook. Every move Ferry has made has been to give the team maximum cap space in 2010 and this move didn't change that.  

Maximum cap space would be an understatement. The Cavs have not one player under contract for 2010-11 (excluding LeBron's option which he's more than unlikely to exercise). The problem with having all that cap space is that unless Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao decide to opt-out in 2009, they won't have any cap room until then to add anyone significant in free agency. Nobody would be surprised if Varejao opted out--but unless Ilgauskas thinks he can get more than the $11.5 million he's owed if he declines to opt out, the Cavs will only have about $15 million to dole out for about ten players.

The only players on this current Cavs squad that I can see on the 2010 team are Daniel Gibson, Delonte West, Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic and extensions for Gibson Varejao and West would chip away at that $15 million.

Does that look like the type of nucleus that's one or two players away from competing for a ring?

The only other thing the Cavs can do is to trade Ilgauskas or Wallace's expiring contracts, a la Kwame Brown, for another piece. Not impossible. But with so many teams clamoring for cap space, the Cavs might be hesitant to help out a team that plans to make a run at James by giving them the cap relief that comes with those expiring contracts.

Then there's the famous ESPN interview where the interviewer asks James, "What are your goals?" and LeBron answered "Global icon". Not too many global icons coming out of Cleveland.

On the flip side, the Cavs can offer LeBron more money and more years than any other team. Recent history has shown that the majority of the big-name free agents tend to remain with their current clubs--Jason Kidd, Chris Webber, and Kobe Bryant all chose to explore free agency and all three stayed put.

It's no secret that James can more than compensate for the difference in money lost with certain kickers in his endorsement deals that increase if he's playing in a major market. Don't underestimate the hits to James' image if he leaves his hometown team in pursuit of the dollar.

                                                                                                                             

2. New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets

In case you missed it, James and good buddy Jay-Z hosted the Wrigley's 2nd Annual Two Kings All-Star Event during All-Star weekend.

Guess who the "Two Kings" are?

Here's a quote from ESPN The Magazine:

Said Jay-Z: "Gone are the days where we get paid to endorse things we don't totally believe in. So in order to have a better relationship, we need gatherings like this. You're looking at the new era of entrepreneurs all around you."

LeBron: "It shouldn't be just, 'give us money and we smile on camera.' It's not about that no more."

What's with all that "We" talk, Hova? 

You can't ignore the relationship between these two. Just imagine how many Brooklyn jerseys with JAMES on the back that will be sold across the globe.

It's easy to forget that if Brooklyn weren't incorporated into New York City, it would be the nation's third-largest city. Be sure to remind someone of that the next time they tell you that LeBron would only go to a big-market team.

Financially, the Nets have about $46 million committed to Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson, Sean Williams and Devin Harris for the 2010-11 season. But unlike the Cavs, the Nets now have multiple first-round picks in 2008 and 2010 thanks to the Kidd trade. This is significant because it would allow the Nets to fill out their roster with talented players with rookie contracts. Whereas the Cavs would have $15 million to spend on ten players, the Nets would still be able offer James big money even if they couldn't trade Carter or Jefferson.

The only other players on the current Nets team that could be on the team in 2010 are Bostjan Nachbar, Nenad Krstic, Josh Boone and Marcus Williams--none of whom are considered irreplacable. Boone and Marcus Williams will be restricted free agents unless they decide to accept the Nets' qualifying offers, which would only be for around $2 million each.

Both Carter and Jefferson will be in their final years in 2010-11. So if neither could be moved, LeBron could sign a one-year deal with the Nets and get a humongous payday from them the following summer.

Update: Adrian Wojnarowski wrote about the LeBron/Jay-Z relationship in his Yahoo! column today. (Biter!)

                                                                                                                             

3. San Antonio Spurs 

Believe it or not, the defending champs have only two players under contract for the 2010-11 season--Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.

Duncan signed an extension this past off-season that goes from $22 million in 2009 to $19 million in 2010, before going back up to $21 million 2011. Do I really need to explain why the contract dips down in 2010?

Manu Ginobili will be a free agent but the Spurs would gladly waive adios to Manu if they could get their hands on LeBron. It wasn't that long ago that the Spurs did the same thing with Jason Kidd and Tony Parker.

By 2010, Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley, Robert Horry, Damon Stoudamire and Kurt Thomas will all be retired.

The Spurs also own the rights to Brazilian, Tiago Splitter. If you haven't seen Splitter play, check this out. Who cares what the bench would look like? A starting five of Duncan, James, Parker, Splitter and me could compete for a championship.

You can't ignore the fact that Texas has no state income tax either.

