Friday February 12th, 2010

All but one of these players has been invited to play in Dallas, yet there is more interest in where they'll go next season than there is in how they'll perform as All-Stars this weekend.

LeBron James. In November, and again this week in Sports Illustrated, I've put forth my theory that James is likely to remain with Cleveland. As much as I believe in everything I've written about this subject, I have to admit that I could be dead wrong.

To understand the unpredictability of James' decision, look at the New Jersey Nets, who sometime this spring will be purchased once and for all by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Over the last two months, I've heard the well-reported rumor that Raptors president Bryan Colangelo could be a candidate to run the Nets for Prokhorov. When I recently ran this speculation past a well-connected Eastern executive, he told me I was focusing on the wrong Colangelo.

"It's not Bryan," this insider said. "It's Jerry."

A Western GM has since told me that Jerry Colangelo is indeed being whispered as a candidate to manage the Nets going into this summer.

Right now, the Nets are run by team president Rod Thorn, who is as sharp as any executive in the league. Never forget that Thorn pulled off the 2001 miracle of turning the Nets from laughingstock into two-time NBA finalist. Prokhorov would reveal a fine grasp of the NBA if he were to retain Thorn, who, with GM Kiki Vandeweghe, has created a promising future of cap space and a high lottery pick to join a young core led by point guard Devin Harris and center Brook Lopez.

But no one will be surprised should the new owner want to build an entirely new organization in light of the Nets' 4-48 record and all of the tangential messiness surrounding them this season. In that case, a move to hire Jerry Colangelo would seem the ideal alternative.

"I know nothing about that at all," Colangelo told me Wednesday. "You're the first person I'm hearing this from. I've never even met [Prokhorov] -- all I know is what I've read about him and things I've heard second- and third-hand about him."

Prokohrov has refused any oversight role with the Nets until he buys the team, which depends on an upcoming Board of Governors vote and a completion of the Nets' real-estate deal to move to Brooklyn. (In the meantime, Prokhorov is expected to meet Sunday with Thorn in Dallas.) If he decides to hire a new management team, he is likely to seek the counsel of commissioner David Stern, whose most reliable ally has been Colangelo. When the league needed to update its rulebook to create the more fluid style that has succeeded in showcasing LeBron, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, Stern asked Colangelo to chair the committee. When USA Basketball needed an overhaul, Colangelo took over and produced a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics.

Stern views the arrival of foreign ownership as a blessing that will increase the value of franchises as a larger pool of buyers emerges internationally to drive up demand. If Prokhorov's ownership is seen around the world as a success, if he is able to compete successfully within the byzantine financial rules of the NBA (which are far more complicated than any of the European leagues), then other foreign owners are likely to follow his path to the NBA. That's why it's so easy to envision Stern advising Prokhorov to meet with Colangelo, should the Russian ever seek such advice.

Colangelo owned the Phoenix Suns for 17 years before selling them to Robert Sarver in 2004. When Colangelo was rumored as a presidential candidate for the Knicks in 2008, he made it clear he would be interested in returning to the NBA only if the job came with a great deal of money and complete autonomy free of meddling from the owner. Prokhorov can offer the money, and when he ran the Euroleague champion CSKA Moscow as recently as two seasons ago, he was a hands-off owner who left the decisions to his basketball staff. He would get along fine with Colangelo, whose USA Basketball makeover has embellished his reputation internationally.

So how does this relate back to LeBron? Consider this scenario: The Nets hire Colangelo, who then -- yes, this is almost too good to be true -- tries to hire his Olympic coach, Mike Krzyzewski, to a big-money deal as coach and GM. Now think about what will happen if the Nets win the lottery rights to draft Kentucky point guard John Wall, liberating them to trade the 26-year-old Harris for extra cap space or an existing star. Colangelo and Kryzyzewski could meet with James on July 1 and offer him a max deal, an elite point guard in Wall and an emerging frontcourt star in Lopez, as well as an opportunity to tap into the world's largest market when the team moves to Brooklyn in 2012-13 as the renamed New York Nets.

