July 1st might as well be a second birthday for me this year. Not only does it mark the start of the exciting free agent-signing period, but it also works toward ending what has seemed this past year like a lifetime's worth of preposterous hype and foolish speculation.
I cannot tell you how happy I am right now, knowing that in just a few weeks it will be official: the New York Knicks did not sign LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Jesus Christ, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
The L.A. Clippers will not have signed anyone whom can make them relevant.
The "summit" between powerhouse free agents will not have resulted in the formation of a 31st team, a super group called "The King & I All-Stars."
All will be right with the Earth again. Basketball won't be of the fantasy variety nor will it include a "create a player" video game feature.
To say the vast majority of what-if scenarios bandied about this past year have been flat-out ridiculous would be an understatement.
Let's look at some of the realistic ones, some of which I believe are surely going to materialize.
Do you really believe Dirk Nowitzki is going to leave a franchise that has averaged 56-plus wins per season over the past decade?
Do you really believe Mark Cuban is going to let him just walk away?
The only way Dirk is not a Maverick for life is if Cuban & Co. really foul this up somehow. No question Dirk opted out of his deal to put pressure on the organization to improve the team, but given their history, is there any way Dallas doesn't go the extra mile to field the most competitive team possible?
I expect Brendan Haywood to be signed first. Then either Caron Butler, Jason Terry, or Shawn Marion, or some combination of the three, will be traded for a post scorer (Carlos Boozer?) or dynamic guard (Joe Johnson?).
Dirk will ultimately re-sign for a max contract that will keep him the face of one of the league's most successful organizations until he retires.
Despite the hype and statistics, Joe Johnson is much closer to being Caron Butler and Jason Richardson than he is Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade. Johnson is not a superstar, nor is he a no-buts-about-it, No. 2-caliber franchise player.
With that said, teams really don't care.
Johnson is 6'8" and 240 pounds, can score, defend, play positions 1 through 3, and at the very least can present the illusion of superstardom with occasional flashes of brilliance. He's not worth a max deal, but he will get one.
As much money (around $25 million free in cap space) and talent (Derrick Rose-Joakim Noah-Luol Deng) the Bulls have, the organization isn't as desirable of a work environment as some would assume.
Great city. Major media market. Loyal fanbase. Piss-poor front office.
Ask yourself this question: In the past decade, what have been the biggest free-agent signings by the Bulls?
Tyson Chandler (six years, $63 million), Ben Wallace (four years, $60 million), and Luol Deng (six years, $71 million).
You can see why I lack a shred of confidence in the Bulls luring one of the elite free agents. Instead I think they'll spend most of their resources locking up Johnson, an Arkansas boy whose disposition doesn't seem like a good match for places like New York and Miami.
Al Harrington is another strong possibility for he would give them an inside-outside scoring threat who can pose matchup problems. The presence of Harrington would also make Deng expendable for there's overlap in their skill sets and Deng isn't worth $13 million annually.
Well, we know Carlos Boozer isn't going back to Cleveland.
He and his wife are divorcing and their Miami mansion is up for sale. I'm comfortable believing that's enough reason for him not to join the Heat (especially if his ex-wife is staying down there).
Priority No. 1 for Phoenix and Dallas is retaining their respective stars, Amar'e Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki.
The L.A. Clippers have Blake Griffin.
Oklahoma City has Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook; not one, but two emerging stars who will steal Boozer's, um, thunder.
If Salt Lake City wasn't up to Boozer's speed, Sacramento doesn't stand a chance.
Nobody wants to play for Washington.
What's left? New York, New Jersey, and Chicago.
I can't rule out Chicago completely but the strong likelihood Boozer is not one of their top three targets leads me to believe they'll drop on his list.
As for New Jersey, Rod Thorn is too smart of a GM to throw max money at someone whose game doesn't guarantee wins.
What we're left with is New York.
Boozer loves New York City and owns a home just across the river in New Jersey. His son receives medical treatment at Mount Sinai hospital, to which Boozer donates money. Coming out of high school in Alaska, Boozer narrowed his final two college choices to Duke and--you guessed it--St. John's.
