Tomorrow’s the biggest day on the NBA calendar.
Kobe won a fifth NBA Championship on June 17 and is making his case as the best player ever. John Wall — an All-Star talent, who by all accounts, will be the league’s next great point guard — was drafted on June 24 to Washington, one of the biggest markets in the United States.
But neither day comes close to July 1.
Tomorrow begins a summer that can ultimately change the NBA for the next decade. Tomorrow’s the first day that free agents can sign and this year’s group is easily the most star-studded group since 1996’s free agent class.
You have your megastars in players like Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh and Dirk Nowitzki. You have superstars in Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson and Carlos Boozer. Veterans like Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are on the market. This class is so talented, that the “lower tier” players are guys like David Lee and Rudy Gay, who could be important pieces on a title contender.
But the ultimate prize; the player that will change a city’s basketball fortune forever; the player heralded as the best basketball player on the planet is LeBron James.
Throughout the last two months, all we’ve heard about is where LeBron will ultimately go. The news and updates have overshadowed the NBA Playoffs, Finals and NBA Draft. The media and the general public have cared more about where a player — with no championship rings and no Finals victories — signs more than the actual product on the court. All of these players have become “commodities,” where if you can sign them, you’ll not only earn more wins—you’ll also earn more exposure, sell more tickets and jerseys, and make millions of more dollars.
Everyday in the last week we’ve heard something new. The latest (and juiciest) news that has come out is the rumor that Wade, Bosh and James met in South Beach to discuss the possibility of playing together. On first glance, it would seem the numbers wouldn’t work (all three players will command max contracts), but the Sun-Sentinel is reporting that the three would “split the money up if need be.”
Prior to the recent “free agent summit,” the Chicago Bulls looked to be the most attractive destination for LeBron. The team already has a young nucleus, headlined by Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. With a star or two, the Bulls could compete for a title right away.
The New York Knicks have been planning for this summer for two years. The franchise has told its fans to wait, while it cleared cap room and rang up 50 loss seasons. This is the summer that the Knicks were supposed to become a contender again.
A Russian billionaire bought the Nets, and now they’ve become a player in the free agent bonanza. They have the cap room and the assurance that they’ll be moving to Brooklyn in a few years. The Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks are also teams capable of making noise this summer.
Ultimately, everything this summer comes down to where and when LeBron signs. If it’s true that he met Bosh and Wade in Miami, and is considering a move there, the Heat can be penciled in for the next five NBA championships. But can LeBron, who will be in the discussion as the best player to ever pick up a basketball, go to Miami where Wade is already the star? Wade is a top-3 player in the league right now, and already has an NBA championship. What does it say about James legacy that he had to play with a star that great to win a ring?
I just can’t see it. They’re both too big of superstars to be able to share the floor together. The team that makes the most sense for James is to go to Chicago. He’ll have a great point guard that can get him the ball, a young banger who can do the dirty work in Noah, and the Bulls will have enough money to lure another star. There’s definitely the notion that he’ll always be playing in Michael Jordan’s shadow if he went to the Bulls, but James has squashed that notion, saying his admiration for Jordan will give the Bulls a shot.
If LeBron goes to the Bulls, he’ll bring another star with him. I’m thinking Boozer. Wade re-signs with the Heat and Bosh, who is used to winters in Toronto, has no problem calling South Beach his new home.
So where does this leave the Knicks? New York has been selling to its fans the dreams of LeBron wearing blue and orange. At least the team has been realistic in the last week realizing it needs a plan B in case James doesn’t sign. That plan B ends up being the signings of Johnson and Stoudemire. They won’t win the Knicks a title, but they’ll at least make the team relevant again.
Nowitzki is the biggest wildcard of this class, as he somewhat surprisingly opted out of his current contract with the Mavericks. I think he ends up staying with Dallas. That leaves the Nets having to pick up the scraps, which will mean overpaying for Lee and Gay.
Over the next month, every NBA fan will be following every report, update and sound bite about where these guys will sign. LeBron has never been recruited before. This is new, and probably pretty fun for him. What he has to remember though is that all of this attention will lead to even bigger expectations that he’s had his first seven years in the league. If he’s going to leave Cleveland (who LeBron says is still very much in the mix, but at this point, isn’t even being mentioned as in contention for him) and murders basketball in the city; he better be doing it to win multiple rings.
The next few weeks will be a whirlwind of moves, speculation and analysis. Mark down tomorrow — July 1, 2010 as the day the NBA changed…for better or worse.