LEBRON JAMESMax salary for next season: $16.8 million. Max contract with Cleveland (or sign-and-trade): $125.5 million over six years.Max contract with a rival team: $96.1 million over five years.
The first decision is whether to accept Pat Riley's offer to play with DwyaneWade in Miami. If winning is the No. 1 consideration, the ultimate jackpot is James, Wade and Riley -- leaving the Heat with at least $10 million in space to sign one or more additional players.
Let's assume that James and Wade -- especially Wade, who would be the clear No. 2 player here -- don't want to defer to one another. Here are James' other options:
• He can remain with Cleveland, which will be seeking to pull off a sign-and-trade for a major star to help entice James to stay home.
• He can go to the Knicks and recruit another max talent -- Chris Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire or JoeJohnson -- to join him there.
• He can move to Chicago to play with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah with Luol Deng coming off the bench behind James at small forward, along with the promise of another $13 million in cap space for Carlos Boozer, perhaps.
• The Nets will also make a respectable run at James, though it is questionable whether he would endure two seasons at their temporary Newark headquarters while awaiting construction of their new arena in Brooklyn.
• Don't count out the Mavericks, who could put together an attractive sign-and-trade for James. The Cavs are not expected to participate in any kind of deal to help James leave, unless they decide they'd rather make sure he moves to the West instead of signing with Chicago, where he would haunt Cleveland as a divisional rival for the next several years.
Expect James to make a relatively quick decision -- by July 8 at the earliest. If he waits too long, his options will evaporate as suitors are forced to spend their cap space on a sure thing instead of waiting on James.
All season I've named the Cavs as favorites to re-sign James, especially if he chooses to sign a three-year deal in order to opt out again in 2012. But their failed attempt to hire Tom Izzo -- a coach with no NBA experience -- revealed a troubling misunderstanding of what is needed to win a championship around James as soon as possible. Can they persuade James to stay while pulling off a sign-and-trade for a star to pair with him? Call me stubborn but I think they can.
Prediction: He signs a short-term deal with Cavaliers; Bulls, Knicks and Heat in running.
DWYANE WADEMax salary for next season: $16.8 million. Max contract with Miami (or sign-and-trade): $125.5 million over six years. Max contract with a rival team: $96.1 million over five years.
All signs are that Wade will remain with the Heat alongside Riley. If so, this larger role will be to serve as recruiter to bring another star or two to Miami to join him. Of course, Wade could yet bolt to New York if he senses the Heat are striking out in free agency, but Riley is too plugged in to allow that to happen.
Prediction: Wade signs a six-year max deal with Heat.
CHRIS BOSHMax salary for next season: $16.8 million. Max contract with Toronto (or sign-and-trade): $125.5 million over six years.Max contract with a rival team: $96.1 million over five years.
For days we've been hearing speculation that James and Bosh will sign with the Bulls. But the numbers don't add up. Assuming that James receives a max salary of $16.8 million -- he should accept nothing less -- that would leave Bosh with a five-year deal worth $76 million. That means Bosh would be giving up $20 million on a max deal over five years and $50 million on a six-year deal via sign-and-trade. Why would he ever leave $50 million on the table?
In many ways Bosh is best positioned among all of the free agents. He is expected to move to a new team (unlike Wade) and his current franchise is expected to participate in a sign-and-trade (unlike James' Cavs). This opens up possibilities for Bosh to work a sign-and-trade with a new team for more money than James can receive by signing with the Bulls or Knicks outright.
One important consideration: Bosh has said he doesn't want to shift away from his natural position of power forward, which would appear to rule out sign-and-trade moves to the Mavericks (where Dirk Nowitzki is likely to remain) or the Lakers (where Pau Gasol has helped win two championships). But he could return to his home state of Texas to play for the Rockets, or he could move to the talent-rich Trail Blazers (if they had anyone left in their front office to pull off such a complicated maneuver) or to the Cavaliers, provided they can also persuade James to re-sign.
