When LeBron James signed only a three-year contract extension in the summer of 2006 instead of the maximum five-year like the ones his 2003 draftmates Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony had agreed to, this exact scenario playing out right now is what LeBron had in mind—the Knicks, the Nets, the Pistons, and virtually half the rest of the league clawing at each others' faces to steal him away from the Cavaliers when he can become a free agent in 2010.
First, though, I have to praise the financial merit of that decision.
The tradition had been that a top-tier rookie would always sign for the maximum extension allowed for the longest time and the most money.
That's what Anthony did. The 2003 rookie contracts expired in 2007, and he signed a five-year extension with Denver for the maximum salary that would pay him 25 percent of the salary cap until 2012. Bosh and Wade originally had agreed upon the same thing with their respective teams.
LeBron held out, though, because some brilliant mind must have gotten through to him and told him that was a conservative choice that left money on the table.
In 2010, James, Wade, and Bosh will have completed their seventh years of NBA service, making them eligible for new max contracts worth up to 30 percent of the salary cap.
With the salary cap projecting to be quite a bit over $60 million for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, that means James's new contract would be worth over $6 million more than Anthony's old one over those two years.
Of course, putting two years on the line is risky in case the player gets injured or turns out not to be worth that kind of money—but this is LeBron James we're talking about here. His deal was so clever that Wade and Bosh immediately renegotiated their extensions to three years as well. (Anthony, as usual, wasn't on the ball.)
Of course, the big news for NBA teams is that LeBron James will also have a player option in 2010 to become an unrestricted free agent. Joining him will be the other titans of the 2003 draft, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
This news is so seismic that it has completely overshadowed the fact that an army of other NBA All-Stars—like Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Manu Ginobili, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Yao Ming, Ray Allen, Tracy McGrady, and Michael Redd—could also be on the market.
But the big fish in this ocean is definitely LeBron, making him the biggest free-agent prize since Shaquille O'Neal ditched Orlando for L.A. twelve years ago. There are a ton of teams who could end up with enough cap space to sign LeBron in 2010 (Chinese marketing fans, imagine if Houston let T-Mac go and signed both LeBron and Yao)—but four teams this year alone have already made big moves to get him.
Two of them, however, have very little chance. The other two are guaranteed to have LeBron in one of their uniforms when his new contract kicks off.
FORGET ABOUT IT
New Jersey Nets
Cap-Space Clearing Moves
Traded Jason Kidd and change for Devin Harris and change. Traded Richard Jefferson for Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons.
Why They Could Get LeBron—Bruce Ratner, the majority stakeholder of the Nets, wants to move the team to Brooklyn, the hometown of Jay-Z—a minority stakeholder of the Nets and a close friend of LeBron's.
Brooklyn gives LeBron access to New York City, the biggest media market in the NBA. He has even said his favorite city in the world is New York, but his favorite borough is Brooklyn, not Manhattan.
Why They Won't Get LeBron
Because everything in the preceding paragraph is a big, steaming pile of crap. The Atlantic Yards project is so mired in legal problems that it'll be lucky to begin construction in 2010. The eminent-domain case against Atlantic Yards, filed by the residents of Brooklyn, won't reach a decision until March 2009—at which point the petitioners will of course appeal and drag out the process even longer.
Moreover, Bruce Ratner is a real-estate mogul, not a sports owner. He cares a lot more about making sure his $4 billion real-estate project is completed than he does about putting LeBron in a Brooklyn Nets uniform. In fact, he has been trying to sell the Nets for the past year, due to the mountain of financial losses the team suffers each season.
Why do they lose so much money? Because the Nets suck. Devin Harris looks like a future All-Star, but Vince Carter is done. Yi Jianlian and Brook Lopez look like quality rotation guys at best, and the rest of the team is flat-out terrible.
A lot of their future could depend on which guys Rod Thorn can bring in for Vince Carter—but unlike the other three teams on this list, they only have enough cap space right now to sign just one max free agent in 2010.
And Jay-Z? How many times has he been at Madison Square Garden for the Knicks this year? He probably has season tickets.
Now, when was the last time you saw Jay-Z at the Izod Center watching the Nets? 2006? 2005?
The New Jersey Nets are not moving to Brooklyn. If anywhere, they're much more likely to move into the Prudential Center with the Devils in Newark.
Even if Ratner does keep them, they're not going to have an arena ready until 2012. If Jay-Z won't go into Jersey to watch his own team, why would LeBron waste two years in the swamp?
Here you go, New Jersey. This is Michael Redd's phone number. Good luck.
Cap-Space Clearing Move
Traded Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess for Allen Iverson.
Why They Could Get LeBron
With Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace both coming off the books after this year, Detroit will have enough salary cap space to sign two max free agents.
Imagine LeBron with Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, or Amare Stoudemire. After playing together for Team USA the past few years, you know those guys are dying to play with each other in the NBA.
