War Games: 2010 NBA Free Agency
Now that the Wizards have struck the first blow in free agency by winning the NBA Draft lottery and thus John Wall, we can start assessing which free agent scenarios can play out this July. Wall-to-D.C. hurts the Nets, obviously, but also makes Washington a player in the summer's proceedings. But beyond Wall, other teams are setting themselves up to win this era's greatest battles: those to be fought over LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Joe Johnson, Yao Ming, Amar'e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer and Rudy Gay.
Bethlehem Shoals and I have considered each team's position heading into battle, and have devised seven potential scenarios fans (and other teams) should prepare for. We did assuming that this summer will unfold as a series of cataclysmic events, with LeBron's decision the first domino to fall. The new paradigm of superstars renting teams also influenced us. Now go and study these well, lest ye be caught off guard come July.
Scenario 1: Signed, Sealed, Delivered
They say that when a tree falls in the forest, another grows to take its place. Especially if Tree No. 1 makes a ton of noise, and Tree No. 2 gets several years to lay its roots. Let me try another one here: If you drive your car off a cliff, insurance money comes your way and soon you're riding high in a fresh new Benz. That's the moral that the Knicks have been counting on, and somehow, one that's gained credibility with the wider NBA community. If you wish hard enough, he will come. That's what happens here: With staying in Cleveland looking sub-par after the playoffs, and the John Wall-less Nets now just another team in a swamp, LeBron surveys his options, shrugs his shoulders, and heads to the open arms of every single angry fan in New York.
Since there's no team there, the Knicks decide to go with Bosh, the best big available, to lay an inside-outside foundation. New York media immediately smears Donnie Walsh for not delivering LeBron and Dwyane Wade. Wade stays in Miami, and picks up Boozer -- long-rumored to have his sights on South Beach -- to provide help down low. Dirk Nowitzki and Yao Ming stand pat. The Nets need to make a splash, so they go for perimeter consolation prize Joe Johnson, who then, after a three-hour phone call that contains approximately 10 sentences, prevails upon his former teammate Amar'e Stoudemire to join forces with him in New Jersey. The Clippers and Rudy Gay, neither of whom know where they're headed or exactly where they've been, lock arms and parade into the future together. Somehow, this is among the least dramatic scenarios, even though it involves LeBron switching zip codes. We're ready for this one; it sets the stage for a new tomorrow without too violently breaking with the past. Chicago wonders how they came up empty-handed, until they realize how they both have too much and too little to thrive in this particular model. -- Bethlehem Shoals
Scenario 2: Holy League
Even Pat Riley has a heart, one which turns ideas into dreams. The difference between Riley and most people is that Riley has the balls to turn those dreams into reality, even when it means stabbing others in the heart. In this scenario, the Heat assemble a trio which sends the NBA into a new Dark Age, solely because no one else can compete. The Papal Holy Leagues were convened to end oppression from rogue powers. Riley's Holy League is built to oppress.
With the balance of power shifting to Miami, Dirk, Yao and Amar'e all dare to stay indoors, thus blowing off meetings with Donnie Walsh. The Hawks have sold J.J.'s house from under him, though, so the Knicks land Johnson. The Bulls, terrified, grab Boozer as a reflexive defensive mechanism. Gay, unrelated to everything else which has gone on, becomes the Crown Prince of Newark. Legally. Corey Booker means business!
Would a LeBron-Wade-Bosh alliance actually work? Someone in Miami started all those Michael Beasley rumors during the first round for a reason, with reports that the Heat would dump the kid for nothing surfacing at exactly the wrong time. Assembling such a team requires not just suspension of disbelief, but ego subjugation not seen since ... well, ever. Imagine the marketing ramifications of LeBron ditching his fanbase for one which Wade has already won a title for. Or Bosh consenting to be not just second fiddle, but third fiddle. Or Wade becoming a sidekick in his own city. Maybe it is pure evil to build such a devastating roster. But it could also make believers out of the most cynical, skeptical observers, if it all came together. Not to mention that it would retire Boston for half a decade, and end the Lakers' reign. -- T.Z.