None of this may come true, of course. But it is an example of how difficult it is to say with certainty what may happen this summer. The possibility of Colangelo and Krzyzewski recruiting the Olympic stars to come to New York on the dime of a Russian billionaire is one of many scenarios that James may not be able to refuse. (And if he does, they could make the same offer to Wade and dare him to say no.)

I've been saying all year that James is likely to remain in Cleveland because he'll be viewed as utterly loyal if he stays and disloyal if he leaves, with the latter reputation threatening great injury to his chances of becoming the world's most popular athlete. But who's to say he views his future that way? To quote the narrator of Modern Warfare 2, "History is written by the victors." If James wins championships outside Cleveland, maybe the fans will admit that he made the right decision after all and cheer for him as much as they used to cheer for Michael Jordan.

Maybe the Knicks can lure LeBron out of Cleveland, and he proves to be so good that New York is contending for the title by his second year. Maybe the Cavs will implode during the playoffs, and he'll sign with Dallas for the mid-level exception. OK, that last one really is farfetched, but the point is it's all too murky to be certain.

"I could see him going to L.A.," an Eastern executive said. And no, don't start thinking that the Lakers' momentary failure to sign Bryant to an extension has anything to do with leaving the door open for James to take over the franchise. The only sure thing is this: We're going to continue hearing all kinds of James rumors over the months ahead, and as of early July we'll look back and see that one of them happened to be true.

Dwyane Wade. As you'll see in SI this week, I ran a poll of a dozen league insiders -- team execs, coaches and a high-profile agent -- to query their opinions on what will become of the top free agents this summer. Only two of them predict outright that James will leave Cleveland (with both dissenters anticipating he'll jump to the Knicks) while another three view his decision as 50-50, based largely on the Cavs' success or failure in the playoffs.

As for Wade, the panel predicts overwhelmingly that he'll stay with Miami, with one expert splitting his vote to give Chicago a 50 percent chance of luring Wade back to his hometown, and another voter predicting outright that he'll sign with the Knicks. Though I've heard no groundswell forming around the possibility of a move by Wade to the Knicks, look at this way: While James may have a hard time rationalizing a leap from a title contender in Cleveland to the bare roster of New York, Wade wouldn't be giving up as much by walking out on Miami. If the argument goes that James would become a bigger star by moving to New York, then the same dynamic surely applies to Wade.

"I would think it would be hard for him to leave all he has in Miami, unless he thinks the team isn't going to be good enough for his standards," an Eastern GM said.

But the executive doesn't dismiss the possibility of Wade's signing with the Knicks.

"That wouldn't surprise me either," he said. "It doesn't scare me to death if Wade goes to New York. If Wade is their guy, I don't say, 'Oh, no, what are we going to do?' If they get LeBron, that will be a big deal, the party's over [for the rest of the league]. But Wade is a little injury-prone, and he's taken wear and tear over his career."

Ten of the voters assume that Wade will stay in Miami, with team president Pat Riley making an offseason run at Chris Bosh as a frontcourt complement to Wade (unless Riley preemptively makes a trade for Amar'e Stoudemire over the next week).

Chris Bosh. Only five insiders believe Bosh will re-sign with Toronto. Yet, I view this as a positive sign for Raptors, because those five votes offset widespread speculation that Bosh is certain to leave this summer. The Raptors can pay him close to $30 million more than other teams over the length of a six-year contract, compared to the five years with smaller annual raises he would receive elsewhere. That $30 million cannot be dismissed amid gloomy projections of salary cutbacks when the next collective bargaining agreement is installed in 2011-12. Bosh may never be able to make up that money in future contracts.

"Here's the thing people don't know about him," an Eastern team president said of Bosh. "He wants to be a star. He wants to be the No. 1 guy."

If true, then that's another reason for him to remain with Toronto, as opposed to becoming the No. 2 option to Wade in Miami (or to Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas via a sign-and-trade).

