Twitter, ESPN.com, insidehoops.com, news websites, message boards / forums, etc. all imploded when the Cavs lost. Everyone from Ford to Spears to Woj used their smartphones until their fingerprints were permanently set in the touch screen. The unthinkable had happened: LeBron had failed again, and now the gates of Hell have opened for the summer. The fact of the matter is Lebron is the best player on the market, and simultaneously, one of the best players in the league (if not, the very best, depending on who you talk to).
This, as many have said, genuinely disturbs the arrangement of power in the NBA. The current teams with an abundance of room in their cap are New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Miami, Washington, Los Angeles (Clippers), Minnesota, and Oklahoma City. Teams that don't have cap space (barring some opt-out move) but possess trade assets and potential cap space are Los Angeles (Lakers), Houston, Dallas, Cleveland and Phoenix.
The implication is pretty clear: of the 30 teams in the NBA, 14 have the ability to be totally re-tooled, or changed in a significant way. Couple that with the way in which players can be moved around in the free-agent market through trades and we could be looking at several different teams making playoff appearances or even going as far as being contenders. In my eyes, Orlando is the only championship-caliber team that is pretty much guaranteed of having the same look next year.
I'm going to preface my analysis first with an assumption: that of which is that James is leaving Cleveland. The team they have now is going to be there for a while; the other pieces of their core (Williams, Jamison, Parker, etc, are not expiring deals), and a lack of a quality coach that can make the pieces fit together has lead to what will surely be a bitter team that LeBron probably doesn't want a part of anymore. This is crucially important, then, to teams who are in the market for max-contract players, both those with open cap space and those with trade assets. LeBron's entrance into the free-agent market drastically affects these two types of situations: cap-space and 2010 draft positioning, and those who don't have very much cap space, but do possess multiple trade assets.
First, the teams with cap space and / or draft positioning:
New Jersey: I have already dealt with the issue of New Jersey, so to summarize, they hold the highest probability of winning John Wall or Evan Turner. The former would give them a big trade chip, that of which being an all-star point guard in Devin Harris. They also have a couple contracts to give away, future picks, cash and will still have the ability to sign another max-contract player. The incredible part of their situation is they are poised to be able to engage in a sign-and-trade, on top of an outright signing. They will inevitably be good at the PG and C positions already (Wall or Harris are admirable options), and need work in the PF, SF and SG categories. Lee and Williams are both quality back-up players for now, though one would probably have to move in a trade, and luckily (or strategically) New Jersey needs the most help in areas where this free agent market is bursting at the seams: PFs and swingmen.
The caveat: the possibility of LeBron James moving to the Nets still seems awkward or strange, inasmuch as it leaves Cleveland with an over-abundance of point guard, which could be a deal-breaker (forcing an outright signing, which I think is unlikely for a player of his caliber), or a deal-incentive, inasmuch as it gives the Cavs back a bargaining chip. That, to me, still seems foolish though, since James is the best bargaining chip in the league.
Thoughts: LeBron might end up in New Jersey, but probably only if they hire Calipari, win the draft lottery and find a quality PF with an inside and outside game. If any of these criteria are not fulfilled, I wouldn't be surprised if he isn't playing in Brooklyn in the future.
New York: The Knicks have a lot to spend. Problem is, they only have 3 guys or so locked into their future: Douglas, Gallinari and Chandler. All 3 are valuable pieces, considering Douglas and Gallinari have quality 3-pt shots, and Chandler has the ability to have one. When you're looking to acquire playmaking superstars, you want them surrounded with guys who can either score or play defense. Sure, none of these guys are very good defensive players, and problematically for the Knicks, defense wins championships. While there are good defensive-minded big men in this year's free-agency, none of them are the max-contract guys: Bosh is a questionable defender (and would probably continue to be on a D'Antoni team), Stoudemire only plays it when he feels like it, Boozer's size limits his defensive capabilities, and so on. This is one advantage the Nets have on the Knicks: they already have a good defender with length under contract.
With New York comes the glitz and an entirely new and enormous marketing platform, in addition to the fun the city has to offer. The question is whether or not, even in free agency, they can find the pieces to genuinely set him (or any free agent, for that matter) up for a championship run. In addition to their problems with starting lineup pieces, they are missing a bench. As this (and many other) 2nd season has demonstrated, a bench is key to making noise in the playoffs (Tony Allen much?).
Thoughts: The advantages that New York has to be offered, at worst, can be countered by New Jersey, considering the team will only be a borough away in not too long. Thus, while New York will surely pick up some kind of something this off season, I highly doubt it will be a LeBron or Wade.
Miami: Miami is in a unique position; they have a proven championship-level superstar, and they want another. They have some (but not very many) players under contract for next season, have voiced their willingness to demote or fire Spoesltra (which I personally think is foolish), are located in a vacation town, and have sound management. Their situation is hard-to-address, I think, because they are capable of being both very competitive and persuasive in the free agent market this off-season, however, I think they're severely limited in terms of their capacity to compete in the sign-and-trade market; the only notable piece they have to offer is Beasley (since their future draft picks in a post sign-and-trade world would not be very good) and he has proven to have on and off court issues.
