Best Free Agent Fit: LeBron James
July 1, 2010. Depending on who you ask, it is either the beginning of something beautiful or the end of a franchise as we know it. It’s a day that teams have spent two years fantasizing about, two years creating cap space for, and two years telling their fans that it would be the day they turned their franchise around.
Once that day finally hits, where will LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson and others be headed? While we can’t predict the future, we can see which teams are the best fit for these free-agents-to-be.
The biggest free agent prize of them all this summer, and maybe even the biggest free agent prize of all time, is of course LeBron James. The once-in-a-lifetime forward is the crown jewel in a treasure chest of free agents. There have been thousands of articles written about where James will end up, but I’m not here to Stephen A. Smith you with my sources, so as we did with Chris Bosh, let’s take a look at the five teams most likely to win the LeBron Sweepstakes.
New Jersey Nets:
The first team on our list is the first team that will get a sit-down interview with LeBron, the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets. Can a team fresh off of a 70-loss season, 49 games behind James’ Cavs team of last season, really be in the running for the best free agent out there? If the order of teams meeting with James is any indication, definitely.
With a team that just finished as bad as the Nets did, it’s hard to find many pros that would sway a free agent of James’ caliber to sign with New Jersey. However, this is not your average 70-loss team. The Nets had 11 losses by five points or less, and were one of the youngest squads in the NBA. However, they already have young cornerstones at almost every position in the starting lineup. Devin Harris at the point, Courtney Lee at the off-guard, newly-drafted Derrick Favors at the power forward, and young stud Brook Lopez at the center. All that is missing from that lineup is a small forward, which just happens to be Bron’s position.
The one thing working in the Nets favor the most might not be who will take the court with James, but who will be signing his check. The Nets ownership is one of the most intriguing things about all of this. Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has just taken ownership of the team and has not only predicted a championship within five years, but said he will do what it takes to win. His biggest advantage? A minority owner by the name of Jay-Z, who just happens to be very good friends with James. While the roster may not be the best LeBron can join, the ownership just may be enough to sway his decision.
Where do we start? First off, we are talking about the Nets, a team that has never won anything and has only been to the NBA Finals a grand total of two times. The Nets are also viewed by almost everyone as being in the shadow of the Knicks. While signing James would help the Nets overtake New York as the most popular team in the tri-state area, the fact is that the Knicks are a few signings away from being the favored team once again.
The biggest obstacle the Nets are facing? The relative youth and inexperience of their roster. The reality is that James will not be able to compete for a championship for at least a couple of years should he sign with the Nets. If titles are really the most important thing to James, which he has been claiming, then he will have a hard time justifying signing with a team who is a couple of years away from contention.
Odds of Signing:
50/50: Based purely on roster, the odds are against the Nets, but ownership gives them an edge not many other teams have. While they may be a long shot, it would not be a complete shock to see James take his services to New Jersey.
New York Knicks:
Next up are the Knicks, otherwise known as the team who started this whole sweepstakes. New York has been hoarding cap space for nearly two full years in anticipation of this offseason, getting far enough under the cap to sign two max-deal free agents. Their plan all along has been to sign James and a sidekick to help revitalize basketball in the Big Apple, so can they do it?
First and foremost, we’re talking about playing basketball at the Mecca of Basketball, Madison Square Garden. Despite being a cellar-dwelling team for the past couple of seasons, the Knicks have been able to consistently sell out their home games. There is a history and an aura around Madison Square Garden that causes players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant to love playing there — it’s a place that creates legends, and James knows this.
Another key draw of New York is, well … New York. Should LeBron sign with the Knicks, any success the team has will be exponentially bigger because of where it is taking place. LeBron will instantly become a global icon, something he has acknowledged as important to him in his career. James will also have the opportunity to revive one of the NBA’s most storied franchises, and to allow his legend to grow to new heights.
Once again, New York is, well … New York. Expectations in this city are beyond huge; fail and you will be criticized to the extreme, regardless of if your name is LeBron, Kobe, or Michael Jordan. The downside of this risk is should LeBron fail to win championships (yes, multiple), it will be much more magnified because of where he is, as opposed to say, not doing it in Cleveland.
Another problem is despite the fact that Mike D’Antoni’s offense could allow James to average a triple-double for a season, the fact is that it is not tailored to win championships because it doesn’t focus on defense. Throw in a roster that is questionable at best, and suddenly New York might not be so attractive. Even if James is able to get Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade to join him in New York, it does not necessarily mean he will have a better chance at winning a title than he would in any other city.
Odds of Signing:
40/60: The closer and closer we get to July 1st, the less and less likely it seems that James will sign with the Knicks. While they have enough money to sign him and another superstar, it does not seem like they have a great shot at getting the King to the Big Apple.
The wildcard of all the teams that James can sign with has to be the Heat. It’s no secret that Dwyane Wade is more than likely to stay in Miami, so will James team up with him and form possibly the most potent duo of all-time? The Heat is the only team out there who can pair James with not one but two superstar teammates because of their cap space, so will he head south?
The first thing about this that makes sense for James is that he will be paired up with Wade and possibly a big such as Bosh/Amare Stoudemire/Carlos Boozer to form a Giant Three, because Big Three would not be appropriate. There would automatically be less pressure on James, and he would be able to go out and play his game without worrying about having to carry a team for an entire season.