Scenario 3: The Magic Bullet
LeBron going to the Knicks has been shoved down our throats for several years now, with little or no rational basis, in large part by evil mainstream media tycoons stationed in Gotham. But admit it, James going to take up Michael Jordan's mantle in Chicago -- and let's face it, that team's still waiting to reach those heights again -- is the stuff of myth. James following in the footsteps of Jordan because only he conceivably could. It's the ultimate challenge, and yet after these playoffs, what would make more bold a statement than stepping into the big red shoes left behind by No. 23? Plus, the Knicks put even more of a burden on James than the gargoyle of history, since they stink. The Bulls made the playoffs, already have Derrick Rose up top and Joakim Noah in the middle, and Luol Deng ready to step into that "Marvin Williams, but in a good way" role. If they're going to use Deng in a sign and trade, they might do well to wait till 2011. It's like Cleveland's addition of Shaquille O'Neal this season, but in reverse.
The Heat snatch up Wade and Bosh because they can, and still retain some cap room to fill out the roster. Pundits swoon, but the Heat really are a two-man team, while the Bulls have some real support for their single superstar. Dirk and Yao remain the same, and Mike D'Antoni, who still understands Joe Johnson even better than Johnson understands himself, gets a not-too-shabby multi-purpose guard to lead his up-tempo brigade. The Kings persuade Amar'e -- a favorite of the Maloofs and Petrie -- to go their way, which isn't as unlikely as it sounds. Tyreke Evans and Amar'e Stoudemire, plus a gaggle of young players that's going to yield at least a few keepers -- it makes sense for this new era of two-stud alliances, where two great men decide to spend the next few years together trying to make the world a better place. Boozer to the Nets and Rudy Gay gladly comes to the Knicks (with JJ). Networks the big winners there. -- B.S.
Scenario 4: Gravitational Pull
Finally, a scenario in which LeBron stays in Cleveland. Not only does James reject external overtures here, but he convinces fellow traveler Bosh to join forces. Bosh relegates the 245 other Cleveland big men to pure pip status, and only Antawn Jamison can be upset. Getting Bosh not only moves Cleveland closer to that title, but it also provides an opportunity for LeBron to get more rest, or make a midseason movie or something. It's like hiring a great player and a babysitter, all in one.
With LeBron and Bosh off the market, the Knicks turn to a more weird but still deadly inside-outside combo: Wade and Boozer. Carlos is like a more effective David Lee, anyway, and Wade can average 10 assists a night under Mike D'Antoni. It's not LeBron, but a homeless man would enjoy a turkey burger even if he'd been hoping for a Porterhouse. You get what you can, and you smile.
Don't worry: Dirk and Yao will get in the act soon enough. For now, they hold fire. The Heat get desperate, and when the going gets desperate, the desperate overpay Joe Johnson. J.J. and Beasley are so different they might be the same, and it'd be a blast to watch Atlanta miss Johnson as much as Miami regrets him. (Not that he'd be bad in Miami, but Miami would be bad unless the team could add another solid piece in addition to J.J. He is, in other words, the least self-contained talent in this class, even if he's the second or third most versatile.)
Washington enters the picture, thanks to both John Wall and Ted Leonsis. Amar'e is convinced Wall can throw as many lobs as Steve Nash, and shares Colangelo/Team USA angst with Gilbert Arenas. The bigger concern is what all this means for Andray Blatche, but you can't blame Ernie Grunfeld for forgetting about him. Gay again turns the Nets, which sounds better than the Nets turning to Gay. -- T.Z.
Scenario 5: Castles in the Air
Pairing LeBron with an All-Star big man makes the most sense. Putting him and Wade on the same team is a celebration of excess. However, a LeBron-Dirk tandem has to be the critic's pick here, especially if it takes place under D'Antoni's watch. LeBron's not coming Dallas, no matter how catchy its Autotune-d siren song; it's Dirk and little else. New York, though, has the one basketball brain capable of truly using these two unique players to the greatest advantage. Dirk + Bron is a four-for-two deal, both gigantic dudes with perimeter skills, walking mismatches who when taken together, become exponentially more confusing. All of which makes it sounds like the two are only cerebral players, not forces that rule. Someone will give this speech someday and they will thank me. To close, my favorite line ever of Ziller's: "their pick and roll would be impossible to guard, since you'd never know which guy was doing what."