Regardless of how Bosh may view himself, the prevailing opinion around the league is that he cannot be the top player of a championship team.

"I don't think Chris Bosh is a No. 1 guy," a Western personnel executive said. "For him to be really successful -- and he may not be willing to admit this -- he needs to be with another guy. If he goes to Miami, I think that fits his personality because Wade provides the best match [as a perimeter teammate] for him, but again, a lot of guys can't admit to things like that.

"Almost everybody at the top of this free-agent class is a wing player, but Bosh is the one big man that's coveted and could fit in with a lot of different teams," this Western exec added. "What I've heard through the grapevine is that the only cold-weather city he's going to consider playing in is Toronto."

So much of this free-agent forecasting takes on the sound of pop-psychology analysis, as the executives try to evaluate a player's ambitions as well as his style of play.

"He could stay because they can pay him more than anyone," an Eastern team executive said of Bosh. "I always say it takes more for a guy to leave than to stay. With Bosh, you've got to give the guy the max or he's walking, but he's not a max player, I don't think. On the other hand, I really don't think he wants to carry a team. He says otherwise, and it sounds like he loves being the [No. 1] guy in Toronto, but I'm not buying that. I personally think he doesn't want to carry a contending team day after day, that he doesn't want that pressure. So looking at it that way, I could see him playing with Wade or Derrick Rose [of the Bulls, who have the cap space to make a run at Bosh]."

"I think he gets lured down to South Beach," said an agent, who obviously doesn't represent Bosh. "I think his emotions are up and down, that he likes it up there. But I really don't think Toronto is going to max him out. The owners are going to have a new definition of who a max guy is, and there are only eight or nine players who are at that [level]. Pau Gasol is not max, Antawn Jamison got the max when he was at Golden State, [Andrei] Kirilenko got it [from Utah]. And those deals bit those teams in the [butt] because those guys are not major stars. The max is for Tim Duncan, LeBron, D-Wade, Kobe Bryant -- that echelon. As an agent, I want as much money as I can get, but I'm telling you how the owners are looking at it."

If Bosh decides this summer he isn't going to stay in Toronto, added the agent, "I do know that Toronto will explore sign-and-trades for him so they get something in return. That's where they feel comfortable, and they probably have told his [agent] that, so that he won't just jump ship."

Joe Johnson. Though the Hawks have improved annually around him and are challenging for the No. 2 seed in the East this season, only five voters believe Johnson will re-sign with Atlanta. "Going to Chicago makes lot of sense for him, Miami makes sense, and staying in Atlanta makes sense too," a Western personnel executive said. "If Atlanta loses Joe Johnson, they're in big trouble. You can say they have a ton of talent, but he is the centerpiece of that team and I know they're going to try to keep him -- but it's going to be hard for them to commit the max to him."

My feeling is that the Hawks will pay Johnson the max. It's against their nature as the lone franchise under the luxury-tax threshhold among the league's eight winningest teams this season. But they're already paying him $15 million this season, and the additional costs of bumping him up to a max salary approaching $17 million next year will be easier to swallow than the financial consequences of losing him.

The most common speculation is that he'll jump to the Bulls, based on the size of their market, their need for a shooting guard to help fill out their promising young roster, and the friendship between owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Johnson's agent, Arn Tellem. "But Arn may have played that one out when he sent Ben Wallace to Chicago [in 2006]," said the agent who took part in my anonymous panel. "That move didn't work out very well for them."

Rudy Gay. He isn't the fifth-best player in this class, with Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer among those rated ahead of him, but the 23-year-old Gay -- the top restricted free agent this summer -- could be viewed as a secondary target for the Knicks or other teams.

The 6-8 small forward, for whom former team president Jerry West gambled on with a draft-night trade in 2006, is averaging 19.8 points this season. Will Memphis be willing to match a big offer sheet from the Timberwolves, Nets or other suitors? I posed this question to four panelists, and all predicted that Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley would retain Gay.

