Summer Forecast: Where will LBJ land?
For the greatest free-agent class in NBA history, the magic number is 10, because according to our forecast, at least 10 teams will have significant cap space in the summer of 2010.
And it appears there will be at least 10 big names on the open market as unrestricted free agents: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Shaquille O'Neal, Carlos Boozer, Paul Pierce, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki and Joe Johnson, along with aging but still potent names like Ray Allen, Marcus Camby, Derek Fisher, Jermaine O'Neal and Tracy McGrady. And that's not to mention Yao Ming, Tyson Chandler, Richard Jefferson and Michael Redd, each of whom has the option of joining the 2010 class, as do potential restricted free agents Rajon Rondo, Rudy Gay and LaMarcus Aldridge. And last but not least, Kobe Bryant still could choose to hit free agency in 2010.
So is it merely a coincidence that so many teams have hoarded cap space, and that other teams are trying to create space to join the party? You do the math.
Of course, the giant game of musical chairs that appears to be looming has already created quite a frenzy, as fans, journalists and the teams themselves try to imagine all the ways it could play out.
And that's where our Summer Forecast comes in. We asked our panel of 52 NBA noggins just where they thought LBJ, D-Wade, CB4 and Amare/STAT/Sun Tzu would end up a year from now. Our answers are found below (LeBron) and here: Wade | Bosh | Amare.
Cleveland (38 votes)
Clevelanders can't exhale yet, but perhaps they can take some comfort in our forecast, as 73.1 percent of our panel members now see LeBron staying in Ohio. That's a switch from last year, when less than half the panel saw King James wearing the wine and gold past 2010.
Certainly the Cavaliers have tried hard -- since drafting LeBron in 2003, really -- to make sure he's felt at home in his home state. The recent acquisitions of Shaquille O'Neal, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon and Leon Powe, and the big contract given to Anderson Varejao, are clear signals that Cleveland has continued in its win-now-and-make-LeBron-very-happy mode, likely eschewing hopes of adding a big name in 2010. And since the Cavs are building off a 66-win season, the immediate future seems bright indeed.
But with teams like Boston, Orlando and the Lakers also vying for the brass ring -- and the odds are against any single team, even one as stacked as Cleveland -- LeBron is still more than likely to exit the building in great frustration once again, coming up short of a title for the seventh straight season. The question is whether he'll keep walking.
As we've heard (and reported) ad nauseam, the New York Knicks have been clearing cap space furiously, and naturally have their sights set on King James, who is known to love the city and wants "global icon" status. And as noted above, New York is hardly the only team projected to have cap space in 2010.
But the Cavs caught a break, it appears, at least in terms of their LeBron retention plan, when the league crunched the numbers and projected a drop in revenues and the salary cap for the coming year. That means, as things currently stand, the Knicks could not sign both LBJ and a friend like Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade to max contracts. Presumably that would dampen LeBron's interest in making the leap to the Big Apple.
And let's not forget, the Cavs can sign James for tens of millions more than any other team can. Even for a guy as wealthy as LeBron, money talks. Unless it doesn't.
New York (8 votes)
Despite the cards Cleveland holds, some still see New York as King James' destiny. And they might have a leg to stand on, thanks to LeBron himself, as he has become the master of the mixed message. That was heard again most recently in his interview with ESPN's Rachel Nichols, in which he avoided the opportunity to express loyalty to Cleveland and pointedly said his heart was in his hometown of Akron:
"My loyalty is to Akron. I'm looking forward to this upcoming season, but I'm looking forward to the summer of 2010, too, to see what may happen. No matter what happens that summer, I'm still here. I've got a nice big house here that I'm always coming back to. I love this city and I'll always give back to this city no matter what my profession, if it takes me somewhere else."
So if that leaves the door open for an exit to another team, how could Knicks president Donnie Walsh pull off his miracle play?
First, he'll try to move Eddy Curry and Jared Jeffries to create enough cap space for LeBron and another free agent to leap directly to New York; that's been Plan A since Walsh arrived. Short of that -- and moving those two contracts will be exceedingly difficult -- he'll try to work out a sign-and-trade, perhaps involving David Lee, to bring in a second star such as Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire as a teammate for LeBron. And no matter what, he'll tell LeBron all about the potential cap room the Knicks will have in 2011, at which time Walsh will be able to round out what could become a championship roster.
The other cards in Walsh's deck are pretty obvious as he makes his pitch to LeBron: Come to so-called Basketball Mecca and we'll build championship teams around you in the World's Greatest Arena, paving the way to greater glory, riches and Global Icon status. And oh, by the way, you'll be playing for Mike D'Antoni, the guy who won about 60 games a year in Phoenix, who helped mastermind the success of your Olympic gold medal-winning team and who will set you free in the open court to run up and down in the up-tempo offense you've always dreamed of.