Orlando, Phoenix, Oklahoma City -- these are all longshots, but the list goes on and on when sign-and-trade options are involved.
Bosh could also sign a five-year deal with Miami, New York, Chicago or New Jersey if he chooses. Or a team like Miami could negotiate a partial sign-and-trade that would up Bosh to a six-year max deal by sending Michael Beasley to Toronto -- if the Raptors love Beasley, that is.
Bosh is the biggest wild card because a sign-and-trade makes sense for him financially and opens so many options for himself and the Raptors.
Prediction: Miami or New York for a five-year deal; Houston if he should opt for a max sign-and-trade.
JOE JOHNSONMax salary for next season: $16.8 million. Max contract with Atlanta (or sign-and-trade): $125.5 million over six years. Max contract with a rival team: $96.1 million over five years.
If the Hawks offer Johnson the six-year max -- and they are expected to do exactly that -- how can he say no? He will be told they don't want to participate in a sign-and-trade, so he'll essentially be leaving $30 million on the table if he refuses their highly generous offer.
If Johnson is willing to sacrifice $30 million in order to leave Atlanta, he'll have a number of options -- the Knicks, Bulls, Heat and Nets may all be offering him the five-year max.
Prediction: He accepts the six-year max from Atlanta.
AMAR'E STOUDEMIREMax salary for next season: $17.2 million. Max contract with Phoenix (or sign-and-trade): $130.3 million over six years. Max contract with a rival team: $99.8 million over five years.
Don't expect the Suns to participate in a sign-and-trade for Stoudemire. The departures of GM Steve Kerr and his assistant David Griffin leave them without the front office leadership to handle the difficult negotiations, and the Suns don't appear interested in taking back a ton of salary. Unless -- and this is worth stashing away as a possibility -- they pull off a partial sign-and-trade with Miami that delivers Beasley to Phoenix while awarding Stoudemire with a six-year max. (Such a leveraged deal would leave the Heat with $15 million for another big name to join Wade and Stoudemire.)
The Heat let Stoudemire know they were interested in acquiring him during the trading deadline last February. The Knicks, Nets, Clippers and Bulls all should be interested in him.
Prediction: He signs for five years (or six years in a partial sign-and-trade) with Miami.
CARLOS BOOZERMax salary for next season: $16.8 million. Max contract with Utah (or sign-and-trade): $125.5 million over six years. Max contract with a rival team: $96.1 million over five years.
Will Boozer make the max? He was paid $12.3 million last year with Utah, and his history of injuries makes him the likely No. 3 choice among power forwards. But if James and Johnson stay home, there will be competition for Boozer, and his price may hit the ceiling.
Utah is unlikely to participate in a sign-and-trade for Boozer unless he goes to a team with cap space and the Jazz don't have to take back equal salary in return.
Prediction: He signs for five years with the Nets, or winds up in Miami or Chicago as a secondary option.
• New York Knicks, an estimated $34.5 million. This is the only team that can sign two max players. But will it be able to land two elite stars worthy of the money? If the Knicks fail to land LeBron, a large part of their audience will view the last two years as a fiasco. And if Johnson re-signs with Atlanta, then the Knicks will be looking to fill the wing with a younger talent like Rudy Gay or with a trade into their cap space.
Expect the Knicks to land one of the top power forwards -- Bosh, Stoudemire or Boozer. They've done such a thorough job of clearing space that the Knicks have little talent with which to surround the expensive newcomers, so in the best of circumstances they'll need a couple of years to assemble a deep contender.
If they sign James, then it will be one of the most intriguing marriages of player and franchise in modern times.
• Chicago Bulls, $29.9 million. They can sign one max player with room left to offer $13 million to another star. Unless they're able to manage a sign-and-trade, they're looking at James and Boozer as their biggest score -- and what a huge score that would be. Knicks forward David Lee could be a strong secondary option.