"Their team is doing so well that they're forced now to pay him," an Eastern personnel executive said. "But here's a thought for you: Let's say that Bosh ends up somewhere other than Miami; in that case I could see Miami making a run at Rudy Gay. They could have Wade at the '2,' Gay at the '3' and [Michael] Beasley at the '4.' The one thing I know is that someone is going to take Heisley's temperature by making an offer to Rudy Gay."

On to the rest of the Countdown ...

Cleveland Cavaliers. Are they making a deal or aren't they? "It has seemed quiet to me this week," a Western GM said of trade talks around the league. "It was moving there for a little while, and now things have been slowing down. But I would imagine it picks up right after the [All-Star] break."

I continue to doubt we'll see many deals at next Thursday's trade deadline, because most teams are seeking financial relief and only a few are willing to take on salary. If anything is likely to break, it will happen in the 24 hours before the deadline, when trade demands will grow more realistic. Should the market thaw, the Cavs will be one of the teams ready to acquire expensive talent.

Don't think they won't be aggressive. As well as they've been playing during their 28-4 run since early December, and as much as rival executives may assume that James will remain with Cleveland, the Cavaliers cannot rest on any assumption. If, for example, the rest of the league thinks there's an 80 percent chance James will re-sign, Cavs management has to be focusing on the 20 percent chance he may leave. But it's not just about satisfying James; it's also about doing everything possible to secure a championship now that they appear so close to that goal.

Los Angeles Lakers. They've won three straight games while Kobe has rested his sprained ankle and broken finger, which is a nice display of their depth. But whether they win or lose without him, the key here is that Bryant is resting. He's only 31, but this is his 14th NBA year -- and accounting for his 175 playoff games adds the equivalent of another two full seasons to his mileage. While most players earn credit for playing through injury, Bryant should be lauded for declining to play in the All-Star Game on Sunday, which affirms that his priority is to position the Lakers for another championship.

Boston Celtics. Until they prove otherwise, this team -- 9-13 since Christmas -- no longer belongs in any of the championship conversations. It's not like they're alone: The elderly Spurs are suffering through a similar melancholy. "I'm not getting through to this group," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said recently. "It's about mental toughness and physical toughness and passion and the group jelling together and playing for each other. We're not doing it." Coach Doc Rivers could say the same thing about his Celtics.

As first reported by Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski, Boston is indeed investigating potential trades for Ray Allen's expiring $18.8 million contract. One Western GM believes the Celtics' best potential acquisition would be Caron Butler, who would be out of position at shooting guard but could nonetheless join with Paul Pierce to create a highly physical perimeter "that would beat other teams up."

But other teams may outbid Boston for Butler, who is expected to be moved by Washington over the next week. I continue to believe Allen won't be traded, because it will be so very difficult to acquire a useful talent who is worthy of the years left on his contract.

Denver Nuggets. They've emerged as the solid No. 2 team in the West while surviving the 13-game absence of Carmelo Anthony, and they've created a new bench around rookie Ty Lawson and other minimal contracts. A deadline trade for another big man will help them against the Lakers in a potential conference finals rematch, in which case Bryant's health will be a crucial variable. As well as they've played while winning both games against L.A. this year, does anyone believe the Nuggets can upset the defending champs in the playoffs? The more doubts that are raised about this Nuggets team, the better they'll respond as underdogs. Every time I see George Karl on TV, he looks like he knows a secret and can't wait for everyone else to find out.

Do you think playing in China will help Stephon Marbury's career, or will it only hurt him when he tries to return to the NBA? That is, assuming he wants to play in the NBA again? -- Eric, Austin, Texas

If he is going to the trouble of playing in China, then we can assume he'd like to play in the NBA again. (Which is not meant to forget that he's also trying to market his line of sneakers to the Chinese market.) But I'll be surprised if he plays in the NBA again after being such a disappointment with the Celtics last season, when he appeared to have little confidence in his jumper. If he proves capable of knocking down shots as he used to, then he might create some interest. But Marbury is a 33-year-old with a lot of mileage and baggage, and most NBA teams will view him with suspicion.