Plus, Detroit already has a strong core in place with veterans Tayshaun Prince and Rip Hamilton, and promising young guys like Rodney Stuckey, Jason Maxiell, and Amir Johnson.
Why They Won't Get LeBron
This would be a completely lateral move. Detroit and Cleveland are both in mid-level, slumping markets.
On paper, Detroit without A.I. and 'Sheed looks a lot better than Cleveland without LeBron, but the players in Cleveland have a synergy with LeBron now after playing with him for so many years.
They know they can be successful with an offense focused around him. Detroit hasn't had an offense focused around a single attack since Isiah Thomas left town, and will struggle for a while getting all the pieces to fit together around a giant new piece.
More importantly, GM Joe Dumars knows this. He's a smart guy. He knows it's not likely he'll get LeBron in 2010.
Unlike the other teams, he's actually getting all his cap space next year. Is he just going to stand pat, lose Iverson and Wallace, and trudge through a potential 30-52 season for a long shot at getting LeBron?
No, he'll probably make a big play in the 2009 free agent pool, and maybe target a guy like Bosh or Stoudemire in 2010 if he still has any space left.
Cap-Space Clearing Moves
Traded Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Cedric Simmons, and Shannon Brown for Ben Wallace and Joe Smith. Traded Donyell Marshall and Ira Newble for Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak.
Why They Could Keep LeBron
It's his hometown. Let's start with that. LeBron growing up in Akron, OH, about 30 minutes south of Cleveland, is a far stronger bond than he has with Jay-Z or the New York Yankees. (Guess who else grew up in the 330? This guy!)
New York embraces him hard now because it wants him, but Ohio is home no matter where he goes. If he leaves Cleveland, the community will still love him, even if the fans don't. If he doesn't pick New York, you think they'll feel the same way? No, they'll turn on him faster than you can say "Stephon Marbury."
It's not just a sentimental choice, though. In the past, the Cavs have always been much-maligned for not having the right pieces around LeBron.
In particular, Mike Brown has been criticized as having the least-original offensive playbook in the league. I saw it. It was a single sheet of paper, and all it said was "Isolation: LeBron James."
Though their defense was always top-notch, opposing teams could beat them by suffocating James, and letting the peanut gallery try to figure out what to do.
Those days are over. 13 games into their season, the Cleveland Cavaliers lead the entire league in offensive efficiency at 110.6 points per game, while still staying in the top half of defensive teams with an 11th-place 101.2 defensive efficiency.
Their margin of victory is 8.3 PPG, behind only the loaded L.A. Lakers at 13.5. But the Lakers have Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom holding down the front court with Kobe in the back. The Cavs just happen to finally have the right pieces around James.
First, signing Mo Williams over the summer has finally given the Cavs the second scoring option that they have never had in the past. (Let me repeat that, Larry Hughes: never.)
More than that though, their gigantic trade last season brought in Szczerbiak and West to join Boobie Gibson in spreading the floor with their shooting. It also brought Ben Wallace to compete with Anderson Varejao for the hustle and defense points down low.
Meanwhile, Zydrunas Ilgauskas has always been a skilled, sweet-shooting center who worked very well with James.
The ball is finally moving around now in Cleveland because they finally have guys who know what they're supposed to do with it—other than get it to LeBron.
It's not a superstar crew, like in L.A. But they're good enough that, when teamed with LeBron's standard spectacular 30-8-8 gameplay, the Cavs are looking more likely to oust the Celtics as the team to meet the Lakers in the Finals.
If LeBron wins a championship in Cleveland, the chance he leaves is almost nil.
Then there is the cap space. Cleveland actually has enough players coming off the cap next year and in 2010 to give James the max, and sign one more max player. We could be looking at a triumvirate of James-Bosh-Williams or James-Stoudemire-Williams. That's a Big Three that can compete with anybody. But...
Why They Will Lose LeBron
The problem with the previous two paragraphs is that they are mutually exclusive. The only way Cleveland gets the cap space it needs to sign another max player is by losing all those players that are making the team work so well right now.
Even if they keep the current line-up, Ben Wallace is 34, Szczerbiak is 33, and Big Z is 33. Who is Cleveland going to get to replace those guys while still trying to re-sign younger guys like Varejao and West?
Normally, with a meal ticket like LeBron on board, it shouldn't be too difficult to find the pieces to build around him.
Yet, out of the four GMs running the teams on this list, Danny Ferry has been by far the most incompetent. His first moves on the job were to throw huge money at Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, and Damon Jones—all of whom tanked and are no longer with the team. He lucked out in that the disparate pieces he put together to get cap space just happen to be gelling.
That would go to former GM Jim Paxson. When you have a young phenom like LeBron, you build a dynasty around him through the draft.