The Knicks want him, need him, can afford him, and will pursue him with vigor.
GM Donnie Walsh will then ink his boy from Indiana, Jermaine O'Neal, to play center, and look into signing-and-trading David Lee, possibly even for Gilbert Arenas.
Assuming the New Jersey Nets select Derrick Favors or DeMarcus Cousins with the third pick in the draft, their attention during free agency will be focused solely on improving perimeter play.
Joe Johnson, Rudy Gay, John Salmons, Raymond Felton, and Anthony Morrow are just some of the players Rod Thorn will definitely be looking at.
Gay makes the most sense since he's not even 24 yet, has four years of experience, is an East Coast guy, and offers the most potential all around. The Nets could plug him in at small forward or shooting guard, depending on what they decide to do with Devin Harris.
It's no secret new owner Mikhail Prokhorov wants to make a splash; however, given the number of youngsters on the team, it makes more sense to stockpile talent with hopes of being a contender in Brooklyn a few years from now.
Felton, who could possibly be had at a bargain price, can provide some stability at the point guard position and allow Harris to focus more on scoring, what he's best at.
Let's be honest about a few things here.
1. Dwyane Wade will be a member of the Miami Heat as long as Pat Riley is running the show.
2. Amar'e Stoudemire is the best available free agent post player and the No. 1 priority on Miami's wish list.
The Heat tried to trade for Stoudemire at the trade deadline not once, but twice, in two consecutive seasons, both times dangling the immensely talented but seemingly mentally absent Michael Beasley as bait.
Now that Stoudemire is free to go anywhere, it only makes sense he abandons a sinking Phoenix Suns ship—Steve Nash turns 37 next season and Jason Richardson enters a walk year—to sign with Miami and return to his home state.
Furthermore, should the Heat be able to lose Beasley ($5 million) via trade, they will have enough cap room to bring in upper-echelon role players to surround these two studs.
LeBron James will re-sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers for five major reasons:
1. The Cavaliers, the best regular season team in the NBA the past two seasons, are a contender. With 10 players under the age of 28, they can continue to be a contender for the foreseeable future.
2. The Cavaliers can and will offer James the best contract; roughly $30 million more than what any other team can provide.
3. The Cavaliers will give LeBron what no other team can, and that's the power to handpick the personnel around him. Already, we've seen both Danny Ferry and Mike Brown get the boot.
4. The community surrounding the Cavaliers, LeBron's hometown of Akron, and the region in general, respect LeBron's privacy and protect him from the outside world. If LeBron were in, say, New York City, the paparazzi would be overwhelming.
5. On any other team, LeBron would be just another superstar athlete. In Cleveland, he becomes a Jesus Christ figure.
Think about what Peyton Manning means not just to the Indianapolis Colts, but also the city and the state. Now imagine if 50 percent of Indianapolis were under the poverty rate (like Cleveland) and Manning was the local boy who rose from the ashes—the chosen one.
LeBron knows what's at stake here and that it transcends basketball. There's a reason why his ad campaign includes religious allusions such as "We Are All Witnesses." LeBron isn't just trying to be global icon, he's trying to be a savior.
Basketball-wise, LeBron is a sidekick away from building what could be a dynasty. All the Cavaliers need is an upper-echelon post scorer.
With Boozer out of the question—few people are hated more in Cleveland—and with Stoudemire primed to join Dwyane Wade in Miami, you can bet your marbles getting Chris Bosh is the only thing on Dan Gilbert's mind right now.
And the Cavaliers, who will be about $15 million over cap after re-signing LeBron, can get Bosh via a sign-and-trade.
The Raptors are desperate to get rid of either Hedo Turkoglu or Jose Calderon (preferably both), and the Cavaliers have seen enough from Antawn Jamison to know he doesn't cut it.
Cleveland could send Jamison, Mo Williams, and Delonte West to Toronto for Chris Bosh and Calderon. The Raptors would get something for nothing, save $12 million, and be in good financial position to retool for the 2012 season.
Out of all the "major" possible tandems out there, these are the most realistic and likely to happen.