James to move, then the other dominoes will fall
As the day that potentially will change the landscape of the NBA approaches, the moves continue. They seem minor. The Heat buying out the contract of James Jones. The Nets declining the option on Keyon Dooling.
In the grand scheme, however, these transactions loom large because they are indications of teams hustling at the 11th hour to create as much salary cap space as possible to accommodate two, or perhaps three, premium free agents.
Christmas is here for those teams that have spent the past few years discarding players and taking on bad contracts with the express purpose of freeing up enough money to entice LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and other top free agents.
Tonight at a minute after midnight, teams are free to negotiate with free agents, and the Knicks, who have been awful for years, have appointments with Joe Johnson in Los Angeles and Amar’e Stoudemire in Phoenix as the frenzy begins.
James has meetings scheduled in his native Akron, Ohio, with five teams — Chicago, New Jersey, New York, Miami, and the Clippers — during the first week of free agency.
There appear to be three players worthy of a maximum contract — which for free agents would be five years and begin at no less than 105 percent of what the player earned the previous year — James, Wade, and Bosh. For example, a maximum deal for James would start at $16.56 million (at the minimum) and increase by 8 percent each season over the five-year period.
Teams such as the Heat and Nets have been clearing out space to take on two maximum contracts so they can pursue James, Wade, or Bosh, or perhaps Johnson or Stoudemire. James and Wade were in the same draft class and each signed three-year contract extensions so they could become free agents after their seventh year, during the prime of their careers.
If James, 25, signs a five-year deal with Chicago or another team besides Cleveland, he will be 30 when the deal concludes and could sign another maximum contract, a feat so far ac complished only by the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant because he entered the league directly out of high school.
James has been planning for this summer since his last contract and has not hinted at a possible destination. The Cavaliers fired their coach and general manager in hopes of encouraging James to stay, and he said on “Larry King Live’’ three weeks ago that Cleveland has the edge.
If James does leave Cleveland, he will walk away from the $30 million he would earn in his contract in the sixth year. Teams can offer six-year max deals to their own free agents, with the final year worth $30 million, but other teams can offer only five years.
James is obviously the key player here and everything waits on his decision. Perhaps a team may decide to pursue one of the other top free agents before James signs if they have been told he is not interested. James is enjoying this unprecedented power. No previous free agent has had such a strong position.
Bryant was free to sign with any club following the Lakers’ collapse in the Finals against the Pistons in 2004, and he briefly flirted with the Clippers before re-signing with the Lakers. James has given no indication where he’ll end up other than to hold constant discussions with Bosh and Wade about the potential of playing together.
The Heat are the only club who could potentially sign all three, but the third player would not earn maximum money unless they deal Michael Beasley, something they have been desperately trying to do. There has been conflicting speculation about whether the trio held a summit last weekend in South Florida.
Wade is widely expected to remain with the Heat and James will get attention from team president Pat Riley, but Miami’s roster has been so gutted that a Wade-James combination could leave it with little supporting cast.
Some teams have done so much surgery on their roster to clear cap space they are only shells of their former selves while awaiting incoming free agents. The Knicks and Clippers have six players under contract and the Nets seven. So free agent additions may result in improvement but doesn’t guarantee anything.
The one factor that has been emphasized this summer is that many teams abandoned improving through the draft — as evidenced by the trading or releasing of former top draft picks — and have opted for free agency. There is no assurance that adding any of those high-priced All-Stars will result in success, but teams realize the allure of star power, especially in markets such as Chicago and New York.
So as of a minute after midnight tonight, the Knicks and Bulls matter again and the fate of their franchises could be determined by an indecisive 25-year-old who never has won a ring.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.