Commentary

A superstar's guide to free agency

Originally Published: March 2, 2011
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

Amar'e Stoudemire, LeBron James, Carmelo AnthonyGetty ImagesAs we've seen over the past year, A-list stars can approach free agency in different ways.

It's more informal than in the corporate world, but NBA players have their own best practices meetings. They share recommendations on chefs, trainers, car dealers, mortgage brokers, party planners, clubs and much more. So why not free-agency procedures as well?

The past eight months have seen extraordinary movement from All-Stars and franchise players, mostly through free agency -- or, in Carmelo Anthony's case, a version of free agency that came in the form of a forced trade.

As the next generation of stars examines its options in the coming months -- the big names being Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Chris Paul -- these stars can look at a series of different blueprints from those who have gone before them. Already, all three are being asked regularly about their upcoming free agency and there's little doubt they are already thinking about it and studying a plan of action.

There's a wide array of choices on how to proceed based on their peers' actions. Here's a look:

James

The LeBron strategy: Straight to voice mail
For his last five years in Cleveland, LeBron James was highly involved with most of the major moves the Cavs made. The team consulted with him on trades and some design features of its practice facility, and even occasionally altered its travel plans based on James' personal schedule.

But when it came to his contract -- the biggest issue hanging over the franchise during his final two seasons in Cleveland -- there was a striking lack of communication as it came to an end.

This was mostly James' choice. The team offered him a contract extension in the summer of 2009, but it pretty much just sat on the table. James finally and meekly announced that he would not be accepting it and that he would become an unrestricted free agent in 2010.

Less than a month into last season -- irritated by a question, ironically enough, about teaming up with Dwyane Wade in Miami -- James announced he would not talk about his free agency to the media. The truth was he didn't talk about it privately to the team or almost anyone else, either.

This fit somewhat with the team's plan, which followed the model the San Antonio Spurs used to re-sign Tim Duncan in 2000. That was to focus on winning, not directly on the free agent-to-be, and to create a desirable place to play, complete with perks. The hope was that all free agents, not just the really big one, would want to be there. That sounds like a good plan, but it also sort of ignored the elephant in the room.

When the season ended, James virtually went dark on the team. He didn't go through a standard exit interview. He didn't speak with the team when it decided to fire coach Mike Brown. He patently refused to get involved in the process to hire the next coach, and wouldn't take personal calls from the candidates themselves, namely Tom Izzo.

Sources said James simply didn't return almost all e-mails, texts and calls.

"When the Cavs looked back at it, they realized that they should have known what was coming," a league executive said. "He had been talking to them less and less and it got to the point where the only way to get at him was to text one of his friends and hope the message got through."

Team owner Dan Gilbert did have a brief meeting with James in mid-June but learned only that James intended to stay out of the coaching search. James also met with newly hired coach Byron Scott on July 3 when the Cavs made their free-agency pitch to James. But that was it.

Famously, James informed the team he was leaving when a business partner called a few minutes before he announced his free-agency plans on national television.

When it was over, the Cavs ended up making a sign-and-trade deal with the Heat. But with no leverage -- James wasn't signing for the maximum contract and didn't have to use a sign-and-trade to get most of what he wanted -- the Cavs were able to get only a few distant draft picks and a trade exception that the team hasn't used yet.

Anthony

The Carmelo strategy: Have your people call my people
Perhaps because of what happened with James, Anthony's method of handling free agency was a polar opposite. Represented by the same agent as James, Leon Rose, Anthony couldn't have been more open with the Nuggets about his intentions nearly a year before he became a free agent.

A month after James stunned the Cavs, Anthony and Rose met with Nuggets president Josh Kroenke and told him Anthony was probably not going to sign the Nuggets' offered contract extension then or a year from then. Anthony and his representative said that he preferred to be traded and provided a very brief list of where he wanted to go: Chicago or New York.

What followed was a painstaking, uncomfortable and sometimes bizarre six months that were dominated by trade rumors and speculation. Also unlike James, Anthony regularly talked about the unfolding situation to the media. It got to the point where he was announcing, first from week to week and then game to game, that he planned to be with the Nuggets.

During the entire process, there weren't just general managers negotiating with each other, but owners talking to owners and Anthony's agent talking to other teams trying to create deals for other clients to be involved in the trade. All this occurred in the middle of a season in which Anthony was putting up excellent numbers and trying to personally stay above the fray.

