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Weekly Countdown: Which max free agent will jump first?

Counting down the days until sentences can be ended by a period instead of a question mark.

When will teams make offers? This question shows how leading stars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are indeed holding the power right now. A variety of teams are courting them and other players, but are the teams making official financial offers to them?

Consider the Knicks, who have met with Joe Johnson and Amar'e Stoudemire. When did they make offers to both players? Did they do so without shutting the door on the potential of James coming to New York? The Knicks are moving forward on signing Stoudemire to at least a five-year deal -- they hope he'll arrive in New York Friday night or Saturday to finish the verbal agreement -- and they have an offer on the table to Johnson. A Knicks source says both players remain open-minded to taking less money should James reveal later this weekend that he wants to join them in New York. But that three-headed gambit remains a longshot.

In the first couple of days there has been a lot of pitching and promising, but where is the big money? It's still on the table of what is turning into an enormous game of poker. Has Chicago made an offer to Johnson? Could Miami work a sign-and-trade for Bosh that would leave them with max room for Wade and James? Are the Nets in with a chance at signing James?

Johnson figures to be a key indicator here. If he accepts a reported six-year max offer from Atlanta and takes himself off the market, that will dump further pressure on the Knicks and Bulls and other teams to make an outright offer elsewhere. Because Johnson and James are the only big-name wing players available now that Paul Pierce and Rudy Gay are gone.

In the meantime, there are at least six teams waiting to hear a decision from James over the holiday weekend, and they're being careful to not make a move that could damage their chances of landing him. At the same time they're pursuing other stars to either team with him or replace him on their envisioned rosters. Gamesmanship is a crucial dynamic now -- which owner or GM will emerge as the best poker player, with the most informed and cool-headed reading of the other players at the table?

Who will sign first? If Johnson surprises the market and decides to leave Atlanta, then the team that lands him will have a huge advantage. Likewise will the Knicks feel a sense of relief and momentum should they take Stoudemire off the market and onto their roster.

I spoke with a college recruiter yesterday -- because this is recruiting as I can never remember in the NBA -- and he pointed out that the key is to sign the first player. Once you have the first guy, now you have a foundation to attract others to come, he said.

And that makes sense. Because, by signing Johnson or Stoudemire or Bosh, now you've removed the hypothetical. Now James will look at that player's new team and think realistically about joining with him there. Once one of these big names leaves the market, the frenzy is going to grow because no team will want to be left out. Someone may jump at a sure thing instead of holding out for LeBron.

Money off the court? The Knicks created news by assuring James he could earn $1 billion on the side just by playing in New York, according to a Forbes report. Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire, is selling his ability to make James a global brand. Chicago is another large market with enormous money-earning potential for James. So how will the small-market Cavaliers be able to appeal to James on those terms.

They'll appeal to his sensibilities. James knows himself that his fame will be hollow if he doesn't win NBA championships. That's why he has repeatedly maintained his decision will be based on basketball. Of course his earning potential is an important consideration, as well as the understanding -- shared by most people -- that winning those championships would have the biggest impact in New York, just as Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant have become bigger stars through their association with Los Angeles than if they'd played in smaller markets.

The Cavs will also know how to engage with James in a personal way. Before the Nets met with him Thursday, minority owner and friend of James', Jay-Z, was able to help New Jersey assemble a presentation that saw the future from James' point of view. Were the Knicks able to step outside their corporate perspective and connect in a personal way with the 25-year-old MVP? Probably not.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert has a big advantage in having developed a strong relationship with James and his management group over the years. By now Gilbert should understand James' priorities and how to marry them with Cleveland's ambitions.

But first things first: If James moves to New York or another big market and he doesn't win, then he'll deal with the same misery faced by Alex Rodriguez over his first six years with the Yankees when he was belittled as the big-money MVP who couldn't deliver titles. I continue to view the Cavs as favorites to retain James because they have an owner who has spent big money to win a lot of games in recent years, they still have the talent that helped win those games, and if James wins in his hometown he'll create a heartwarming biography that will draw fans to him. Especially if he decides to stay home after rejecting offers from the more glamorous cities.

That's why I continue to view Cleveland as the leader in this race. But who knows what he is thinking?

Too much money already spent? The Grizzlies shocked everyone by outlaying $82 million over five years to restricted free agent Rudy Gay, rather than wait to match a rival offer sheet that would have been front-loaded to the harm of their franchise. Could they have paid less money to keep Gay a year ago? Yes, but it was much harder to realize Gay's value a year ago, before the Grizzlies' breakthrough 40-win season. In the end this was a promising sign that Memphis is willing to spend money in order to make money. Of course it's more than owner Michael Heisley wanted to spend, but this is the price of doing NBA business. This is the market.

There has been similar surprise at some of the other early signings. DarkoMilicic received $20 million over four years from the Timberwolves, who believe he can mature in their system to be a productive big man. Amir Johnson remained in Toronto for $34 million over five years, while Milwaukee gave DrewGooden five years worth $32 million.

