LeBron James met with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for a light lunch at a boutique hotel near South Beach on Wednesday to discuss their future plans. When the summit concluded, James sped off in a burgundy sports car, and the chase for his services began in earnest.
Later in the evening, James showed up for the Beyonce Jay-Z “On the Run” concert – wearing a Miami Heat cap, no less. Meanwhile, the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets made moves to clear up cap space to assist in their efforts to possibly lure him out of Miami.
The NBA will look into the future Thursday night when ether Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker will be taken first overall in the draft, but the power that James – and to a lesser extent, Carmelo Anthony – wields as a free agent is commanding the present. And it has taken precedence over the proceedings in Brooklyn.
The Mavericks and Knicks made the first big trade of the offseason with a deal in which the immediate winner wasn’t one of the teams involved. Dallas re-acquired center Tyson Chandler from New York in a move that eliminated one of the Wizards’ primary suitors for the services of Washington free agent center Marcin Gortat. But for the Mavericks and Knicks, the potential win would come in the long game.
The Mavericks clearly have bigger free agent targets in mind after pulling off a deal that also yielded Ray Felton in exchange for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and two second-round picks.
Chandler helped the franchise win its only championship in 2011 and was a great defensive complement to Dirk Nowitzki but the real value in the trade was the savings. The Mavericks now have more than $26 million in salary cap room – if the ceiling moves up to the expected $63 million next season – which can be used to bring another superstar to Dallas.
Nowitzki is also a free agent this summer and has no intention of leaving the only franchise for which he has played. But he told reporters in New York Wednesday the Mavericks would be foolish not to make a run at James.
“He’s the best player in the league right now,” said Nowitzki, who was visiting New York to play in Steve Nash’s charity soccer game. “If he’s a free agent – which obviously doesn’t happen very often that the best player in the league is a free agent – then you got to obviously go at it. I don’t know what our chances are; you at least have to try.”
In each of the past two offseasons, Nowitzki made unsuccessful pitches to Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, respectively. Williams chose to stay in Brooklyn, and Howard left the Los Angeles Lakers for Houston. “I guess they didn’t like me much,” Nowitzki joked, while adding that he’ll still look to help owner Mark Cuban go after James and Anthony.
Not to be outdone, the Rockets found a taker for disgruntled big man Omer Asik and cleared $8.3 million in cap room by sending him to the New Orleans Pelicans for a protected 2015 first-round pick. Houston didn’t receive any players in return because it continues to pursue a third superstar to join Howard and James Harden. The Rockets also would need to move Jeremy Lin and remove all non-guaranteed deals other Patrick Beverly to get enough space to sign either James or Anthony.
But ESPN’s Chris Broussard presented another scenario that would help Houston attract James and Anthony by using Harden, a 24-year-old two-time all-star, in sign-and-trade deals with either New York (for Anthony) or Miami (for James) . That might be preferable to the Knicks and Heat, rather than lose their stars for nothing in return.
James and Anthony never quite became the rivals they were expected to become when they went first and third, respectively, in the 2003 draft. James has been the generational talent with four most valuable player awards and two NBA championships while Anthony has been an elite scorer still in search of some postseason glory. The only time both players made the conference finals in the same year was 2009, when Anthony lost to the Los Angeles Lakers and James lost to the Orlando Magic.
The chance that Anthony could actually form a super team – in Chicago, Houston or Dallas – to challenge James for the next few years, or even join forces with his good friend, means that for the next few weeks the duo will own the dialogue around the league.
Anthony has waited a long time to become a free agent and experience the courtship. He forced a trade to New York in 2011 but in many ways, he was envious of the attention that Howard and James received as free agents in previous years. That chance has now arrived and been magnified by the presence of James in free agency, who is the rare great player to hit the market multiple times in his prime.
Kobe Bryant got the taste once in 2004. Tim Duncan in 2000. Shaquille O’Neal in 1996. Depending on the length of the deal James signs this summer – especially if he re-ups with Miami and Wade – he could have a third free agent tour before he turns 32.
The early offseason moves are reminiscent of the wild deals in 2010, when the Chicago Bulls sent Kirk Hinrich and the 17th pick to Washington and Hakim Warrick to Phoenix in an effort to make a run at James, Wade and Bosh (the Bulls settled on Boozer); the New Jersey Nets dumped Yi Jianlian on the Wizards; Miami shipped Daequan Cook and the 18th pick, which turned out to be Eric Bledsoe, to Oklahoma City and later sent Michael Beasley to Minnesota.
With the free agent recruiting period set to start on Tuesday, more deals could be on the way.
The Heat still appears to be in the lead to retain James, depending on whether Bosh and Wade both decide to opt out of their contracts – worth more than $42 million over the next two years – to help the team make the necessary roster improvements. Bosh and Wade have until Sunday to make up their minds, but there is no time to wait for teams in the chase.