Wade goes the Bulls, the hometown hero who still might be seen as a second choice. But no one will ever say that out loud. Chris Bosh signs with Cleveland early, expecting LeBron to stay, but ends up high and dry when ... he doesn't. So much for the Brotherhood of Former Olympians. He looks around and realizes that this looks a lot like the Raptors. Yao doesn't opt out, and the Heat, having lost the best player in franchise history, rebound nicely by signing Johnson and Stoudemire, who likes the idea of life on South Beach. The Wizards have cap room to burn and aren't so undesirable a destination as they were pre-lottery, so Boozer -- who has no hope of being retained by Utah -- heads to our nation's capitol. He'll instantly become the team's resident veteran, and an accidental mentor for Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. Once again, Rudy Gay and the Clippers end up the two last lonely people in the bar, who just so happen to share an interest in Chinese finger torture. -- B.S.
Scenario 6: More Magic Bullets
LeBron turns his eyes to Chicago again, though this time he brings a (signed-and-traded) friend in Bosh. This is of particular insult to Cleveland, as the Cavs could have pulled this off much more easily, giving up only J.J. Hickson. That doesn't hide the fact that Chicago still has the better supporting cast, with Derrick Rose now the set-up man for two All-NBA talents, and with Luol Deng either trade bait or the most talented sixth man this side of San Antonio. I still fail to see how LeBron can "win" by winning in Chicago -- is he ever going to supplant MJ there? -- but I also have trouble visualizing murderous LeBron-Bosh or Rose-LeBron or Rose-Bosh picks-and-rolls. That doesn't mean they can't happen.
Cleveland goes into deep depression as Miami convinces Wade to stay by grabbing Boozer, fulfilling a long-lasting prophecy. LeBron-to-Chicago and Wade staying forces a Plan C for Johnson, and Boozer-to-Miami makes Amar'e rethink things. But while the two contemplate their futures, Dirk messes everything up by fleeing Dallas. I can't figure out what's more likely: Dirk and Mark Cuban reach an impasse and Nowitzki flees due to perceived disrespect, or Dirk decides the bars in Dallas suck and it's time for some Big Apple living. Whatever the case, in this scenario Dirk in convinced the Knicks are ready for him, and Johnson is relieved to be available to go along for the ride. The resulting dominance tarnishes Jason Terry's legacy.
Yao isn't ready to take a leap like Dirk. Amar'e comes to despise J.J. for following Dirk without so much as calling him first, and as such Stoudemire vows to "build a winner" in D.C. Gay, of course, winds up with the confused and hurt Nets. -- T.Z.
Scenario 7: Stubborn as Mud
LeBron stays in Cleveland, state rejoices, innumerable people faint. A few die like in a heat wave. They report the air quality on the radio after that, just to be on the safe side. Then, the curve ball: After seeing how Dwight Howard, Kendrick Perkins, and Andrew Bynum fared in the playofs, Danny Ferry strongly believes that true centers remain key to paving the road to victory. The playoffs certainly support his thinking; it's already what he tried with Shaq, who unfortunately was just a little too old to follow through. Tradition runs deep in that GM's veins. The Cavs take a risk on Yao, who is more than happy to leave the inchoate Rox to ride with LeBron. It's always unclear, though, if James himself approved the move, or decided to stick around and trusted Ferry to do the right thing. A lot of jokes follow about Nike and China, as if James weren't already popular enough there. Underrated aspect: If [whomever James wants as a coach] is smart, he can take advantage of Yao's passing skills, making LeBron all the more dangerous.
Wade and Bosh go the Heat, again, Dirk doesn't have to sell that house he just bought, Johnson and Boozer are Prokhorov's haul. Don't sleep on the Nets after this: Devin Harris, Johnson, Boozer, Brook Lopez, and, say, Terrence Williams, isn't a bad starting five. Amar'e signs with Bulls, which is really exciting until you actually think about it, but still represents a major upgrade over Taj Gibson. Rudy Gay figures he'll stick around Memphis, since they were pretty good last year and no team in the West ends up getting much better here. This one might be the drabbest simulation of all: Cleveland and Bron are left with a major gamble, the Heat and its infinite payroll rack 'em up like they should, and we're left wondering if the Nets are hot. -- B.S.