James would finally be able to just play his game and not have to be the serial killer that many pundits have been trying to force him to be. When a game is on the line he can defer to Wade, who has shown more of a killer instinct, and allow him to go to work. Less pressure on James means that he will be able to do what he does best and accentuate his skills as a great teammate.
If James goes to Miami, he will automatically becomes the Scottie Pippen to Wade’s Michael Jordan. Wade is already the big man on campus in Miami so to speak, having won a ring and gained the love and respect of the city. James will be the newcomer, and despite the fact that he may be the better talent, he will not be looked at as the leader of the team.
Another drawback is that James will not be considered the man, and if you’re not considered the go-to guy on your team, you can’t be compared to the greatest players to ever grace the game. In close games Wade will be the player taking the last shot, Wade will be the guy with the ball in his hands to decide what to do, Wade will get to make the final decision. If James truly is as great as we have all hyped him to be, then there is no way he can be on a team where he will have to defer to another player to that extent.
Odds of Signing:
60/40: Despite Stephen A. Smith basically guaranteeing this will go down, it’s difficult to see James signing on with Miami and joining forces with Wade. There is just too much ego there for that to end well, and James himself has to know that better than anyone.
If there is one team as likely to gain James’ services as the one he has spent his whole career with, it has to be the Bulls. The Bulls are expected to complete a deal with the Wizards that will send Kirk Hinrich and his contract to Washington and allow Chicago to have enough cap room to sign two max guys. Could pairing up with a player of Bosh’s caliber with young guns like Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah be enough to lure LeBron away?
Easily, easily, easily the best roster of any team pursuing James. Chicago can offer LeBron a young, talented, playoff-experienced team that is ready to follow his lead. In Rose, James will get the most talented teammate he has ever played with. The third-year guard out of Memphis is already one of the top five point guards in the NBA, and he has the potential to grow into the best. Add in Joakim Noah, one of the best rebounding bigs in the league, and James has two very talented, young teammates to build with. That’s before even mentioning Luol Deng and what he can bring to the table.
That’s all before you get to the fact that Chicago can sign Chris Bosh … or Amare Stoudemire … or Dwyane Wade … or basically any other free agent that is willing to come to the Windy City. Add one of those players to the aforementioned three, and you will have as good a starting lineup as any the NBA has to offer. This squad automatically becomes the favorites in the East and on par with the talent level of the Lakers.
It’s not all good for James, though, should he sign with the Bulls. While they have some great young talents to pair with James, they are untested outside of the first round of the playoffs. They are also exactly what it says above: young. James would be the most seasoned veteran on the team, and that youth could come back to hurt the Bulls once the playoffs roll around. And we’ve all seen what happens in the playoffs when a team depends too much on LeBron.
However, that is something that can be fixed with some big-game experience. Something that James can’t adjust is what will be forever fixated on him should he sign with the Bulls, the shadow of His Airness, Michael Jordan. LeBron can win a title or two, or even three, and he will still not be able to shake the expectations that Jordan left behind. Even more so than in New York, expectations will be at a premium should LeBron join Chicago; anything less than a dynasty and he will be considered a failure.
Odds of Signing:
75/25: If LeBron leaves the Cavs, it will be to sign with the Bulls. If he is serious about wanting to only win championships, there is no better situation for him to join than the one waiting in Chicago.
Almost forgot about them, didn’t you? Perhaps the most overlooked team in the LeBron frenzy that free agency has created is the one he has spent his entire seven-year career with, the Cavs. Lost in all the hype of how he could potentially turn around any franchise he joins is the fact that James has turned around the Cleveland organization, and is a title away from completing the mission. Is his loyalty enough to keep James in Cleveland?
Familiarity is the one card the Cavs hold that no other team does. LeBron was raised in Akron, he knows exactly what he means to this city, organization, and fan base. If James leaves the Cavs it will have a devastating effect on not just the team, but the entire state. Cleveland is a tormented sports city and, having grown up in it, James knows this better than anyone. Should he stay and lead this team to a championship, he will go down in history as a man who turned around the sports fortunes of an entire state.
The entire Cavaliers organization has been built around James. The roster was basically handpicked by LeBron, and ownership has bent over backwards to keep him happy at all times, even if it has hindered the team. The irony here is that if LeBron leaves it will be because of what he did in pushing for certain teammates and trying to mold what he thinks is a title team. But the fact that ownership is willing to do whatever it takes to keep James happy (and that they have done that his entire stay in Cleveland) shows him that they are committed to him.
The only real con of staying at home in Cleveland is that James will not have the young teammates or the cap room to work with that some of the other squads he can sign with will have. Once again, that is mostly of his own doing. James pushed hard for the Cavs to bring in Antawn Jamison, and his contract will tie up cap space the Cavs could desperately use.
The roster is basically set for Cleveland; they will need to make some trades and move some undesirable pieces to really upgrade at all, and it will be much more difficult for them than most other teams.
Odds of Signing:
75/25: LeBron knows that the entire city of Cleveland is holding their breath to see what he does. Leave, and devastate an entire generation of sports fans. Stay, and have the opportunity to become the biggest star in the history of Cleveland sports.
Belal Abdelfattah is BSO’s newest writer and comes from a long background in sports writing at the Sports Authority Blog and The Block Radio. You can follow Belal on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/belal_a