ESPN dropped a heck of a bombshell on NBA fans Thursday night, reporting that LeBron James' agent is meeting with teams other than the Miami Heat. Four clubs were mentioned specifically: the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks.
It's still unclear if James wants to leave Miami. For days, it appeared that he was working in concert with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but further reports suggest otherwise. The Heat have been trying to pitch free agents to join that trio, but so far, none have bit. Instead, top players like Kyle Lowry and Marcin Gortat have chosen to stay with their teams. That's led to this series of reports that make it sound like James could really leave South Beach.
What is James seeking? ESPN's Brian Windhorst, one of the three reporters who initially broke the story, states James' demands succinctly.
As there was in 2010, there is only one way to truly recruit LeBron: talent. The roster matters more than virtually anything.— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) July 4, 2014
Do these four teams have the kind of rosters that could convince James to leave Miami? If so, what other factors might work for or against them?
Eight months ago, the Suns were in full-on tank mode, or so it seemed. They were coming off a season where they won just 25 games after trading away longtime face of the franchise Steve Nash. The remaining veterans floundered without their leader and there was tension in the front office after Lindsey Hunter took over for the beloved Alvin Gentry. A new front office entered, Jeff Hornacek was plucked from Utah to be the coach and key starters like Jared Dudley, Luis Scola and Gortat were shipped off for young prospects and draft picks.
Few expected the Suns to compete. Instead, they stumbled upon an innovative way to play that stunned opponents. Hornacek, with little to lose, started two conventional point guards alongside each other, maximizing the playing time of incumbent best player Goran Dragic and prized trade acquisition Eric Bledsoe. He simplified the offense and let young players like Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and the Morris twins play through mistakes.
The result was one of the most fun teams in the league. The Suns ran up opponents' throats, defended competently and zipped to 48 wins in the deepest Western Conference in recent memory. Only a midseason knee injury to Bledsoe kept them out of the playoffs.
Better yet, Phoenix did this while retaining the kind of assets bad teams dream of having. Phoenix collected four first-round picks in the 2014 draft (only three were conveyed) for Scola, Gortat and the right to take on Timberwolves draft bust Wesley Johnson several years prior. They have three more first-round picks in 2015, including a juicy one from the Lakers from the Nash trade that's only top-five protected. And don't forget, they also have two first-round picks from the 2013 draft who barely played last year behind all this talent.
Because most of these young players are still bound by the rookie scale, Phoenix is armed with tons of cap space. Dragic, at $7.5 million next year, is the team's highest paid player right now. The Suns have only about $30 million in committed salary next year even when accounting for their three draft picks. That's less than halfway to the salary cap level of $63 million. They can sign LeBron, then easily use their Bird rights to go over the cap to pay Bledsoe, a restricted free agent. They can make one more move to clear enough space and potentially sign LeBron and Carmelo Anthony and keep Bledsoe.
Even without Anthony, a lineup of Dragic, Bledsoe, James, Channing Frye or Markieff Morris and Plumlee gives James plenty of spacing while providing him with two ball-handlers to take the burden off him and an athletic big man he never had in Miami. He'll also have a coach in Hornacek who values pace and spacing like the Heat do, depth to ease his minutes load and the league's best training staff to take care of his body. It's unclear if James wants to play in Phoenix, but basketball-wise, this is a great fit.
All the reasons Anthony would consider the Rockets also apply to LeBron. Should Houston trade Jeremy Lin as expected -- some reports suggest they have a deal lined up to clear his $8.4 million cap hit -- the team will have about $41 million committed, enough to comfortably fit James' first-year salary in. They can then use their Bird rights to re-sign restricted free agent Chandler Parsons, setting up a starting lineup of James, Parsons, James Harden, Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley. That group may struggle to mesh right away, but it's a legion of starpower that is unmatched in the league.
The Rockets also could pair James with Anthony by using Parsons and possibly fellow young forward Terrence Jones in a sign-and-trade with the Knicks should Anthony choose to join Houston as well. That would at least give the Knicks the ability to save face when losing their star. Meanwhile, it'd allow the Rockets to pull off the near-impossible: a Big 4 of James, Anthony, Howard and Harden. Filling out the rest of the roster will be a challenge, but holy crap.
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The Cavaliers struggled through the worst season of this bunch, seemingly falling off the map after emerging early on as the sentimental favorite to bring James home. Their presence in this quartet therefore should surprise some, especially given James' well-known frosty relationship with owner Dan Gilbert after this thing.
But there's much optimism in Cleveland these days. The team got lucky to win the NBA Draft lottery and selected much-hyped Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins at No. 1. A few days later, Kyrie Irving signed a five-year maximum extension, fully committing to the franchise following months of rumors that he wanted out. Cleveland also hired much-respected international coach David Blatt, whose innovative work overseas and with the Russian national team should translate well to the NBA.
Cleveland still has a long way to go, but a core of Irving, Wiggins and James on the perimeter is tantalizing. And, of course, it's home.
To make a cross-sport analogy, the Mavericks are the 1990s Buffalo Bills of big-time free agent pitches. They've always been a successful franchise, but no matter what they do, they always seem to come up short with the big names. They pursued James in 2010 and failed. They broke up their 2011 title team to pursue big names down the line. They went after Deron Williams and Dwight Howard in 2012 and missed. They pursued Howard again in 2013 and were beaten out by their in-state rivals in Houston.
Is this the Mavericks' time to buck the trend? Probably not, because there are so many suitors with impressive rosters to offer, but there is some reason for optimism. Dallas is coming off a surprising 49-win season, one in which they took cast-offs like Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert and molded them into a tough playoff team in the deep West around star Dirk Nowitzki. It's noteworthy that no team challenged the Spurs more than Dallas did in the first round, where they took a series lead before finally succumbing in seven.
It's also noteworthy that Nowitzki signed such a small contract to stay: three years, around $30 million. This is a significantly larger pay cut than he took on his last deal and it gives room to pursue James so long as other key veteran free agents are let go. Nowitzki, even in his advanced age, may still be the single best teammate James could have among his suitors. That could count for a lot.