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Bracing for the 2010 sweepstakes

The NBA's latest version of a long-running presidential election involves LeBron James and more than a dozen other high-profile candidates. The issue: Where will they land when they become free agents in 2010?

This promises to be the most provocative free-agent class of the post-Jordan world, with the Pistons, Nets and (launch Darth Vader intro music) Knicks among the dozen or more teams potentially lining up to recruit and sign one or more of the game's biggest names. But ... and a big but this is ... it's a story that won't be consummated until the summer after next. Indeed, nothing may come of all the speculation, should LeBron and his fellow stars decide to re-sign with their current teams, as they very well may do.

"I find it sort of strange,'' said Henry Thomas, agent to potential 2010 free agents Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. "The reality is it's two years away. I don't know why there's so much talk about it.''

It's because this is the NBA's Next Big Thing. The previous Next Big Things were the impending divorce of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant (which was realized), followed by the imminent departure of Kevin Garnett from Minnesota, which was anticipated for two excruciating years (and which happened), which begot the issue of Kobe's on-and-off desires to leave the Lakers (which is now off). That leaves us looking past the next two seasons to a summer of free-agent movement that may never come to be.

Adding relevance to the conjecture is the possibility of LeBron's moving to New York, enabling the NBA to seize its biggest market and instigating an N.Y.-L.A. rivalry of LeBron vs. Kobe that could dwarf the Celtics-Lakers wars of the 1980s.

So here's a primer to help get you through the two long winters of incessant blogging, talk-radio tirades and Internet predictions that lay ahead. We start by looking at the key players.

• LeBron James, Cavaliers. His opt-out clause in 2010 is driving this story. "When I decide to make that decision, it is basically to put me in a position where I feel like I can win multiple championships,'' James said before scoring 31 points in a victory Tuesday at New Jersey. "If it's staying here, then I will be here. If it's moving elsewhere, then I will have to look at all my options.''

The chronic speculation that LeBron will bolt for New York (or to New Jersey, though that is less likely now that the Nets appear less likely to move to Brooklyn) has been based entirely on the provocative idea of his becoming the biggest thing in the Big Apple. But here, now, he is saying that winning championships is his most important consideration.

And of course that is true. If he wants to become the world's top star and surpass the global acclaim of Michael Jordan, then he needs to win at Jordan's level. Moving to New York and failing to win there would ultimately deem him a huge failure.

If the Cavs assemble the makings of a championship team around James, then how can he explain a decision to leave? Cleveland is, as he reminds us constantly, his hometown (he is from nearby Akron). It is not going to reflect well on LeBron if he were to abandon his valued home in order to go for the glitz of New York.

The Knicks would need to create a highly talented roster around him, in which case LeBron could make the criticism vanish by winning, much as Shaq made everyone forget the nastiness of his departure from Orlando by earning three titles in L.A. There is no doubt that winning multiple rings in New York (which won the last of its two championships in 1973) would be a bigger achievement than if he won on any other platform.

But it would also be a heartwarming story if he were to maintain loyalty to his hometown while turning the small-market Cavs into the capital of the basketball world. It would, as marketing people like to say, brand him as no other star has ever been branded, because it would give his mission the appearance of being about something more important than money. It would be a story of investing himself in his hometown.

To become the equal to (or eclipse) Jordan, LeBron must be universally loved. People would love him for staying in Cleveland.

Plus, there are billions of people in China who won't view LeBron any differently whether he's in New York or Cleveland. Most of his potential consumers around the world won't know the difference. They'll want to buy his jersey and shoes regardless of the colors.

I'm not saying he isn't going to sign with New York; all I'm saying is that when people say James is definitely leaving Cleveland, that he's made his decision already, I don't buy it as anything close to a sure thing. And you shouldn't, either, because it makes no sense for him to decide right now. He may be leaning one way or the other, or he may even be promoting rumors of his departure in order to pressure the Cavs to keep improving the roster because he wants to stay and win championships in Cleveland. Who knows?

If I have to make one prediction, let me start by saying this: He isn't going to move to Detroit, because that would be a lateral move. No upside for him there. I don't claim to know what James is thinking, but the only move away from home that makes sense is for him to go to either the Lakers (which isn't likely to happen, because Kobe isn't going anywhere) or the Knicks. Ultimately, I think it's going to be a simple decision: Cleveland or New York.

• Chris Bosh, Raptors. For all of the other teams with cap space, Bosh becomes the top available target. Every city he visits brings questions of where he might be playing in 2010-11, Bosh acknowledges.

"There are too many ifs,'' he said. "I just work on being happy right now and helping this team and trying to be the best player I can be. By thinking about it too much, you won't end up thinking about playing basketball. You'll think about two years from now. I'm not a person who thinks like that.''

There is a feeling throughout the league that Bosh, a Texan, will consider a move enabling him to return to the United States and eventually raise a family on home soil. Rival NBA executives argue that Bosh hasn't been celebrated as much while playing for a Canadian team as he would be on an American roster.

Bosh, however, doesn't hint in public that he would be happier playing for another franchise. And, as Raptors president Bryan Colangelo points out, Bosh was voted by fans to start in the 2007 All-Star Game, a clear signal his association with the Raptors isn't necessarily hurting his profile. (Bosh finished third among Eastern Conference forwards in balloting last year behind Garnett and James, an outcome that no market could have altered.)

"Chris is in the MVP conversation this year, he's been an All-Star, he's been on USA Basketball and he was a key member of the gold-medal team last summer,'' Colangelo said. "All of the accolades have been coming to him.''

