Not every great player in the NBA could change teams in the next week. It just seems that way. LeBron James, probably the best (and best-known) basketball player in the world, is the biggest of names atop the list of NBA free agents. But the homeless superstars go about 10 deep, and where they decide to settle down, in the coming days or weeks, could reshape the league quickly and profoundly.
NBA executives have seen this coming, and at least eight clubs have spent most of two seasons manoeuvring to clear tens of millions of dollars of space under the league's salary cap - even at the cost of damaging their short-term prospects - so that they can make a run at Someone Special in the summer of 2010. The long build-up to the mad chase is finally over; free agents were allowed to begin negotiations with any team in the league at 12.01am (New York time) this morning.
Thus begins the mating dances of teams and players, and the permutations are endless. The linchpin is James, the freakishly gifted Cleveland Cavaliers power forward who has been the league's Most Valuable Player for the past two seasons. Until he picks a home, clubs will be hesitant to make offers, and players to accept them, which they can do beginning on July 8. "We don't know how long the process is going to be," Ernie Grunfeld, the president of the Washington Wizards, told the Associated Press.
"The top of the heap is LeBron, and depending on what he does I think will dictate the rest of free agency." James has modestly conceded that his career goal is "global icon" and he seems well on his way, at age 25. But the next waystation on that preferred path is a matter of speculation, unless we are to believe reports that James and Chris Bosh, the Toronto Raptors forward, already have agreed to join the Chicago Bulls, and few do.
James has many options, including: ?Staying in Cleveland with the Cavaliers, the only franchise he has known, in his home state of Ohio. This also offers a chance at the biggest possible contract. The NBA's complicated free-agency rules allow a player's most recent team the chance to offer a six-year contract, compared to only five years by any other team. Hence, the Cavaliers could guarantee James something like US$125 million (Dh459m) through the 2015/16 season. That is real money, even for James.
?Jump to a franchise with at least one of the other two top-three free agents. The most likely scenario involves Dwyane Wade, the Miami Heat guard, who is thought to prefer to remain in Miami and is recruiting James (and perhaps Bosh) to join him, if the Heat can figure out a way to pay each of them $16m or so per season. The other two-stars-to-one-team scenarios seem to focus on Chicago, where two fine young players in Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah already are in place and, some insist, James and Bosh already are committed; and, yes, New York, the US media capital and in theory the NBA's beating heart.
But the Knicks are a franchise with nine consecutive losing seasons on the books and an erratic owner, James Dolan, who is thought to be viewed with alarm by players. What was expected to be the summer when the Knicks bought their way into the championship discussion ... could turn into bitter disappointment. ?Do something surprising. Such as joining the New Jersey Nets, a downtrodden franchise in the New York City market that suddenly looks far more interesting as Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire, takes control of the team and turns loose one of his co-owners, the rapper Jay-Z, to recruit James, with whom he is close.
The possibility of upheaval has led to strange times in the NBA. James, Wade and Bosh, friends since playing for the US at the 2008 Olympics, apparently convened in Miami last weekend to discuss their options in an unprecedented superstar summit, which led to even more speculation that the three would attempt to land on the same team, and plenty of rattled owners. Several owners and general managers are thought to be prepared to make the pilgrimage to James's estate in Ohio to plead their cases with the young star and his small group of advisers.
Meanwhile, fans have been creating websites aimed at keeping their players or luring someone else's, while other supporters have recorded songs recommending their city as a destination. In Dallas, a long-shot landing spot for James, the "Bron Bron Song" can be heard at LeBronToTheMavs.com. In Ohio, several elected leaders have recorded something entitled "Please stay LeBron", which is sung to the tune of the 1980s charity video, We Are the World.
Several other outstanding players are available, including Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks forward; Amare Stoudemire, the Phoenix Suns forward; Carlos Boozer, the Utah Jazz forward; Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, the Boston Celtics guards; and Joe Johnson, the Atlanta Hawks guard. Also, a big centre named Shaquille O'Neal is uncommitted for the coming season. Not that anyone has noticed. email@example.com