With LeBron James as the big prize, highly anticipated NBA free agency period set to open

By Brian Mahoney, AP
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

With LeBron the big prize, free agency set to open

NEW YORK — The date has been circled on calendars around the NBA for years.

July 1, 2010: The day LeBron James becomes a free agent.

The day the league might begin to change forever.

“I think the landscape could really shift,” former Phoenix general manager Steve Kerr said.

Shopping season starts at 12:01 a.m. EDT Thursday with James as the biggest prize, a two-time MVP just reaching his prime and one of the most sought-after players ever to hit the free agent market in any sport.

There’s so much more.

Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James’ classmates from the 2003 draft — and future teammates in Miami if they choose. Perennial All-Stars such as Dirk Nowitzki, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson.

NBA champions and Olympic gold medalists, now in search of something else for their collections: a maximum-salary contract. And teams are positioned at the starting line, just waiting for the race to start.

“We’ve never had anything like this in my time that I can remember,” New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn said. “There have been big-time free agents before, but never this many teams that are trying to woo them. So it’s unprecedented.”

Thorn is headed to Ohio, where James will welcome suitors to his home state Thursday. He’ll be joined by new owner Mikhail Prokhorov, coach Avery Johnson and hip-hop superstar Jay-Z, a part-owner and James’ longtime friend.

Then it’s back home to make pitches the next day in New York to Wade and Bosh — though minus Jay-Z. (Sorry guys, the day job calls. He’s touring in Europe).

The Knicks plan to drop in on LeBron, too. They can afford James and another max player, which might be what they need to finally get going again after a franchise-worst nine straight losing seasons.

“We’ve had to live through some tough times in order to get where you think you start rebuilding the franchise,” team president Donnie Walsh said. “We have that opportunity now. How well, how fast we can rebuild the team can be shortcut by getting great players.”

They’ll have plenty of competition. The Heat, Nets, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers can offer max deals to James’ class, which would pay about $16.6 million next season. Chicago and New Jersey made trades in recent days to push them closer to joining the Knicks with enough to offer two max deals, and the Heat can keep Wade, give an additional max contract and have enough left over for another quality player.

So much for the theory that free agency isn’t the route to building a winner in the NBA, where top players rarely leave because their teams can offer them more money. (James would give up about $30 million if he bolts Cleveland).

The Knicks traded away Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph — the NBA’s top sixth man and a first-time All-Star, respectively — to get their $34 million in room. New Jersey shipped out Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter in recent years, resulting in a 12-70 record but hope for a quick turnaround. Miami essentially left Wade to play by himself this season in exchange for the chance to get him more help then he could ever want starting Thursday.

“It is an ‘all-in’ strategy, in that even when it works, you’re going to have to operate with a very low payroll,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said. “If it doesn’t work, it can be catastrophic in terms of if you strike out, it’s going to be very difficult to be competitive. But every team is doing the best they can. That may be the best path they have available.”

The potential crop made it too hard for some teams not to try.

The clock started ticking four summers ago, when James, Wade and Bosh passed on maximum-length extensions on their rookie contracts in favor of shorter deals that allowed them to opt for free agency this summer.

Momentum kept building as fears grew that owners will seek radical changes in length and value of contracts next summer when the league’s collective bargaining agreement expires. That made it wise for a player like Nowitzki, even if he has no intention of leaving Dallas, to exercise his early termination option now and sign a new deal under the current rules.

Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo called it all “unprecedented” and a “unique set of circumstances that’s got everyone into a frenzy” Monday during a radio interview with the Fan590 in Toronto, when he said it was likely Bosh would leave.

If the All-Star forward joins James, or Wade, or both, that team figures to become an immediate championship contender. Boston won the title the year after assembling its Big Three — which could now be broken up with Ray Allen on the market — and the Lakers have reached the finals every year since acquiring Pau Gasol to complement Kobe Bryant.

Numerous teams are now dreaming of similar pairings.

“You look at the teams that have an awful lot of cap space, there could be a lot of power shifting in this league,” Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis said.

Deals can be agreed to but can’t be signed until July 8. The process often goes quickly but this year that’s probably up to James and his advisers, because teams in the running for him probably won’t move on to Plan B until they know his intentions. With so many potential good options, he might want to take his time.

“I think the free agents are corporations and there’s a process that all of them have to go through who are members of the corporation. Mom, agent, lawyer, doctor, daughter, son, husband, all these people are part of it, so I don’t think it’s an individual decision anymore,” Hall of Famer Julius Erving said.

“I think the stakes are so high, contracts are so big, it’s not an individual decision and it’s not a decision you just let an agent make anymore.”

With free agency turning into must-see TV, NBA TV will air a live special starting at midnight, and the Knicks’ MSG network will debut a show at the same time.

After years of jockeying by teams, anticipation by the players and speculation by the media, it’s time to get started.

“It’s what we live for,” Dallas Mavericks president Donnie Nelson said. “It’s fun.”

AP Sports Writers Jaime Aron in Dallas, Chris Duncan in Houston and Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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