CHICAGO -- LeBron James did the entire basketball world a huge favor last month when he issued a ban on 2010.
Not the year itself, though you wonder if Nike and the city of Cleveland would play along with that fantasy request just to appease him (It's always 2009 in Cleveland!), but rather the important question that has hung over his head like, well, a giant question mark for years: Where will he play in 2010?
It was early November when James, a free-agent-in-waiting for seemingly his whole career, said he would only talk about the present for the rest of the season. The same old questions in every city quickly became a drag, especially when he couldn't give an honest answer.
"This free-agent talk is getting old. It's getting old, and I think I'm going to stop. Tonight will be the last time I answer any more free-agent questions until the offseason," James told reporters before a game.
But fans in New York, Chicago and Miami, among other possible destinations, should King James decide to leave his Rust Belt fiefdom, can't help but wonder where James, along with Raptors forward Chris Bosh and Heat guard Dwyane Wade, the big three of 2010, will end up after this season. Before their fellow 2003 draftee Carmelo Anthony re-upped with Denver, he too was part of the virtual barbershop discussion. Darko Milicic was not.
This isn't pressing news, but with the Bulls traveling to Cleveland on Friday night to play in a nationally televised game on ESPN, before playing host to Toronto on Saturday (not to mention playing at Atlanta on Wednesday, against free agent to-be Joe Johnson), it's fun to start speculating.
Chicago would be a logical and tempting destination for any of the three superstars and Johnson, the Ringo to their John, Paul and George. The Bulls purposely have money to spend (with approximately $38 million locked up in salary for next year, nearly $32 million less than this year) and Derrick Rose at the point.
Forget marching bands, Chicago night life, and the chance to supplant Michael Jordan's legacy in a town that has created advertising legends since before the "Mad Men" days. Englewood's Finest is the real key to any deal, the perfect, All-Star second banana to any offensive-minded superstar who is gunning for a championship. Rare is the 21-year-old star who is as deferential as he is gifted. Rose would be, to be sure, the best teammate that Wade, James and Bosh have never had.
Rose's crossover is prettier than the Chicago skyline at night, his first step quicker than summer, and his court vision truer than a Nelson Algren cityscape. And Rose needs a star to play alongside, as the Bulls have no surefire closer right now. This is a team in waiting just as it was designed.
"Any one of them superstars needs to come here," Rose told reporters the other day. "I wouldn't mind playing with anybody, especially a guy like [James]. He can't do nothing but make the team better."
Along with Rose, the Bulls are seemingly superstar-ready with players who wouldn't mind playing backup roles, from Luol Deng to Joakim Noah to Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson, not to mention the enigmatic Tyrus Thomas, who is rumored to be on the trading block, along with the expiring deal of Jerome James, which could free up even more money next year.
Guard John Salmons has an early termination option next year, or could earn $5.8 million. The Bulls fattened up on expiring contracts at the trade deadline last season and not wanting to pay a luxury tax, or jeopardize 2010's possibilities, they bade farewell to Ben Gordon.
James, Wade and Bosh are clearly the class of a potentially deep group of 2010 free agents, with Amare Stoudemire, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Johnson and Dirk Nowitzki (who has a massive $21 million player option next year) among the players who would pique the interest of the Bulls.
Tracy McGrady, exiled in Houston right now but a free agent in 2010, unofficially lost his chance when he turned down Jerry Krause like a jilted suitor. You mess with Crumbs and you get dirty, T-Mac. Also, a Chicago winter would snap his brittle bones.
Aside from the big three, the Bulls' biggest target should be Johnson, the sharpshooting guard in Atlanta. Johnson's skill set is precisely what this Bulls team lacks. Is he the missing piece to a contender? Is he worth a maximum payout? That remains to be seen.
With so much money available, the Bulls can afford to sign two big-name free agents without sacrificing much in the way of talent.
Although the Knicks remain a formidable civic opponent with a great offensive coach in Mike D'Antoni and a roster full of expiring contracts, the biggest rivals to Chicago landing one of the big three are Cleveland and Miami, the current homes of James and Wade. While Bosh seems to sure to leave Toronto (give me one reason, aside from a little extra money, he would stay), Wade and James like their current homes, but both have played it smart by refusing to sign before the summer.
James, who loves wearing Yankees hats, built a mega-mansion in a nice enclave of Akron. Wade, who recently bought a downtown townhouse near the East Bank Club, is happy living in Miami. I spent some time with the ESPN "Homecoming" crew when they taped a Wade show this past summer and the guard's friends, while they wouldn't rule anything out, made me think he's happy making his home in South Florida, while just visiting Chicago. Still, he's made it clear he wants to play for a contender.
As for James, sure he's bigger than Cleveland, but how could he possibly get any more famous? His multitude of endorsement deals won't get any more plentiful in New York or Chicago, and he's comfortable in Cleveland, where as the viral "Cleveland Tourism" video noted last spring, "the economy's based on LeBron James."
It's a heady thing to control an entire city's economy. Maybe James would like a release from the pressure?
Like any basketball fan, I would love to see any of the big three come to Chicago. Not to be a provincial homer, but I think it's the best landing spot. But I'm too pessimistic, too realistic, to see it happening. Very few superstars leave, Shaq notwithstanding.
James will probably stay in Cleveland, signing another four- or five-year deal, and be content to fly to New York to hang out with Jay-Z or to Los Angeles to kick it with movie stars. He's still young enough to have another dozen years to play at a high level.
Bosh will probably go to Miami, which has only $24 million guaranteed for 2010, or maybe even Cleveland, if the Cavs can rid themselves of some of their salaries. He seems destined to be the second star on a team, not the first.
As for the Bulls? Well, it's still too early to tell anything, but I could see them overpaying for Johnson or Stoudemire, neither of whom has the star wattage of Wade or James, but you have to spend the money on something, right?
But maybe Rose, along with Noah, Deng & Co., can make Johnson or Stoudemire, or whomever else lands here, into champions. We'll have to wait until July to see what happens, but even LeBron James' rules can't stop us from dreaming. (Then again, I haven't read his Nike contract. Maybe he can.)