We are mere hours away from potentially seismic activity in the NBA. On midnight of July 1, 2010, NBA free agency begins, and this is probably the most star-studded and deepest free-agent class since players were allowed to choose their teams. And everyone has an opinion of where each player fits best and which fellow free agent(s) they should convince to sign along with them.
Of course the headliner is LeBron James, who could determine in the coming weeks, days, or hours, whether he will become the next Kobe Bryant or the next Clyde Drexler. Everyone of his suitors offers a different path to greatness. Cleveland can offer the chance to be a hometown legend. Chicago can offer a young and hungry supporting cast and the chance to play in Michael Jordan’s house. Miami can offer the chance to be a part of an unprecedented team of All-Stars in the primes of their career. New York can offer the shot at redemption in one the great basketball cities in the world. New Jersey can offer an international mogul at the helms of the franchise, and the possibility of stealing that New York spotlight. And finally Los Angeles can offer the chance of essentially building your own franchise and taking on Kobe in his own city.
Each city also has its drawbacks. The Clippers are a cursed laughingstock of a franchise led by one of the least respected owners in the league. The Nets will be playing in Newark the next two seasons before the possibly head to Brooklyn, but nothing is guaranteed yet, and the Nets finished with the worst record in the NBA in 2010. The Knicks haven’t been relevant in a decade and have only a handful of players under contract, none of which is a proven star. The Heat’s Dream Team is enticing, but LeBron would have to swallow his pride and would forever be known as the second guy after Dwyane Wade, who has already lead the Heat to a title. The Bulls will always be Jordan’s team, and the expectations will be higher in Chicago than any other city. And the Cavaliers have yet to build a championship-caliber team around LeBron in his seven-year tenure, and it’s hard to see if they are capable of that now.
And everyone is waiting to see where LeBron goes, or is he waiting to see where everyone else goes? Some players like Joe Johnson, Amar’e Stoudemire, or Carlos Boozer will probably have to sign before LeBron, so a team like the Knicks or Nets can go to LeBron and say “Look who we already have. With you joining him we will be on the path to a championship.” But Wade and Chris Bosh might wait to see where LeBron goes and what he gets before they sign. Wade might figure he should get more from the Heat since he has an edge in rings on LeBron, and Bosh will wait to see if he would fit better with LeBron or Wade.
Along with Wade, Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki figure to stay with their current teams even though the latter two opted out of their contracts this week. Maybe if LeBron lands in New York or New Jersey and needs a new wingman one of those guys would follow. Or maybe they are waiting for a team to overpay to get the name for their marquee. Both Pierce and Dirk have only known one franchise, but this could be their last chance for a big pay day before a new collective bargaining agreement is reached sometime after the 2011 season (That plays into this free agent frenzy as much as the quality of players available. Nobody is sure what the next CBA will look like or even how long a work stoppage could last. It is very plausible that these will be the last mega-contracts handed out in the NBA).
Each city vying for LeBron and the other free agents can change their sports landscape in the process. In Chicago the Bulls were the only success story during the 1990’s, but in the 2000’s the Bulls struggled while the White Sox and Blackhawks won titles, the Bears won a conference title, and the Cubs got closer to playing in the World Series than they had in six decades (that counts for something in the Windy City doesn’t it?) but with LeBron the Bulls would be back on top. The Clippers can turn L.A. into a two-team town for basketball, but that isn’t going to happen. The Heat could finally challenge the Dolphins as the top team in Miami, and with LeBron and Wade they would cement themselves as a pillar of the NBA and can reach new heights on the international market. LeBron can ensure Cleveland will remain a basketball city or he can be its last moment of glory.
But the most intriguing is what happens to basketball in New York. When the Knicks are good, they dominate the headlines and talk radio (they haven’t been remotely good in the era of blogs and social networking, but they would probably dominate that too) and the Nets were scene as a quaint little rival, but served no serious threat. Than over the last decade the Knicks sank into the oblivion of mismanagement and the Nets gathered some legit talent and were the class of (an albeit weak) Eastern Conference for much of the decade, earning a little respect from the New York fans. But the Nets sunk back to their usual depths later in the decade, joining the Knicks at the bottom and losing whatever progress they made in gaining new fans.
This summer could determine which team, the Knicks or Nets, becomes the team that a new generation of New York basketball fans chooses. New Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has thrown down the gauntlet, putting up a massive billboard across the street from Madison Square Garden featuring himself and Nets minority owner Jay-Z, proclaiming that the Nets are ready to take over the town. If and when they move to Brooklyn, they really could. The Knicks have been waiting for this exact moment for two years, and not netting LeBron or another superstar could be devastating for the fan base. If the Nets ever signed him, the Nets rise to prominence in New York would be complete. But lets say neither get LeBron, if the Nets can get the better haul they can still wrest control of the city from the Knicks. And with the dashing new owner that could capitalize on international markets the Nets really could do it.
Since the rumors seem to change by the hour of where everybody will land, predicting where each will end up could be an exercise in futility. I don’t think that all these perfect scenarios dreamed up by agents or experts will come to fruition. Sure a lot of these guys are close, closer than past free agents, due to their time on the Olympic team and growing up in the basketball culture, but ultimately each player will go to the city, coach, teammates, and owner they believe the best fit for themselves. Some will probably land together on a team with a lot of cap-room, and some fan-bases will start planning a victory parade while others shred their season-ticket orders, but nothing will be won this summer except the war for the back pages. We will see a very different NBA when all the ink is dry and we can spend the rest of the summer dreaming about which new potential super team is ready to dethrone the Lakers.