Would San Antonio help to achieve James' goal of becoming a global icon? Is there another team in the league more global than the Spurs? In the past six years, they've had players from the Virgin Islands, France, Argentina, Turkey, the Netherlands, New Zealand, China and Slovenia.

The other thing the Spurs have going for themselves is a track record for success and winning championships. They are the best-run organization in sports--at least amongst those that don't videotape their opponents.

With the flexibility they have, chances are good they'll be able to lure at least one from the trio of James, Wade and native-Texan, Bosh. I'm guessing James tops their list. I wouldn't be surprised if they landed any of the three.

                                                                                                                             

4. Chicago Bulls

Don't count out the Bulls. They only have one player under contract for 2010, Kirk Hinrich at $9 million. Even if they give extensions to three from the four of Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, Thabo Sefolosha and Tyrus Thomas, they'll still have enough money left over to make a decent offer to James.

Chicago is the third-largest market in the United States. It's also the home of James' childhood hero, Michael Jordan (did you think he wore number 23 for Kirk Gibson?).

Would LeBron be heartless enough to sign with the one of the Cavs' division rivals? We'll find out. My guess is the Bulls will probably make a hard push for Wade while the other teams duke it out for LeBron.

 

The Maybes (in no particular order)

 
1. Portland Trailblazers

The Blazers are not a big-market team but they're definitely young, talented and deep. They're also located close to Nike's Beaverton, Oregon headquarters. James, along with Tiger Woods, is the darling of the Nike empire. Along with his three best friends, James founded LRMR Marketing. The Four Horsemen, as they call themselves, are hoping to become leaders in the marketing world. The added muscle of Nike would only help them solidify that goal for LeBron's post-basketball career.

The Blazers' stable of young talent would make it seem as if the team doesn't have the means to bring James into the fold. But if the Cavs know that losing LeBron is inevitable then no team in the NBA is better-prepared to offer the Cavs concessions via trade.

The Blazers could afford to trade three or four of their young stars in a trade that would  at the very least, leave the Cavs competitive, if they were to lose LeBron. Cavs fans can't be crushed if they end up with LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, Jarrett Jack and Travis Outlaw.

The other wild-card the Blazers have is next year's "Kwame Brown", Raef LaFrentz. His $13 million contract expires next season. Had this been his last year, Gasol might very well be dressed in red and black. How valuable is LaFrentz's contract? The Celtics would not have KG, the Lakers would not have Gasol and the Warriors would not have Baron Davis if not for huge expiring deals. 

                                                                                                                             

2. Phoenix Suns

The Suns only have four players under contract for 2010-11--Amare Stoudemire, Leandro Barbosa,  Boris Diaw and Alando Tucker. Shaq will be long gone, Steve Nash and Grant Hill too, probably and Stoudemire will be 27 at the start of the season.

With only $33 million committed to those four, the Suns could potentially offer LeBron a maximum deal. The pairing of Stoudemire and James certainly has some appeal.

If that's the Suns' goal, then they have to do a better job over the next two seasons of bringing in enough talent to surround them. The Suns already traded away their first-round picks in 2008 and 2010 to shed Kurt Thomas' contract. They still have the Hawks' first-round pick in this year's draft from the Joe Johnson trade, which will probably land somewhere between 10 and 14.

                                                                                                                             

3. Houston Rockets

The Rockets, like the Spurs, share the advantage that comes with being in the Lone Star State. Unlike the Spurs, the Rockets won't have the same nucleus with which to appeal to LeBron.

The Rockets have $25 million in contracts earmarked for Yao, Shane Battier and Aaron Brooks for 2010-11. They lack other young stars to help entice LeBron. Unless the team can get creative and trade Tracy McGrady for two or three potential building blocks, I don't see LeBron teaming up with Yao.

Their available cap space is enough to include them on the Maybes list, though.

                                                                                                                           

4.  New York Knicks

The Knicks are only on the list because it's where the league would love for LeBron to land. In reality, though, unless the Knicks can dump Eddy Curry or Jared Jeffries, both are expected to exercise a combined $17 million in options for the 2010-11 season that would make it impossible for the Knicks to sign him. 

The looming extensions for David Lee and Nate Robinson would make it even more impossible. The Knicks can try to pair Curry, Jeffries or Crawford with Robinson or Lee to create more cap space. The Knicks are also looking at another high draft pick this year that could make those guys expendable.

I'm pretty good at figuring out what the long-term goals of teams usually are. I have no idea what the Knicks are doing. If anybody knows, please share.