These are all middle-class signings. Gooden's last multi-year deal was worth $23 million over three seasons, so this amounts to a cut in pay that reflects the market. If the Bucks derive 12 points and eight rebounds per night from him, he'll be well worth his salary compared to some of the other contracts forthcoming in the NBA.

If the Bucks re-sign John Salmons, as expected, they'll have committed more than $100 million over the last month to him, Gooden, Corey Maggette and Carlos Delfino, whose option they picked up at $3.5 million. But this is how owner Herb Kohl runs the Bucks. He has long been willing to spend in a big way in spite of the size of his market. At least now the Bucks are offering middle-class salaries to middle-class players, which was something the NBA stopped doing in recent years.

Are the owners sending the "wrong message" to the players' union with these early signings? After all, the players are being asked to absorb salary cuts and shorter contracts in the next collective bargaining agreement. My own feeling is that these contracts are the start of a more cost-efficient trend. The league needs to rebuild its middle class. You can argue whether Milicic or Gooden are worthy of their new contracts, but the bottom line is that the contracts aren't enormous by recent league standards.

The real test will come when one or two of the teams with major cap space is unable to sign a big-name free agent. Will those shut-out teams spend their money extravagantly to make a splash? That will send a message to the players that things aren't nearly so bad as the owners are making it out to be.

Is the circus bad? This should be a dead month for the NBA, yet pro basketball is dominating the news with video of James entering a building in downtown Cleveland. I have heard people asking whether commissioner DavidStern is upset by the idea of a "free agent summit" involving James, Wade and Bosh, or whether James last month was drawing attention away from the NBA Finals. I don't see it that way. Just the opposite: He has created a 24-hour news cycle for the NBA that never existed before. We haven't seen the last of it either, especially if James signs a short contract to renew this free-agent recruitment all over again two years from now.

With Richard Jefferson opting out and a ton of cap space for next year, wouldn't it make sense for the San Antonio Spurs to offer Bosh (or even LeBron) a max deal, and just pay the luxury tax this year? They might have to pay an extra $15 million this year, but wouldn't it be worth it in terms of value and revenue to the franchise over the next five years knowing they have their franchise player in place to play with Duncan and take over when he leaves?-- Jared, Charleston, S.C.

Even with Jefferson off the books, they don't have cap space, not with $44 million committed next season to Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and ManuGinobili. The Spurs' best option is to re-sign Jefferson to a long-term deal at a smaller salary, which will save them money next season. They can expect Jefferson to play a more solid role now that he has spent a full year learning their system, and he may not face as much pressure to put up big numbers in exchange for his smaller salary. But he may be hoping to return to the Nets or move to the Knicks, in which case he'll have to sit tight and wait.

Obviously, the Mavs can't make any real change as long as they keep Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd on the roster. Is there any chance Mark Cuban would trade Dirk for Bosh (or others) in an attempt to finally get a title?-- Dov, Israel

Should he really trade Nowitzki for Bosh? Bosh is a better rebounder, but he isn't the go-to scorer Nowitzki has been. Nowitzki has been league MVP and he is the face of a highly successful franchise. If you were going to list the problems that have kept Dallas from winning a championship, Nowitzki would be at the bottom -- he is one player who does what is expected of him. The issue is finding the right pieces around him, as opposed to replacing him outright.

Say Carmelo Anthony doesn't accept the $65-million extension Denver reportedly offered him and Denver is open to trades. What do you say about a package of 'Melo and Nene for Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Sasha Vujacic? Their salaries match well, and chemistry-wise it looks like it works for both teams. Denver will have Chauncey Billups, J.R. Smith, Odom, Kenyon martin and Bynum as their starting lineup, and the Lakers will have Derek Fisher/Steve Blake, Kobe, Melo, Pau Gasol and Nene with Ron Artest coming off the bench. They should also sign Shaun Livingston and Jermaine O'Neal at minimum or mid-level exception contracts to solidify their bench. What do you say?-- JMin, Korea

Interesting idea, especially if you're a Lakers fan. That trade would weaken Denver, leaving the Nuggets without their go-to scorer in Anthony while providing the Lakers with a 26-year-old MVP candidate who can take over as Kobe Bryant ages. The Nuggets are going to want to receive a star replacement for Anthony, and they'll only generate that by moving him to an attractive team that will be able to sign him to a long-term deal beyond next summer, when he can become a free agent. This trade proposal leaves them with no star power with which to rebuild, unfortunately.

If Blake Griffin were in the draft this year, do you think he would he have been chosen first over John Wall?-- Gary, Gary, Indiana

That's a good question. In general terms, I would say a healthy Griffin would be No. 1 because of his size and mobility. But if the team with the No. 1 pick had a need at point guard, then of course it could rationalize choosing Wall No. 1.

