Ready or not, let the free-agency sweepstakes begin
For the first time in seven years, LeBron James is no longer a member of the Cavaliers.
That's not to say he can't be again, as soon as next week. But for now, James is officially a free agent, free to speak and eventually sign with any team in the league.
It's July 1, which means the most anticipated free-agency period in NBA history has arrived. James had until 11:59 p.m. Wednesday to pick up the option year on his contract with the Cavs for next year.
No one, however, was expecting him to do that, which is why NBA executives from around the country are descending on Northeast Ohio beginning today to make their best pitch for the two-time defending Most Valuable Player.
James will host officials from the New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers and Chicago Bulls in the next few days. The Nets are up first at 10 a.m. today and will be followed by the Knicks.
Despite all the frenzied attention that will accompany the next few days, nothing can be finalized until July 8. There is a moratorium on all transactions until then, meaning the trades that took place the night of the NBA Draft won't become official until next Thursday. Neither would James' signing, should he pick a team before then.
The Cavs had exclusive privileges to speak with James for the past six weeks. Now they must step aside and let the other suitors have their say. The whole process should last a couple of days, after which time James will digest all of the information presented to him and come to a decision.
The rest of the league is waiting on James — for now. Teams will likely wait as long as they can to see if they can sign James before moving on to the rest of the free-agent class that includes Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson, among others. How long a team like the Knicks will wait on James will be the interesting story within the story. Teams that wait too long for James might miss out on other key players who could help their team, such as Johnson or CarlosBoozer.
Regardless of where he goes, James will receive a maximum salary next season of about $16.6 million. The exact figures won't be known until the salary cap for next season is set on July 7. The cap was $57.7 million for the 2009-10 season and is expected to decrease. How much it decreases will determine how many maximum salaries the Bulls and the Heat can offer. The Bulls are close to having enough cap space for two max contracts and the Heat are close to having enough space for three — one for their own star, Wade; and two others.
Should the Bulls and Heat come up just shy of that extra max contract, there are enough ways to trim a little fat and make it work. But for now, the only teams assured of having enough space for two maximum contracts are the Knicks and Heat.
Technically, James doesn't have to make a decision for months, but no one is expecting it to last that long. By the middle of July, we should all know if the Cavs still have the best player in franchise history or if they're rebuilding and if there was a seismic shakeup and shift in power throughout the NBA.
At least for now, though, King James is a free agent. As usual, the ball is in his court.
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