• Miami Heat, $27.5 million. The Knicks and Bulls have more space and draw upon larger markets, but the Heat may have the most to offer in Wade (who figures to re-sign with Miami) and Riley, who is networked better than any recruiter in this race.
Riley was wise to not give away Beasley for empty cap space. He may yet be able to include Beasley in a partial sign-and-trade, or else he can enter next season with Beasley as his No. 4 player at a relatively cheap $5 million salary -- in either case the No. 2 pick of the 2008 draft has value.
Look for Riley to land one of the power forwards -- Bosh, Stoudemire or Boozer -- and fill out his team with another elite player or a couple of stars. Either way, Miami will be back in contention next season around Wade.
• New Jersey Nets, $27.1 million. It would help to hire a new team president by Thursday now that Rod Thorn has announced he isn't coming back. Plans to spend the next two years temporarily in Newark cannot be a selling point either.
The Nets should make a run at James, but if that attempt fails, they should be careful with their money. Unlike the Knicks, there is no pressure on New Jersey to turn cap space into instant stars. They have emerging young talent in Devin Harris, Brook Lopez and No. 3 pick Derrick Favors. They should be on the lookout for substance and value, as opposed to a big, expensive splash.
• Los Angeles Clippers, $16.8 million. Will James have enough faith in owner Donald T. Sterling -- one playoff series victory in 29 seasons -- to dive in with the Clippers? He shouldn't.
The Clippers have a potential star in former top draft pick Blake Griffin, so they shouldn't spend big on the power forwards. And they aren't likely to land James, Wade or Johnson. This is another team that shouldn't like to make a big move in free agency -- unless it's to make a run at Rudy Gay.
• Sacramento Kings, $14.7 million. This is a promising but very young team, and there is no sense in acquiring a ready-made star when point guard TyrekeEvans and center DeMarcus Cousins -- the new cornerstones -- are years away from reaching their potential.
• Minnesota Timberwolves, $13.1 million. The Wolves may eat up some of their cap space by re-signing Darko Milicic. All season they've been rumored as a contender to sign Gay, but the drafting of Syracuse forward Wesley Johnson may have made the Grizzlies' restricted free agent redundant to their plans. Their big offseason move may be to trade Al Jefferson.
• Washington Wizards, $11.5 million. They can achieve that cap space by renouncing their rights to Josh Howard. Expect more of a long-term approach by this team after years of trying to win now.
• Rudy Gay. The Grizzlies' small forward -- acquired by outgoing team president Jerry West -- will be a secondary target for teams with cap space, based in part on suspicions that Memphis owner Michael Heisley won't match a big offer.
• Luis Scola. His presence gives hope to the Rockets of a potential sign-and-trade with Toronto for Bosh. Scola is one of the league's hardest-working players whose blue-collar approach will be welcome where he lands.
• Josh Childress. The Hawks hold the rights to the Olympiakos forward, who was teammates in Greece this season with Linas Kleiza (another restricted free agent whose rights belong to Denver). Childress toughened and improved his all-around game during two years in Europe, and he promises to be a highly complementary piece in the NBA next season.
• J.J. Redick. The three-point shooter has transformed himself into a high-energy guard who makes the effort to defend. The Magic won't want to let go of him.
All three players can opt out of their contracts. If they do, they are good bets to re-sign with their respective teams.
• Dirk Nowitzki. He happens to play for one of the NBA's destination franchises and for a rich, ambitious owner who keeps the team in contention year after year. It would be a huge shock if Nowitzki were to gamble on a new home.
• Yao Ming. Following reconstructive foot surgery and years of injuries, Yao is unlikely to inspire a big offer from another team. Nor has he shown any interest in leaving Houston.
• Paul Pierce. The Celtics' owners openly predict that Pierce will retire in a Boston uniform. GM Danny Ainge is bold enough to consider all trades, but Pierce is unlikely to move.