 

The Long-Shots (in no particular order)

 
1. Dallas Mavericks

Financially, the Mavericks are in horrible shape for 2010-11. Thanks to ridiculous contracts for Jason Terry and Erik Dampier, the team has $23 million committted to just those two guys.

They will also have two major decisions to make. They have a team option on Josh Howard for about $12 million but more importantly, Dirk Nowitzki can opt out of his own deal and get a better one.

The Mavs top the Long-Shot list because Mark Cuban has always found ways to get creative. He's also not afraid to spend.

Unless he can find someone to take Terry or Dampier, then LeBron is nothing but a pipe dream in Big D.

                                                                                                                             

2. Boston Celtics

When Kevin Garnett signed his extension with the Celtics last summer he did the same thing that Duncan did--he allowed his contract to dip down before going back up to give the Celts more flexibility in surrounding him with talent.

The problem for the Celtics is that it won't make a difference unless they renounce Ray Allen and find a taker for Paul Pierce. With 34-year-old KG slated to make $19 million in 2010-11 and 33-year-old Pierce set to make $21.5 million, the Celtics will have no money to sign anyone else.

The only other players under contract as of now are Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo. Whatever cap space they have will be used to find ten more guys to fill out their roster.

The Celtics also traded away their first-round pick in 2009 in the Garnett trade and will in all likelihood, have one of the bottom three picks in this year's draft.

The Celtics have to be included since they're relevant again.

                                                                                                                             

3. Los Angeles Lakers

You can't discount the Lakers completely, even in the aftermath of the Pau Gasol trade. They are the NBA's most glamorous franchise and have an incredibly solid foundation. The only player on their current roster over 30 is Derek Fisher.

The Lakers, like the Blazers, would be able to trade the Cavs a number of players if LeBron was definitely poised to leave Cleveland, including Kobe Bryant.

But with Andrew Bynum expected to get a hefty extension this summer, and Lamar Odom headed for free agency after next season, the only way the Lakers can get LeBron is either by sign-and-trade or Kobe opts out and they renounce Odom. A starting lineup of LeBron, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Gasol and Bynum is fun to think about. Cavs fans should be happy that the Lakers are good.

The only way they trade Kobe for LeBron is if Kobe asks to be traded. The way things are looking up in L.A., that appears highly unlikely. The Lakers only chance at getting LeBron is after his next contract expires and Kobe is out of the league. Consider them his most likely destination in 2015.

                                                                                                                             

4. Orlando Magic

Imagine if LeBron and Dwight Howard were on the same team. Good, because that's probably the only time, other than the All-Star Game or Team USA, when the two of them will share the same uniform.

The Magic's signing of Rashard Lewis pretty much put the nail in the coffin as far as LeBron was concerned.

But Lewis is still relatively young. If the Magic can find a taker for his atrocious contract then they'd be in great shape to sign LeBron.

Even if they can't, they still might be able to find a way if they can get rid of Jameer Nelson. The Magic have $43 million on the books for Lewis, Howard and Nelson. If they're smart in how they build the team's bench and find a way to bring over Fran Vazquez then they'll at least be intriguing.

Florida, like Texas, has no state income tax either. It's also the preferred permanent residency of Tiger Woods, Shaq, Ken Griffey, Jr., Grant Hill and Mark O'Meara. Did somebody say "global icon"?

                                                                                                                             

 

The only teams not mentioned that could conceivably take a crack at LeBron are the Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors and Detroit Pistons. You could make a small case for any of them.

The Heat don't really know where they're headed yet and have way too many questions that have to be answered in the next two years, including whether or not they can keep Wade from leaving town.

The Warriors have contract extensions due this summer to Andris Biedrins, Baron Davis, Monta Ellis and Matt Barnes. Don Nelson is also not expected to be there in 2010. He's already named Keith Smart his successor. Financially, the Warriors won't be able to offer LeBron any money if they keep all those guys around.

The Pistons are a dark horse, though. Joe Dumars doesn't get enough credit for how he transformed the Pistons bench with an infusion of young talent that plays defense. The only players under contract for 2010-11 are Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince.

If Dumars can say goodbye to Rasheed and Rip Hamilton when they become free agents and then sign Amir Johnson, Rodney Stuckey, Jason Maxiell and Arron Afflalo for reasonable amounts of money, then he'll still have plenty to throw at LeBron.

The bigger question then becomes, does Detroit provide LeBron with what he needs to become a global icon? I wouldn't bet on it but I wouldn't count them out either. Joe Dumars is the closest thing his generation of GMs has to Jerry West.

A lot can change between now and the summer of 2010. I'd say two-thirds of the teams on these lists will probably change places more than once.

But the Cavs are on the clock. The countdown has started.

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