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The violent earthquake that NBA free agency can be has been but a tremble so far, but that could change, seemingly at any moment. The two most salivating free agents out there are of course Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, both of whom opted out of the final year of their contracts last month to become unrestricted free agents. For any team thought to be in contention for either player, their entire off-season hinges on the decision of these two. Accordingly, any contingency plans for those teams must be put on hold and as a result, the entire landscape of player movement is in suspended animation, existing only in the rumor mills and the brains of NBA insiders.
As the NBA off-season began, Carmelo Anthony appeared to be the only one of the two superstars that were truly “on-the-market,” as all indications pointed toward LeBron staying in Miami, at least for his one-year option. As the NBA draft approached, LeBron made a little bit of a rumble by opting out of his contract a full five days before the deadline to do so, and just before the NBA draft. It was not necessarily seen as a sign that LeBron was leaving Miami, it was seen by many as a move done by LeBron to help the Heat gain potential flexibility.
The big stories going into draft night were still: after Emiid's injury, would the Cavs pick Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker with the number one pick? And could the Warriors or potentially another team (namely the Lakers) pull off a trade for Kevin Love? The Cavaliers picked Wiggins, and Love remains in Minnesota (at least for the moment).
Soon after the draft, it was revealed that both Wade and Bosh would opt out of their player options, seemingly strengthening the suggestion that LeBron was intent on staying put in South Beach. The move created over $50 million in cap space for Miami, leaving them poised to bring the Big 3 back at reduced rates and bring in other free agents to improve their roster, as well as make it younger. It was Wade who was sacrificing the most in the decision. Wade was set to make over $40 million over the next two seasons in Miami and is worth nowhere close to that on the open market, so it was widely thought that if he was opting out, surely it was to bring the band back together.
The drafting of Uconn's Shabazz Napier by the Heat was also seen as a positive sign for their bid to bring back James, with LeBron having publicly praised the Huskies' guard for his performance in the NCAA Final Four.
In the days leading up to Free Agency's official start, it was told that James, Wade, and Bosh had been meeting with each other to discuss potential contract terms; while teams are prohibited from talking with free agents until July 1st, nothing prevents players from discussing things themselves.
In the opening hours of free agency, Cleveland made a major, albeit quiet move, getting All-Star Kyrie Irving to agree to a 5-year extension, before he entered free agency next summer. The Heat however, began to experience doubt for the first time this summer, as sources said that Bosh and Wade were committed to returning to the Heat, but were unsure of LeBron's plans. The Heat were also dealt a subtle blow when Toronto re-signed their marquee free agent, Kyle Lowry, who could have been a potential target for the Heat if they were able to clear the cap space and keep their Big 3.
One problem the Heat guys, namely LeBron has surely picked up on is the fact that the money just isn't there in the salary cap for all three All-Stars to make what they want in Miami, and for the Heat to add other players to improve their roster overall. LeBron (rightfully) is intent on making the Max next season. Bosh is looking for close to $90 million over five years to resign with the Heat, and Wade wont be willing to take a pay cut big enough for the Heat to have any flexibility after those three were to re-sign.
Last week it was revealed that James' agent Rich Paul was holding meetings with potential suitors for his client in his Cleveland office. The Cavaliers, Rockets, Suns, Mavs, and Lakers were mentioned to have had meetings with Paul, with LeBron supposedly choosing finalists among that group to meet with in person sometime this week.
Is LeBron Planning to team up with Kyrie in Cleveland?
Then yesterday it was reported that sources within the Cavs' organization were confident that LeBron and his agent were receptive to their pitch, and that they had a shot at getting the superstar to return to his home state. After re-signing Irving, and drafting the supremely athletic Wiggins, the Cavaliers' roster looks just about as good as anybody's in the long term to pair with James.
The Cavaliers also have 3 potential first round picks in next years' draft, and some intriguing trade assets as well, which could be used in the near-future to add another piece. (Dare I say, Kevin Love?)
Quick Side Note: Is there anyway that the Timberwolves turn down an offer like: 3 first round picks, Dion Waiters, and a salary-cap dump for the “future-2015 Free Agent” Kevin Love? Think how many point guards they could draft?
Now the Cavs would have some maneuvering of their own before being able to offer LeBron a max deal, but its well within the realm of possibilities.
It also seems unlikely at this point that LeBron would want to go anywhere other than Cleveland or Miami. The legacy and brand-conscience James would certainly be wary to add a third team to his resume. So it appears to be a two-race between Miami and Cleveland at this point, and sources are also reporting an increased desire by Houston to chase Chris Bosh, and Bosh's lack of knowledge about James' decision is forcing him to consider Houston with a more open mind.
With a few facts and A LOT of conjecture, there is definitely writing on the wall for Miami, and Cleveland looks as well positioned as anyone to land James. But who knows? The winds of NBA free agency are extremely unpredictable, so its impossible to know how likely it really is for LeBron to leave Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra (the only coach he's won a title for), and Miami (the only team he's won a title for). Its also just as impossible to know how likely the Cavaliers are to signing James.
If there is one thing for certain, its that we will know soon. With LeBron scheduled to go to China for a Nike tour later this month, its highly unlikely that his decision will linger past the July 10th date when Free Agents can officially sign. After LeBron and likewise, Carmelo, make their decision, the rest of the league will scramble to catch up. Its highly likely that Bosh will bolt for Houston if LeBron leaves, so the Heat would be faced with some major questions to answer.
No matter which way LeBron goes, his decision will set off a chain reaction of transactions throughout the league, as teams begin to execute their “Plan Bs.” Until then, Miami, Cleveland, and the rest of the NBA is left waiting for that free agent domino that LeBron has become, to fall.