Freakonomics. To understand how Thunder general manager Sam Presti has steadily assembled a low-cost, high-upside roster that is the envy of other small-market teams, give credit to two factors that are out of reach for most franchises. First is the presence of Kevin Durant, who arrived as the No. 2 pick in 2007 and is fast developing the talents and leadership skills of a league MVP. Second is the discipline of Presti, who continues to develop -- and most importantly, stick with -- a long-term plan to develop young players according to the team-first demands of the Thunder program while keeping costs low. It's fine for franchises to envy OKC now, but how many owners would have the foresight and patience to adhere to the plan a couple of years ago when the Thunder were struggling?

The third factor, which may be available to other teams: Assistant GM Rich Cho, the Swiss army knife of the Thunder's front office. Cho is a lawyer and capologist who also knows a player when he sees one. "He's so smart with numbers and negotiations and the cap," said Hawks GM Rick Sund, who worked with Cho with the old Sonics in Seattle, "and he's an attorney and he's brilliant in finance and he's a good people person."

Most fans (and many NBA owners) have never heard of Cho, but people in the league view him as a prototype for the next NBA era, an executive who draws on a number of backgrounds to come up with solutions. "Rich is incredibly talented," said Presti. "He has great versatility in his approach and skills and is someone that consistently thinks of the long-term interest of the organization."

The law. Former Sonics president Wally Walker used to employ Cho in both the basketball and business offices in Seattle, where Cho would work on sponsorships and other business deals in addition to helping Walker and Sund structure their basketball payroll. When Presti took over, he focused Cho entirely on basketball and has turned him into a scout as well as a numbers-crunching salary-cap expert.

Someday, Cho will be a GM or team president in the NBA, and as such he'll be able to draw on his experience in the business office while not needing to hire legal counsel or a capologist -- he'll fill both roles himself. "The combination of all of those things gives him a really good future," said Sund. "Going back over my career of 30 some years in the NBA, I wish I'd picked up a law or business degree along with my understanding of basketball. I've been in basketball all my life, but the different dimensions Rich has -- I wish I had them."

The analysis. Cho is not the only executive who applies an unusual point of view to assembling NBA talent. Nuggets VP Mark Warkentien and Bucks assistant GM Jeff Weltman -- both reportedly on the short list of candidates to take over as GM of the Suns -- are both highly regarded as outside-the-box thinkers. Rockets GM Daryl Morey uses data analysis in an unprecedented way with the help of his VP Sam Hinkie, a brilliant number-cruncher who previously worked in private equity and venture capital. Nets VP Bobby Marks is another promising capologist.

Crucial to all of these planners is their ability to translate a player's strengths and weaknesses into a salary. What is the player's value in the current market? The Thunder's success has depended on making the difficult decisions of knowing when to spend on certain players -- like the three-year, $15.6 million deal they gave to center Nenad Krstic -- and when to walk away from others who aren't worth big money. "I always felt I was a half-step ahead with Rich," said Sund. "When I was with Seattle he'd already developed a software package of evaluating every player in the league, it was all done by numbers and all I had to do was type in the name or the value. Plus he's one of those lucky guys who has a photographic memory -- he can remember everything that happened from when you were trying to do a trade four years earlier or when you were looking at a guy in the draft."

"This game has become a numbers game," said Hawks director of pro personnel/college scouting Steve Rosenberry, who worked with Cho in Seattle. "It's easier to assess the talent than it is to assess to attach a number to that talent. You can inherit a bad contract and you can trade for one, but you damn sure don't want to give one."

Doc Rivers returns to Boston. Combine Rivers' decision with the Celtics' quick negotiations with free agent Paul Pierce, who reportedly agreed to a four-year deal worth an average of $15 million annually, and the Celtics appear likely to be among the Eastern contenders next season. They are focused on re-signing Ray Allen and adding more size (Brad Miller?) to pursue their third Finals in four years next season.

If James stays in the East he should make his decision to quickly, in hope of attracting another star to join him. Because he has yet to prove he can beat Boston or Orlando in the playoffs.

Phil Jackson returns to Los Angeles. The repeat champions will now be favorites to win three in a row now that Jackson and assistant Brian Shaw -- who pulled out of negotiations to become head coach of the Cavaliers -- are committed to another season with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. As much as we are all being drawn into the suspense of this free-agent market, the continuity and cohesion of the Lakers and Celtics may be an advantage that no newly constructed team can trump next spring.

Think about the next collective bargaining agreement. Will today's successes of signing Bosh or Johnson or Stoudemire be viewed differently in two or three years? Will they be albatrosses on their new team's payroll in the more austere era of the next CBA? Don't be so sure. The next agreement could shrink every player's salary to reduce costs, as it did in the NHL because of its lockout. Or there could be some other grandfathering that could enable teams that invest big now to survive happily later. There really is no means for predicting who will sign where, or what it will all mean two years from now.

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