Thoughts: Anything can happen this summer in Miami, and I mean anything. In all likelihood, I think they'll land a notable free agent, though not through a sign-and-trade. This could severely limit their options, or Pat Riley is a Jedi and will be able to coerce / convince a max-contract player to take the pay cut and bask in the glow of the Miami Sun alongside Flash. This could be LeBron, and he could be enough to convince a complementary star to take a little less in money in order to near-guarantee a fistful of rings.
Thunder: OKC has a lot of cap space; their core is comprised of players too young to have acquired their actual value contract-wise, and that puts OKC in a very peculiar position. They can either make a deal now and just wait to bite the luxury-tax bullet (because their slate of untradeables [Durant and Westbrook] are going to be max or near-max contracts), or they can trade pieces (such as Krstic, Green, or Harden) which are all very valuable assets, or they can stand pat and let their younger pieces grow together as a unit, potentially making them an extremely in-tune and talented team (or, at least, more so than now).
Thoughts: OKC will do something notable this off season, but I don't think it will have to do with a max-contract player inasmuch as that could seriously damage their current group's chemistry. I wouldn't be surprised if they were able to fanagle their way into a Joel Pryzbilla or Udonis Haslem-type player; a bigger center who can give them length in the front court and rebound more consistently than Krstic. I also wouldn't be surprised if they traded a bench piece or two, maybe with 2010 second round pick[s] or something to move up a little in this year's draft, in order to pick up another serviceable big.
L.A. Clippers: Clippers fans, at this point, are just waiting to really see Blake Griffin in action. They have a near-all star center in Chris Kaman (who proved this past season he is capable of being pretty good), a talented scorer in Eric Gordon, and that leaves them with weakness at the SF and PG spot. They still have Boom Diddy, and he's probably not going anywhere; he'd probably also become a cancer if moving to the bench. Thus, their most glaring hole is at SF. They are positioned to do fairly well in the draft, which is also an added benefit inasmuch as they can either improve their bench there, through free agency, or by re-signing (and not having it count against the cap) their current players: Outlaw and Blake. LeBron’s chances of coming here are slim; playing in the same town as Kobe surely would not be fun spotlight-wise, though it would drastically polarize the games at Staples Center.
Thoughts: I really think the Clippers will do one of two things: outbid Memphis for Gay (which I think is a really great move for their team so long as he continues to penetrate instead of settling for 3s, they have Davis and Gordon for that), or acquire Joe Johnson (which I think is a bad move, he demands the ball to be in his hands too much, which will likely cause chemistry issues with Davis, and is, honestly, probably not big enough to play that part of the floor). If the Clips make the wrong move by waiting too long in hopes of courting James, they might end up with something worse. I think that LeBron’s impact on free agency this summer is what creates these 2 trade possibilities.
Minnesota: Nothing important is going to happen here, or for the next couple years. Their draft choices this year will probably resemble last year's - splurging on a particular type of player in order to accumulate assets they can evaluate and then trade or keep based on performance. Could be a smart rebuilding strategy, but can also be a very, very long one.
Chicago: The windy city is in a weird position to mix things up this summer; they have cap space and what I think are fictionally non-toxic assets. There has been a lot of talk swirling around Deng and Hinrich being trade pieces, but the fact of the matter is that these guys are overpaid. Any reasonable GM can see that. Currently, Chicago is seen as one of the favorites to grab LeBron this summer, but I seriously doubt it: he seems too egotistical to willingly play in Jordan’s shadows, something I think will weigh considerably on his decision-making process. At the same time, they do have a solid core of Rose of Noah, however, they still lack a shot-changing big man. Luckily, there are a few of those available on the market this summer (Pryzbilla, Haslem, etc.), and adding a guy like that and sliding Noah over to PF seems to leave the Bulls only a game-changing SF away from genuinely being a championship contender. If LeBron is in it to win it, he will seriously think about the Bulls if they make the right complementary moves to prime them for being that one piece away.
Thoughts: I think Chicago comes up short on the LeBron chase, and ends up making a scramble move to grab a player like Boozer or Johnson which, while helpful, will not be enough to put them in a championship conversation.
Now on to teams with little cap space, but sign-and-trade assets:
Dallas: Everyone thinks the Mavs have assets for a sign-and-trade, but to me, this is foolish with the exception of Dampier. Butler performed miserably in the playoffs sans one game, and is not an expiring deal. Marion and Kidd are probably not desired by anyone else, they traded away a valuable expiring deal in Josh Howard, and the quality assets they have (Barea, Beaubois) are probably pieces they don't want to give away just yet. They, like us, could have the fortune of having their cornerstone opt out and then be re-signed, which doesn't count against the luxury tax, opening up their ability to sign a max-contract guy through a sign-and-trade of some sort. Many have speculated about Bosh coming to Dallas, but that kind of front court seems massively instrategic: neither are genuinely 'shot-changers' nor does either have a refined low-post game.
