LeBron James is the eye of the NBA's free agency storm

LeBron James, left, with Dwayne Wade. Could fellow free agent Chris Bosh join them to form a mighty trio in South Beach?
LeBron James, left, with Dwayne Wade. Could fellow free agent Chris Bosh join them to form a mighty trio in South Beach? (Lynne Sladky/associated Press)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The tornado has been spinning wildly, ridiculously, for nearly two years, leaving franchises around the NBA in flux, fans in fear or euphoria and various unnamed sources in a frenzy, planting fantasies and possibilities about destinations and potential dynasties.

At 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, the free agent negotiating period officially begins and the rampant, though sometimes silly, speculation surrounding the most anticipated free agent class of this century will move closer to an end. LeBron James, the eye of the storm, will make a decision that could change the power structure within the league for years to come -- and possibly set back for years the teams that mortgaged everything in hopes of acquiring him.

When James and his cohorts, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, signed short three-year extensions that would put them on the open market in 2010 -- and virtually hijacked professional basketball -- teams around the league began making plans to have money available to sign them and/or other all-star talents such as Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Carlos Boozer.

"They did their contracts with the idea that they would have this opportunity," said Henry Thomas, the agent for both Wade and Bosh, who like James are both clients of the Creative Artists Agency. "They are looking forward to have this chance, in the prime of their careers, they determine where they want to play. It's not something that very many guys have been able to do."

There hasn't been a free agent class this dynamic since 1996, when Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Reggie Miller and Gary Payton were available. But it's the presence of James, the two-time league most valuable player, that has created the massive hype, confusion and suspense.

"There are about five or six free agents that everybody is coveting -- and LeBron is the most coveted out of all of them," Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said. "The dominoes will fall depending on where he goes, and it affects other players."

Despite getting nearly $21 million below the salary cap following a flurry of trade deadline deals last February, the Wizards have chosen to be witnesses to all of the madness. They have avoided the temptation to go after one maximum-level free agent and instead chosen to take advantage of teams making last-ditch efforts to free up cap space.

The Wizards completed a trade with New Jersey on Tuesday to get Yi Jianlian and his $4.5 million contract, and five days earlier, they acquired Kirk Hinrich and Kevin Seraphin, the 17th overall pick, from Chicago in a deal that won't be completed until the league-wide moratorium on free agent signings and trades ends on July 8. New owner Ted Leonsis has expressed a desire to start from scratch and the team was fortunate to find a building block in the draft with John Wall.

"It's very difficult for one player to come in and turn things around overnight," Grunfeld said. "In our discussions internally, we felt like the best way to do it was to go through the draft and try to build a solid foundation."

While the Wizards are focused on the future, several teams have been positioning for this summer, imagining scenarios in which they can pair up two or possibly three elite players. The New York Knicks have the most money to spend at $34.5 million, with New Jersey ($30 million), Chicago ($29.9 million) and Miami ($27.5 million) all hoping to establish dream teams.

"It could be remarkable," said an NBA executive from a team that is expected to meet with James in the next few days, speaking on condition of anonymity because he could not talk about players still under contract with other teams. "Teams could see the possibility of who was going to be out there. That was it, more than anything else."

"This is about balance of power," said agent David Falk, who represented most of the top stars, including Jordan, in 1996. "If LeBron doesn't stay in Cleveland and goes to Chicago with Joe Johnson or Chris Bosh, Chicago becomes a powerhouse. If LeBron and Bosh both decide to go to Miami -- which I think is going to happen -- Miami becomes a powerhouse."

The prospect of Bosh teaming with either Wade or James or both was too much for Kobe Bryant to contemplate when he was asked moments after leading the Los Angeles Lakers to back-to-back NBA titles. "You want to just emotionally drain me?" Bryant said. "Those guys, I've seen those guys up close and personal. I don't want to think about playing against both of them at the same time. I want to enjoy this for a little bit."

Mike Miller, the Wizards' unrestricted free agent swingman, said in a telephone interview that he has been in contact with a few of the big name free agents. Miller hasn't ruled out a return to Washington, but said he would likely have to wait for James, Wade, Bosh, Stoudemire and Johnson to make a decision. "They are in complete control," said Miller, who is friends with James. "They can change the whole dynamic, change the whole league. It's been crazy already. I think it's going to continue to get even more crazy. The best thing about it, all of the bigger free agents really need shooters to help them. Hopefully my job is to help them."

Falk said James's choice this summer goes beyond money or marketability. "I'm a big believer that in '84, Jordan raised the bar, for the next 25 years, for all of the young players today, in terms of what a star can be. The onus is now on LeBron to raise the bar again. We want to see how's he going to raise the bar and change the game for the next 25 years. The decision for him is picking the right place for his legacy. How many championships is he going to win? He's five behind Kobe. He's got to pick up the pace and choose a place where he can win."

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