There was a very critical draft in 1987, when the Chicago Bulls had Michael Jordan, but were still bad enough to get high draft picks. The Bulls owned the eighth pick and had the tenth as well. With those two picks, they ended up with Scottie Pippen (via trade) and Horace Grant—both critical pieces to the start of the Bulls' title run.
The Cavs had a draft like that in 2004—and Paxson picked Luke Jackson. Well, Luke Jackson is no longer in the NBA.
A few other people chosen after him—like Andris Biedrins, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, and Kevin Martin—still are, and seem to be doing pretty well.
Of course, Jackson was just the latest in a long string of Jim Paxson's bad high first-round picks, which have also included Dajuan Wagner, DeSagana Diop, Chris Mihm, and Trajan Langdon. To his credit, Paxson did also pick Andre Miller, and stole Carlos Boozer in the second round—though he did also get bamboozled by Boozer, and lost him to Utah.
With James now the best player in the league, the Cavs are way too good to ever get a high draft pick again in his prime, unless James suffers some debilitating, season-ending injury, or they're able to pry one away from another lowly team.
With Danny Ferry in the front office, I just have zero confidence in this management.
Which just leaves one last team.
New York Knicks
Cap-Space Clearing Moves
Traded Jamal Crawford for Al Harrington. Traded Zach Randolph and Mardy Collins for Tim Thomas and Cuttino Mobley.
Why They Will Get LeBron
Anyone who says New York is the Mecca of basketball is living in 1970. On all levels of basketball, from the playgrounds to high school to college to the NBA, New York has lost the title.
But what New York is the media capital of the world. Nowhere else on this planet would gain LeBron more exposure than in Madison Square Garden.
On the basketball side of the story, they actually have a pretty weak team.
For all the hype surrounding Wilson Chandler and David Lee, I can only imagine two or three future All-Star appearances between them at most. In particular, only Chandler and Nate Robinson seem to be wrecking havoc being in Mike D'Antoni's all-out offensive system.
But now we're getting closer to where the talent is—in the management. D'Antoni took a horribly overpaid and underperforming team and turned them (at least, before they lost Crawford and Randolph) into a playoff contender. Better than that, people want to come play for D'Antoni, including one other free agent who could turn the tide in 2010.
Just like Cleveland and Detroit, New York cleared enough salary to be able to sign two max free agents in 2010. They could also get James and Bosh, James and Wade, James and Stoudemire, etc.
But having D'Antoni on the bench must make New York the front-runner for getting at least one other free agent—Steve Nash.
Nash had the pinnacle of his career in D'Antoni's system, and he'd relish the chance to play in that system again. Not only that, he makes his summer home in New York and could also use all that media exposure to promote all the philanthropic efforts in which he's involved.
Putting Nash on the same team as LeBron would—for the first time in his life outside USA basketball—make LeBron no longer the best playmaker on the team, nor the ideal play-starter for the offense. That would allow him to concentrate completely on what he is the best in basketball at—finishing. Add to that another player like Bosh or Wade, and it's like he'd back in Beijing.
Yes, Nash will be 36 by then, but he has kept himself in amazing shape, and will still be very effective then. Also, with Knicks owner James Dolan, Nash won't have the same problem he did with Suns owner Robert Sarver. Sarver drafted three point guards who could've been excellent understudies to Nash (including Robinson), but was way too big a cheapskate to hold onto any of them.
Of course, it also helps that the Isiah Thomas regime has been replaced with that of Donnie Walsh, a legendary-genius GM. The Indiana Pacers were a mess when Walsh finally handed the keys over to Larry Bird, but people forget they were a big favorite to win it all in 2004-05, and were crushing the defending champion Pistons at home the night Ron Artest ran into the stands and destroyed the franchise.
Walsh is proving he's still got the touch in New York, deftly handling the absolute disaster that Thomas left behind and shedding enough previously-thought-to-be unmanageable contracts in just a few months.
New York has the opposite of what LeBron has currently in Cleveland, which is a team built to compete now, but incompetent management who can't plan for the future.
Well, New York doesn't have the pieces to compete now, but they have some real pros in the front office who know exactly what they're doing. The Knicks have a future, and LeBron will be the crowning jewel of it.
Why They Wouldn't Get LeBron
Michael Jordan. Bill Russell. Tim Duncan. These are all franchise superstars who created dynasties for the teams that drafted them.
There is no denying that there is an air of loyalty and dedication around those guys that isn't around someone like Shaq or Wilt Chamberlain, whose legacies are both tainted by a single word: "selfish" (also, "free-throw percentage"). LeBron knows that even if he goes to New York and wins 10 titles, he'll be put on a different pedestal than those guys.
But what LeBron needs to keep in mind is this—more important than Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, Duncan has R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich. More important than Scottie Pippen, Jordan had Jerry Krause and Phil Jackson. More important than any of the multitudes of Hall-of-Famers he played with, Russell had Red Auerbach.
It's still almost two years away, but I'll see you in New York, LBJ.