Thoughts: If the Mavs make a move this summer, it will probably A. be another blunder, and B. will most definitely not be for Bosh. Lebron is not going to Dallas, and the possibility of him going somewhere not in Ohio, as I have said, will genuinely mitigate the possibility of teams like Dallas acquiring big-name talent this summer.
Cleveland: Cleveland has Lebron, Shaq and Ilgauskas as their two most important expiring deals. Gilbert has demonstrated he has a ‘spare no expense’ attitude in terms of keeping Lebron and doing whatever it takes to make him happy. The Cavs are also knee-deep in toxic assets including, but not limited to: Mo Williams, Jamario Moon, Antawn Jamison, etc etc. The biggest question mark on Cleveland is two-fold: how much Gilbert is willing to take on financially at risk of flaming out early in the playoffs again, and how much faith does Lebron have in a group that will mostly remain the same, with the ability to add one more piece.
Thoughts: I think Lebron has a 40% chance of staying where he is, and that chance is absolutely contingent on whether or not Bosh or Stoudemire come to Cleveland. Their chances of landing a player of that caliber aren’t bad, but they’re not a surefire thing either, nor is it the right move for them (inasmuch as they, in my eyes, need a quality C and PF, and don’t really have either)
Phoenix: Judging by their playoff success, it seems like Steve Kerr is going to be scrambling to make sure Stoudemire stays in the valley of the sun, and that he will balk at most, if not all, sign-and-trade offers. They do, however, have a lot of assets to work with; their bench has played pretty well, and while I don’t think they’ll win the west (and in the event they do, they still won’t win a ‘ship this year), they are only a piece or 2 away from re-emerging as a contender in the future.
Thoughts: A lot, and by a lot I mean almost everything, depends on the growth of Robin Lopez as a banger. If he grows at the rate he is now, and avoids future long-term injuries, he can genuinely be their Andrew Bynum and make that team, as a whole, a lot better / put them in championship conversation for a while, inasmuch as I think Dragic’s growth as a player has been phenomenal, and once Steve gets a little too old, he’ll be able to take over for him. With all this in mind, I think Stoudemire drops the shenanigans, though not until almost-August, and remains a Sun, even in light of the possibility of playing with LeBron. He knows he won’t move in a sign-and-trade (and thus would have to make less money), would be a lesser star and would probably see less usage. I think the Suns are one of the few teams who can keep their star and truthfully boast the possibility of a championship, especially considering the aging of the Lakers, the delicate balance of the Nuggets, and the injury-woes of Houston.
L.A. Lakers: First, LeBron is not coming here; that much should be obvious, and if you think otherwise, you might need to stop sleeping with your head next to a microwave. A lot of analysts like to conjure up the notion of the Lakers having tradable assets, but there are a couple problems here. First, Bynum has been too injury-prone to be considered a realistically tradable asset. There is just too much of a risk and the reward really isn’t that great. Second, Pau had a career before Kobe, that of which was demonstrative of how he wasn’t going to get far without being paired with a superstar wing; thus, the teams that have a desire for a player like Gasol would either need to have a star wing (most of which don’t) or acquire one through other means, which is no easy task. Combine that with the fact that his contract was recently extended and his age, and he’s definitely a lot less tradable than most think. In fact, the only genuinely valuable trade assets they have (no long-term commitments and solid talent) are their backup PGs, Farmar and Brown, and the Lakers would have to be offered something significant that can also fit in their delicate balance of current play in order for a deal to unfold.
Thoughts: A lot of people will bulls**t something about the Lakers being involved in potential trades, but in reality they are going to be the same team for the next couple years.
Houston: Houston’s chances of landing LeBron are about on level with our chances of winning the lottery this year: ridiculously slim but still not impossible. A meaningful concern, however, is how LeBron’s free agency will affect our chances of landing Chris Bosh. Sure, some dispute that he is not necessary for a championship run, but in my eyes, we don’t have as many offensive threats as necessary to win a championship. Thus, how will LeBron affect the movement of Bosh? In my eyes, the only real threat at this point is New Jersey, though that can chance if Chicago or Cleveland make the right moves to create the possibility of signing a player of this caliber. Thus, barring any unforeseen drastic changes in the willingness of other teams to make bad moves and take on the likes of Deng, Hinrich, Jamison, etc, the market for Bosh is going to be pretty slim: namely Miami, Houston, New Jersey and possibly Chicago.
Thoughts: I think Houston stands a 30-40% chance of landing Bosh; we certainly have the assets necessary to make a great deal that will benefit both franchises, however, as Xiane has noted, this may simply be a case of ‘Big name talent doesn’t want to play here.’ We’ll see and hopefully things go our way.