Let The Games Begin

Forget about Tiger Woods Day…yesterday marked the beginning of the long-awaited, never-duplicated LeBron Sweepstakes. Over the past two years, teams have made a flurry of deals at the trade deadline with one thing in mind – preparing themselves for the Free Agent Class of 2010, which also includes (or could include because of player options) Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce (although the last three aren’t going anywhere). If only Shaq, Ray Allen, Manu Ginobli, Tracy McGrady, Michael Redd and Yao Ming weren’t dead, it’d be even more interesting.

This NBA off-season has been beaten to death by the sports media for years. And yet, I’m still intrigued. There are two reasons. First of all, it will be a fascinating glimpse into the mind of LeBron. As we learned from Tiger, we can be easily fooled by the sports marketing machine. We really don’t know much about LeBron, except he is a fun-loving freak. If he were to leave Cleveland, it would pretty much be unprecedented – I can’t think of another instance of the best player in his sport leaving his team as a free agent in his prime. I know how much Jordan meant to Chicago, so I can’t even imagine the ulcers this proposition is causing in Cleveland, which, let’s face it, has nothing else going for it. Secondly, this could be the biggest shift of power an off-season has ever brought to a sport. Every player is going to do whatever it takes to get as much money as possible right now, possibly meaning tons of movement – the NBA is heading for a lockout after next season, and whether it happens or is averted, the end result will be less money going to the players. I’m usually a players’ union guy, but the NBA economy is a serious trouble. Now, most of this is the owner’s fault – they are grown men and should be able to control themselves from giving out stupid contracts (see Gilbert Arenas). But the only way it will change is to save them from themselves, and David Stern will do whatever it takes to make that happen.

So how did the contending teams do (we’ll only hit the highlights)?

Dallas: Got Caron Butler (a past and conceivably future All-Star) and Brendan Heywood (a decent center they sorely needed); got rid of Josh Howard (a clubhouse cancer). Great job by Team Cuban…Dirk isn’t leaving, but it doesn’t hurt to keep him happy. Dirk is 31 and Jason Kidd is 36, so it’s not like they have tons of time to fuck around. Now, they could easily head into the Western Finals against the Lakers with a fighting chance.

L.A. Clippers: L.A. traded Marcus Camby (aging but very good center) to Portland for Travis Outlaw (injured sixth man) and Steve Blake (white PG). You can always count on Team Sterling to fuck things up in new and unique ways. They got rid of one of their best players for nothing. They’ll sell it to their fans as a cap-clearing move for the LeBron sweepstakes. But, there is absolutely no chance a big free agent with an option is going to go there – they might be in L.A. but everybody who ever took the risk either started sucking or got seriously injured (see Baron Davis, Blake Griffin). Plus their owner just had the largest housing discrimination judgement ever levied against him, partially for not wanting to rent to black people because they “smell bad”.

Cleveland: Got Antawn Jamison (a good player that fits in with what they need) from Washington for nothing. Everybody was talking about Amare Stoudemire, but given that he doesn’t play defense and thinks he’s a first-tier player when he isn’t, getting him could have caused more problems than it solved. Plus, he already played with Shaq in Phoenix, and that didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Jamison fits in better with what’s already the second-best team in basketball, and is in Amare’s class without the baggage. Cleveland has done everything in its power to build a team good enough to keep LeBron…now they just have to hope it’s enough.

Sacramento/Washington: Both gave away some of their best players for nothing: Kevin Martin for Sacramento; Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood for Washington. Thanks to the NBA’s fucked-up system, they can claim it was a cap-clearing maneuver for free agents; it was really an old-fashioned salary dump. There’s no way a free agent with other options is moving to Sacramento (maybe the worst city with a professional franchise) or touching Washington (now the worst franchise in the NBA, if not sports).

Chicago: Strengthened an already strong position. Cleared salary space by trading away John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas, who weren’t going to be much of a factor going forward anyway. Thomas was also clubhouse poison, who was suspended for a game for insubordination just weeks ago. Got Acie Law, who hasn’t done shit, but was the number 11 pick three years ago, so it isn’t inconceivable he could come around (can you tell I’m a Bulls fan?) Given that they can offer a max contract, are in a major market, and have great young nucleus with Rose, Deng, Noah and Gibson, they’re serious players. However, the also lost big because of the next team.

New York: Chicago could have kept them out of the LeBron sweepstakes if they’d just closed the deal on Tracy McGrady…they couldn’t, and New York got him. Forget about the possibility he still has gas in the tank…his huge expiring contract means that they now have the most cap space, and can offer two max contracts. Of course, they also arguably have the worst roster in the NBA and no first round draft pick in the John Wall sweepstakes (thanks, Isaiah).

Miami/New Jersey: By doing nothing, they became the biggest losers. The Heat proved to Dwayne Wade that his supporting cast is so pathetic that they couldn’t get Amare Stoudemire, who Phoenix was actively shopping. There are reports that Wade campaigned for the Heat to do something…that they didn’t can’t help their chances of keeping him. The Nets are pathetic, but were going into the off-season with the most cap space…now the Knicks have trumped that. Even though the Nets have some decent young talent, it’s doubtful that a big free agent would choose playing in the Meadowlands over playing in MSG. Unless they land John Wall.

Houston: Not really in the sweepstakes, but deserve an honorary mention. Took advantage of other teams desperation to dump payroll to improve greatly. Got Kevin Martin, Jarred Jeffries, Jordan Hill and a first-round pick for Carl Landry and the ghost of Tracy McGrady. Great Moneyball move by MIT grad Darryl Morey. If Yao Ming is OK next year, they could be a surprise contender.

So where does that leave us? Everything is going to start with the King.

LeBron
1) Cleveland – Still the odds-on favorite. They have a strong team, and there’s no way for him to leave without tarnishing his image.
2) New York – Loves the idea of playing on the biggest stage.
3) Chicago – Has a great young roster; in a major market; he grew up idolizing Jordan.
That’s it, folks. It’s down to three.

Wade
1) Chicago – Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part, but as he watches LeBron in the Finals this year, the idea of his only title being with Shaq will drive him crazy. Would be great for him to play for his hometown team.
2) Miami – Seems like a loyal guy, Miami is a great place to live, conscious that most NBA legends played for only one team.
This one is really close…probably won’t be decided until after the playoffs. BTW, don’t buy the Wade/LeBron playing together thing…might sound great in a hotel room in Beijing, but each wants to win his own titles.

Bosh
This is where it starts to depend on other guys. If LeBron leaves, Bosh will join him. If he doesn’t and Wade stays in Miami, Bosh will probably come to Chicago. But Toronto and New York are possibilities as well.

Amare
Will be overpayed by the Knicks or Bulls if they don’t get any of the above three. If not, will be overpayed by another team looking to make a splash for the sake of season ticket sales (L.A. Clippers, New Jersey, Washington).

Joe Johnson
Will be Chicago’s second signing. Just makes too much sense on their team.

John Wall
The wild card that could change everything. Right now, Washington, New Jersey, Houston, Sacramento and the Clippers are all in the lottery. If one of them lands him, they double their desirability (at least).

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