What are some things we can expect to get out of David Stern's statement during All-Star weekend? -- Josh R., Miami

Stern will lead the owners into a formal meeting with the players' union Friday in Dallas, where both sides will discuss the owners' initial proposal for a new collective bargaining agreement for 2011-12. I don't know anyone who anticipates that meeting to go well. The two sides figure to be far apart.

When Stern holds his news conference the following day, less important than any details he provides will be the tone of his remarks, as well as those of union chief Billy Hunter, who typically shares the dais with Stern for the opening minutes of the press event. Will they be optimistic or pessimistic? What they say will be less important than how they say it.

Love your story on game-winning shots. Since you've been covering the league, what has been the most memorable game-winning shot you've seen? -- Matthew M., Fayetteville, N.C.

Thanks, Matthew. The most memorable winner has to be the layup Dennis Johnson made following Larry Bird's steal of Isiah Thomas in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern finals. It remains the most dramatic response by an audience I've ever seen, as if 14,890 pilot lights all shot up at once with a vacuous gasp and then a roar that overwhelmed the old Boston Garden.

While some of his peers say they would rather have the long weekend off, the Magic coach appears honored to be overseeing the Eastern All-Stars this weekend in Dallas.

On the cliché of playing well going into the All-Star break. Orlando enters the weekend with a three-game winning streak and victories in 10 of its last 13 games, but Van Gundy isn't sure it will carry through the long weekend. "You need to be playing well at the start of the season, in the middle of the season, into the break, out of the break -- you always want to be playing well," he said. "Other than the playoffs, I don't know if there's a time more important than any other.

"I don't really think there's a lot of momentum, period. What do they say in baseball: 'Momentum is when you've got pitching the next game'? Basketball's a little bit the same: Momentum is how you play the next night. A lot of this is about not getting caught up in the momentum, especially when it goes bad. You've got to get ready for the next night."

On gaining insight into rival players by coaching them at the All-Star Game. He isn't sure how much he can learn from an exhibition. "I noticed in 2005," Van Gundy said of his All-Star coaching debut while representing the Miami Heat, "you already knew Allen Iverson was an unbelievable competitor, but watching him in that game was incredible because he not only wanted to play and play well, he wanted to win. He was on his teammates, and I said, 'Man, this guy is a special competitor.' So you'll get some things like that, but no real insights into their game or anything that you don't already know. Because they're just sort of playing."

"Make Every Game Count." The season-ending playoff proposal suggested, of which I wrote in October, is on the agenda for the Competition Committee to discuss Friday at All-Star weekend. As suggested by Nuggets VP Mark Warkentien, the Nos. 8-15 teams in each conference would play a single-elimination tournament in pursuit of the No. 8 spot in the playoffs.

Under the proposal, nothing would change for the playoff teams that earn playoff spots 1-7. The No. 8 spot, however, would be up for grabs.

No. 8 would play a home game against No. 15, No. 9 would play at home against No. 14 and so on. The loser of each game would be eliminated, while each winner would advance to the next round.

At the conclusion of the mini-tournament, the playoffs would revert to the traditional format, with the winner of the No. 8 seed opposing the team with the best record in the conference. The results of the postseason tournament would not alter the rankings of teams heading into the lottery.

The new system is meant to incentivize losing franchises at the end of the season. Lottery-bound teams would now have a reason to keep their veteran players active in hope of creating extra gate receipts, whether from the mini-tournament or the playoffs.

Warkentien's proposal raises concerns that a franchise could cynically rest its players over the final weeks to improve its lottery position, and then restore a full lineup for the mini-tournament. But at the very least, the committee should investigate whether this idea, or something like it, can be created to deal with the issue of tanking, a late-season abomination that brings out the worst of the worst each year.

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