It’s midnight madness for NBA|LeBron leads a star-studded free-agent crop

Published 2:26 am Thursday, July 1, 2010

By By BRIAN MAHONEY, AP Basketball Writer
NEW YORK — This summer’s biggest show in sports, kicking off at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, comes from a league that won’t play for months.
It’s called ‘‘LeBron James: Free Agent.’’
The two-time MVP known more aptly than ever as the King is one of the most sought-after players to hit the market in the NBA — or any sport. Teams have spent years jockeying to get themselves in position for this moment — slashing their payrolls and even enlisting high-profile sympathizers ranging from a music superstar to a singing governor.
James, who has played for the Cleveland Cavaliers since turning pro directly out of high school seven years ago, is the biggest prize in perhaps the NBA’s deepest free agency class ever, a crop of star players who could change the course of basketball with their decisions.
‘‘I think the landscape could really shift,’’ former Phoenix general manager Steve Kerr said.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James’ classmates from the 2003 draft — and future teammates in Miami if they choose — are among this year’s free agents. So are perennial All-Stars such as Dirk Nowitzki, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson.
‘‘We’ve never had anything like this in my time that I can remember,’’ New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn said. ‘‘There have been big-time free agents before, but never this many teams that are trying to woo them. So it’s unprecedented.’’
So is the hype. Talk of James’ destination seems to change by the minute, considered a lock for Chicago in one report, then seemingly guaranteed to head to Miami in another. The rumor mill spun so out of control that an online sports book simply stopped taking action on James’ next team.
Bottom line: James can get perhaps $125 million over six years by staying in Cleveland; $96 million over five years if he goes. (The exact figures can’t be determined until next season’s salary cap is set in July). But leaving could put him in a better position to win a championship.
Thorn is headed to Ohio, where James will welcome suitors to his home state Thursday. He’ll be joined by new Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, coach Avery Johnson and hip-hop superstar Jay-Z, a part-owner and James’ longtime friend.
Then it’s back home for Prokorov and Johnson, minus Jay-Z, to make pitches the next day in New York to Wade and Bosh.
The Knicks plan to drop in on James, too. They can afford to pay him and another player the NBA maximum next season, which might be what the Knicks need to finally get going again after a franchise-record nine straight losing seasons.
‘‘We’ve had to live through some tough times in order to get where you think you start rebuilding the franchise,’’ team president Donnie Walsh said. ‘‘We have that opportunity now. How well, how fast we can rebuild the team can be shortcut by getting great players.’’
They’ll have plenty of competition. The Heat, Nets, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers also can afford to offer a player about $16.6 million next season, which is the maximum someone with James’ amount of NBA experience can make. Chicago and New Jersey made trades in recent days to push them closer to joining the Knicks with enough to offer two max deals, and the Heat can keep Wade, give an additional max contract and have enough left over for another quality player.
The teams are getting plenty of help. Ohio’s governor made his plea for James in a song. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg lobbied James on Wednesday by saying celebrities can live without being bothered in the city — where James was recently seen house hunting. At the same time, Miami was trying to persuade its superstar to stick around with a ‘‘Dwyane Wade Day.’’
Top players rarely leave via free agency because NBA rules allow their teams to offer them more money in the long run. The difference comes not in the first year of a new contract, but in the raises.
A player signing with his own team is eligible for annual increases of 10.5 percent, while a new team can offer only 8 percent bumps. The home team can also offer six-year deals, whereas players joining new teams can get only five-year contracts.
The Knicks traded away Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph — the NBA’s top sixth man and a first-time All-Star, respectively — to get their $34 million in cap room. New Jersey, which shipped out Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter in recent years, went just 12-70 last season but hope for a quick turnaround. Miami essentially left Wade to play by himself this season in exchange for the chance to get him some superstar help next year.
‘‘It is an ’all-in’ strategy, in that even when it works, you’re going to have to operate with a very low payroll,’’ Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said. ‘‘If it doesn’t work, it can be catastrophic in terms of if you strike out, it’s going to be very difficult to be competitive.’’
The clock started ticking four summers ago, when James, Wade and Bosh passed on maximum-length extensions on their rookie contracts in favor of shorter deals that allowed them to opt for free agency this summer.
Momentum kept building as fears grew that owners will seek radical changes in the length and value of contracts next summer when the league’s collective bargaining agreement expires. That made it wise for a player like Nowitzki, even if he has no intention of leaving Dallas, to exercise his early termination option now and sign a new deal under the current rules.
Toronto expects to lose Bosh. If the All-Star forward joins James or Wade, or both, that team figures to become an immediate championship contender. Boston won the title the year after assembling its Big Three — which could now be broken up with Ray Allen on the market — and the Lakers have reached the finals every year since acquiring Pau Gasol to complement Kobe Bryant.
Numerous teams are now dreaming of similar pairings.
‘‘You look at the teams that have an awful lot of cap space, there could be a lot of power shifting in this league,’’ Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis said.
Deals can be agreed to but can’t be signed until July 8. The process often goes quickly, but with so many potential good options, James might want to take his time.
With free agency turning into must-see television, NBA TV will air a live special starting at midnight, and the Knicks’ MSG network will debut a show at the same time.
After years of jockeying by teams, anticipation by the players and speculation by the media, it’s time to get started.
‘‘It’s what we live for,’’ Dallas Mavericks president Donnie Nelson said. ‘‘It’s fun.’’
AP Sports Writers Jaime Aron in Dallas, Chris Duncan in Houston and Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.