Not even James, when comparing it with how his own situation played out, could believe how Anthony chose to deal with it.

"I was able to hide a little bit because it was in the offseason when it got heavy," James said. "He's still traveling, he's still playing games, he still had to put a uniform on and represent the Denver Nuggets … I didn't have to see [the media] in the offseason."

Anthony's open lines of communication about his intentions didn't stop with his team. Despite being under contract with the Nuggets, he met with potential suitors to listen to their pitches, not unlike what James did as a free agent. In the middle of the season, Anthony met with the Knicks' and the Nets' ownership groups to hear them out.

It created an unpleasant situation for all parties, including some of Anthony's teammates who were constantly involved in trade rumors surrounding him. In the end, the Nuggets were able to execute a trade that allowed them to acquire several players in addition to a trade exception and draft picks.

"I'm not sure they owe him a thank-you card, but the Nuggets certainly have to appreciate what Carmelo did for them on some level," a player agent said. "By letting them know what he was doing, he allowed them to plan for the future and make a deal that helped them now and later. The Cavs didn't get that courtesy."

Anthony got what he wanted, which was never to become a free agent at all. He signed a contract extension last week, virtually the same one the Nuggets offered last summer.

Stoudemire

The Amare strategy: The ball is in your court
Calling Amare Stoudemire's breakup with the Suns amicable may be a bit of a stretch, but his method of handling his departure left his old team with way more power than the Cavs and Nuggets had when they lost their stars.

Like the Cavs and Nuggets, the Suns tried to avoid letting their star ever hit free agency by offering him a contract extension midway through last season. The final talks took place near the trade deadline, as the team was trying to decide whether to trade him then. The sides seemed to have a fundamental disagreement on what Stoudemire's market value would be after serious knee and eye injuries earlier in his career.

Stoudemire made it clear that his preference was to stay in Phoenix. He just wanted to be paid what he perceived to be his market value. That would be a fully guaranteed maximum contract, despite his injury issues with both knees. The two sides were far apart on those numbers in February and equally separated in July.

Though he was recruited hard by the Knicks and had a desire to play in a large market, Stoudemire gave the Suns a chance to match the offer made to him. Had the Suns done so, there is a strong chance Stoudemire would still be playing in Phoenix today.

But the Suns didn't really come close. The Knicks offered that full guarantee of $100 million he was expecting. The Suns offered about $40 million less guaranteed with incentives that could have earned Stoudemire the rest if he stayed healthy. Making the easy decision, Stoudemire took the better deal in New York.

When James left Cleveland, team owner Dan Gilbert wrote an open letter in which he called James' acts a "cowardly betrayal," among other things. When Anthony left Denver, team general manager Masai Ujiri said he felt his team "got killed in the trade."

When Stoudemire left Phoenix, team owner Robert Sarver released a letter thanking him and hoping that the Suns could honor him someday in their Ring of Honor. Different circumstances indeed.

Durant

The Durant strategy: Hook, line and sinker
Technically, Thunder star Kevin Durant has yet to be a free agent. But that wasn't the way Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti saw it last summer. In the first minutes of free agency on July 1, the Thunder reached out to Durant to offer him a contract extension at the first legal moment.

Durant was under contract for this current season and then would be a restricted free agent. There was no rush on a deal in July; Durant had until Oct. 31 to decide whether to take the offer. But the Thunder approached him as if he was the biggest free-agent priority in team history. In many ways, he was.

That tactic worked, and in ways that stunned some in the league. Not only did Durant take the offer virtually on the spot, but he announced his intentions not on television, with a news conference or with a press release -- but on his Twitter account.

Not wanting to test the market or see how the Thunder's young core developed for a season before locking himself in, Durant signed for five years for what is expected to be about $85 million.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the outcome to many teams and agents was that Durant did not want an option at the end of the deal to get out early. These options are virtually standard for any player getting more than a three-year deal. Durant could have requested, and almost certainly received, a chance to opt out of the new deal after four years.

James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh secured options after the fourth and fifth years of their six-year deals. Stoudemire and Anthony, both of whom were thrilled to get long-term security in a place where they wanted to play, still got opt-outs at the end of their new contracts.

But not Durant, even though he was playing in one of the league's smallest markets with teammates who were still mostly unproven. He even said he would have signed a 10-year extension if it was currently permitted under league rules.

It was a complete and total commitment in a time of unprecedented movement from the league's stars. So much that Durant's move established its own precedent.