Toronto is itself one of the largest markets in North America, and Colangelo has a long track record of making bold moves to build contending teams (see: last summer's trade for Jermaine O'Neal).

"The corporate base and economic climate is a lot better in Canada than it is south of the border,'' Colangelo said. "Not only is he getting accolades and attention, but he's also got an entire country to market to in addition to the U.S. He is the cornerstone of this franchise, and not many players have the opportunity to say they are the cornerstone.''

The Knicks are expected to make a run at Bosh, depending on the decision of LeBron (or maybe in addition to him, if they were somehow to amass enough cap space); so could the Pistons, Nets and -- provocatively -- Miami, Houston and Phoenix, who represent three markets that NBA players traditionally covet. But the truth is every franchise with room under the cap will be interested in Bosh, a team-first, 24-year-old power forward whose early season numbers (25.5 points, 11.0 rebounds) denote continual improvement.

Let's look first at other All-Stars who may be on the 2010 list:

• Dwyane Wade, Heat: Unlikely to leave Miami, a destination market with ambitious management (though if he were to enter the market, he would join James and Bosh at the elite level).

Amaré Stoudemire, Steve Nash and Shaquille O'Neal, Suns: It would make sense for the Suns to attempt to rebuild around the explosive Stoudemire, who will be 27; Nash will be 36 and Shaq will be 38.

Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks: He will be 32 with 12 years of NBA mileage.

Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, Rockets: Yao has shown no inclination to leave; McGrady will be 31 with a history of injuries.

Michael Redd, Bucks: See McGrady.

Manu Ginobili, Spurs: He will be 33.

Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, Celtics: Allen will be 35; Pierce is unlikely to opt out of a contract that will pay him $21.5 million in 2010-11.

So, for teams hoping to invest their cap space in a pair of young All-Star legs, the options are LeBron, Bosh and maybe (though less likely) Wade or Stoudemire.

And the Hawks' Joe Johnson: Don't forget him. Not only will he be just 29, but Johnson also is emerging as a big-shot star with three-point range and playmaking skills that would enable him to fit into any contending lineup. He looks more and more like he's a Piston in the making (which is not to say that the whims of the market will marry them together).

Now let's look at the leading teams in contention to make a play for these stars:

• Knicks: It isn't complicated. The trick here is for them to clear away high-salaried players while building a team that can win once LeBron is plugged in. As spelled out by LeBron himself -- he wants to win multiple championships -- the Knicks can't expect to land him by merely unloading bad contracts; team president Donnie Walsh must also bring in good players in order to make LeBron an offer he can't refuse. Walsh had shown his understanding for this dynamic last summer by refusing to merely give away Randolph to the Clippers and other suitors; he knows he must retrieve assets in return.

Friday's trade of Jamal Crawford to the Warriors is a good first step for the Knicks because they received Al Harrington, who is expected to opt out this summer. At worst, his deal will expire in 2009-10, clearing close to $10 million off the cap. In the meantime, he's a perimeter-shooting big man who should thrive in coach Mike D'Antoni's offense while trying to earn himself a new contract elsewhere.

That trade was linked to the deal sending Zach Randolph to the Clippers for Cuttino Mobley (a backcourt replacement for Crawford) and Tim Thomas, which will save the Knicks an additional $17.3 million in 2010. The next likely phase for New York will be to move center Eddy Curry into the rotation, with the goal of rehabbing his value so that he can be traded as well.

The ultimate goal for the Knicks will be to create enough cap space to recruit two free agents, much as the Magic did in their 2000 bonanza signings of McGrady and Grant Hill. Imagine a package deal of LeBron and Bosh ...

• Cavs: Keep in mind that they will have cap space in 2010 to retain LeBron and sign a max star to accompany him. If they can earn an early long-term commitment from James toward the end of next season, then maybe they can make a run at Bosh, Johnson or Stoudemire -- or make a trade for an expensive star from a team looking to create cap space.

In the meantime, expect the Cavs to dangle one of their expiring contracts at the trade deadline. As much as they like the chemistry of their current rotation, they're probably one very good player away from winning it all this year. The Cavs remain a one-star show, and going back to the arrival of Bird and Magic 30 seasons ago, the only teams to win a championship with fewer than two stars have been the 1993-94 Rockets (around Hakeem Olajuwon) and the 2003-04 Pistons (who, in fact, did not have a traditional scoring star on their roster).

• Pistons: Their priority is to land a big-time player this summer with the cap space derived from the expiring deals of Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace. The Pistons will be players in 2010 as a secondary option.

• Nets: Their franchise uncertainty makes their role in 2010 impossible to predict. Will they move to Brooklyn? Will they be sold and moved to another market?

• Bulls, Rockets, Heat, Suns, Trail Blazers, Kings, Spurs, Raptors: These are among the many teams that could develop enough space to make a run at a major free agent. As noted above, however, the demand for young talent will far exceed the supply.

We close with one crucial lesson: Can you guess how many max free agents have led their new teams to a championship?

The answer is one and only one: Shaq, with the Lakers.

"That is an amazing stat,'' Pistons president Joe Dumars said. "The only thing I will say is that I think it's imperative that you continue to make your team better. Whether you can guarantee a championship or not, you can't pass on adding a great player to your team.''

But keep in mind over the next two years, as we all get carried away talking about the myriad possibilities, that free agency is the NBA's biggest boondoggle. There is only one player in this market likely to step in Shaq's sneakers and lead his new team to a championship, and only then if all of the complementary pieces are placed around him. That player is LeBron James.