Right now the obvious problem for New York is that the roster has massive holes, to say the least. But Walsh can point out two other things to LeBron: The Cavs roster will have its own serious issues going forward, and the Knicks have ways to improve dramatically.
LeBron has stated that his goal is to win multiple championships, à la Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. And at the moment, the Cavs are much better positioned to win a title than the Knicks are. But if Walsh can somehow persuade LeBron that the Knicks will put him in good position to win rings, then the New York move -- and the most celebrated free-agent move in sports history -- can't be counted out.
That said, right now our panel is keeping it real, as only 15.4 percent see LeBron making the leap to New York in 2010.
While there are many wild-card options in play (the Clippers, anyone?), only three were mentioned by our panel:
Miami (3 votes)
A trio of panelists expects LeBron to land in Miami and play alongside Dwyane Wade, forming an unprecedented dynamic duo of All-World wing players. As farfetched as this might sound, it appears to meet some of the criteria James might have for his next contract: The Heat would be instant title contenders, LeBron would have his pal D-Wade as a teammate, and he's said to love the city.
But would LeBron want to invade Wade's turf and join a franchise in which the pecking order would be unclear? Hard to say.
New Jersey (2 votes)
Another couple of voters expect LeBron to join his buddy Jay-Z and the Nets as they try to make their way to Brooklyn. While this option seemed like a live one a year ago, the well-reported bumps in the road for the Nets franchise and its proposed move to NYC have probably chilled James' interest in signing up for the ride.
Boston (1 vote)
And one hunch has King James in Celtic green, which is theoretically possible: Boston could give LeBron a max contract if Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo walked (or were renounced by the Celtics). In that case, though, LeBron might be wondering if "anything is possible," even if Kevin Garnett is still around.
Royce Webb is an NBA editor for ESPN.com.
Click below to see our forecast on other top potential 2010 free agents.
Henry Abbott (ESPN.com TrueHoop senior writer), J.A. Adande (ESPN.com senior writer), Kevin Arnovitz (ESPN.com TrueHoop Network editor), Andrew Ayres (ESPN.com NBA editor), Jon Barry (ESPN NBA analyst), Bruce Bernstein (ESPN NBA Studio Production), Alfredo Berrios (ESPN Deportes editor), Dwayne Bray (ESPN Studio Production), Jordan Brenner (ESPN Insider editor), Lisa Brooks (ESPN Stats & Information), Maurice Brooks (ESPN.com NBA editor), Chris Broussard (ESPN The Magazine senior writer), Ric Bucher (ESPN The Magazine senior writer), Michael Bucklin (ESPN Interactive Games), Kevin Calabro (ESPN NBA broadcaster), Kevin Conlon (ESPN Stats & Information), Jay Corbin (ESPN The Magazine editor), Chad Ford (ESPN Insider senior writer), LZ Granderson (ESPN The Magazine senior writer), John Hollinger (ESPN Insider senior writer), Jade Hoye (ESPN Multimedia), Michael Jackson (ESPN Stats & Information), Scoop Jackson (ESPN Page 2 columnist), Avery Johnson (ESPN NBA analyst), Eric Karabell (ESPN.com senior writer), Rob King (ESPN.com editor-in-chief), Seth Landman (ESPN Fantasy basketball writer), Tim Legler (ESPN NBA analyst), Nancy Lieberman (ESPN NBA analyst), Keith Lipscomb (ESPN Fantasy basketball analyst), Patricia Lowry (ESPN NBA Event Production), Mike Lynch (ESPN Stats & Information), Eric Neel (ESPN.com senior writer), Pete Newmann (ESPN Stats & Information), Chris Palmer (ESPN The Magazine NBA writer), Greg Pike (ESPN NBA Studio Production), Chris Ramsay (ESPN.com NBA coordinator), Dr. Jack Ramsay (ESPN NBA analyst), Adam Reisinger (ESPN DB editor), Bob Salmi (ESPN NBA analyst), Chris Sheridan (ESPN Insider senior writer), Marc Stein (ESPN.com NBA senior writer), Patrick Stiegman (ESPN.com VP/Executive editor), Otto Strong (ESPN The Magazine NBA editor), Mark Summer (ESPN NBA Studio Production), David Thorpe (ESPN Insider NBA analyst), Justin Verrier (ESPN.com NBA editor), Bill Walton (ESPN NBA analyst), Royce Webb (ESPN.com NBA editor), Josh Whitling (ESPN Fantasy Basketball writer), Matt Winer (ESPN NBA anchor) and Matt Wong (ESPN.com NBA editor).