Posted by Sekou Smith
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Admit it, you don’t know what to believe.
You don’t know who to believe.
You should be wary of all the unnamed sources being touted these days as the all-knowing on free agency.
Everyone has their theories about what is going to take place come July 1, the start of the NBA’s free agent frenzy, but no one knows for sure — save for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the other players that are neck-deep in these swirling rumors.
The latest and our personal favorite is Stephen A. Smith’s assertion on his radio show this morning that James, Wade and Bosh will team up to for the South Beach Big 3.
ESPN’s Chris Broussard says the race for James is a tight race between the Cavaliers and Bulls, which sounds equally believable after a weekend of wildly overstated suggestions from plenty of folks that James was a lock to head to Chicago along with Bosh.
Whatever you choose to believe, my main man and NBA.com colleague Art Garcia cleared up some of the mess when he spoke with Bosh’s agent, who insisted that his client hasn’t made any decisions on his future.
After conversations with multiple sources over the weekend, I woke up this morning convinced that James could be headed just about anywhere and he’s taking at least one other marquee free agent with him and possibly a third, depending on where he lands:
— “It’s Chicago or New Jersey,” one Eastern Conference executive told me Saturday afternoon.
— “New York or Miami, he’s a lock for one of those two,” a Western Conference scout said via text Sunday morning.
— “He’s staying home,” an agent not involved with any of this summer’s big name free agents said late Sunday night. “But don’t be surprised if Dallas gets in the mix. They have something crazy cooked up to try and get in the mix.”
— “The Clippers are the upset pick,” a current said via text (without LOL at the end) just moments ago, “they’ve got a team ready to get it, plus LeBron in LA … sick!”
This is what happens when the smoke signals of free agency start floating incessantly about the most heralded free agent class ever. There isn’t a plausible scenario that seems out of line, including a James-led Super Team that every player in the league would have to worry about.
There are other scenarios, the James to Chicago rumors, make perfect sense.
On July 6, 2004, John Paxson and Jerry Reinsdorf met with Kobe Bryant and his agent at a Newport Beach, Calif., hotel and nearly pulled off the unthinkable.
They nearly persuaded him to try to force a sign-and-trade from the Lakers, with Bryant even telling Bulls management he might take a free-agent visit to Chicago three days later.
They also kept their surreptitious courtship of the game’s best player quiet and out of the media for eight days, which Bryant said impressed him as much as the Bulls’ philosophy.
Paxson’s and Reinsdorf’s pitch centered on the organization’s no-nonsense approach under then-coach Scott Skiles, the city of Chicago, a young talent base and a chance for Bryant to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Michael Jordan.
Fast-forward six years.
Multiple Tweets will circulate before the Bulls’ sit-down with LeBron James concludes later this week in Ohio. And various league executives’ and certified agents’ speculation that James and either Chris Bosh or Joe Johnson are definitely signing with the Bulls will prevent this courtship from remaining private.
But coincidentally, management’s pitch to James will be eerily similar to that for Bryant six years ago. Change Skiles’ name to Tom Thibodeau. Substitute Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah for Ben Gordon and Andres Nocioni.
The city and Jordan’s legacy remains the same.
“To get to where we did (with Bryant) was good for us as an organization,” Paxson told the Tribune in July 2004. “It reinforces to me and to Scott Skiles that things we’re trying to accomplish are meaningful. I think we’re headed in the right direction as far as our philosophy.”
What also make sense, is the flurry of backup plans that are now being floated for several teams (most notably the Knicks). If you’re not going to get your hands on James or Wade, and there are at least a half-dozen teams that will leave this derby without either one of them, you better have someone else in mind:
THE KNICKS ALREADY HAVE A PLAN B: JOE JOHNSON AND AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE
Marc Berman of the New York Post: Johnson, who struggled during two rounds of the playoffs, has long been a D’Antoni favorite and the thinking is a Johnson/James pairing is just as much a home run as James/Chris Bosh. The Knicks may have gotten vibes Bosh is likelier to consider Miami.
If the Knicks strike out with both James and Bosh, D’Antoni also is excited about linking Johnson and Stoudemire with cap room to offer them two maximum contracts. Both are former Suns who played for him in Phoenix.
If Johnson leaves Atlanta, it’s been speculated for months Johnson would want to reunite with D’Antoni. Factor in Tellem, who is close to Walsh and the agent of Danilo Gallinari.
Johnson-Stoudemire always has seemed a likelier pairing than either James-Bosh. But they may need to work out sign-and-trades with Atlanta and Phoenix, respectively.
During February’s All-Star weekend in Dallas, Johnson told The Post, “[Mike and I] have got a great relationship. He gave me a chance to shine and become the player I am today. I love him, so I would visit.”
The status of Stoudemire is more perplexing. He played for D’Antoni, but rumblings are he grumbled behind the coach’s back about the Suns’ defensive shortcomings. Stoudemire spent part of his childhood growing up in upstate Newburgh and has a definite affection for New York, according to a source. However, a source said the extra year Phoenix can provide is huge in Stoudemire’s thinking.
NOT SO FAST MY FRIENDS
Not everyone is willing to concede Johnson’s departure from Atlanta.
Hawks All-Star center Al Horford still believes Johnson will wear a Hawks uniform when the 2010-11 season begins, as he told reporters in Singapore, where he joined a delegation of NBA coaches and players to conduct a basketball clinic:
“I haven’t talked to him about that, but I think he’ll stay,” Horford said Monday in Singapore, where he’s part of a group of NBA players and coaches conducting a basketball clinic. “The team’s number one priority is trying to get Joe back with us.”
Johnson, a four-time All-Star who averaged 21.3 points a game last season, had a poor performance in the Hawks’ second round playoff loss to the Orlando Magic. Atlanta fired head coach Mike Woodson after the season and hired assistant Larry Drew earlier this month to replace him.
Horford said bad relations among players undermined the team’s play and led to the playoff debacle, where the Magic beat the Hawks by an average of 25.3 points in the most lopsided four-game sweep in NBA history.
Orlando later lost to the Boston Celtics, who were defeated by the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
“It was players maybe not getting along with other players, and I think that showed on the court,” Horford said. “We weren’t playing together, we weren’t doing things as a team. I really felt like the chemistry kind of disappeared. I don’t think everyone was committed to the right things and to winning.”
Sure, the Hawks had their issues during the playoffs, but they did win 53 games, advance to the conference semifinals for the second straight season and they retain a nucleus capable of competing with the best teams in the Eastern Conference, provided Johnson sticks around.
LEBRON’S LOYALTY TESTED?
We realize it’s sinister to feel this way, but we’re just as interested to see where these free agents land as we are to see where they do not end up.
Can you imagine the shock to the system that will come in New York and Cleveland if James does indeed to sign elsewhere? Knicks fans are supposed to be satisfied with someone other than James after spending the last two years dreaming day and night about what he’d look like in a Knicks uniform?
And those fans in Cleveland, ugh, they’ll have a LeBron hangover for years to come if he bolts. It won’t take long for the locals to turn their venom on the hometown kid and the team that extracts him from the area.
The Plain Dealer’s Bud Shaw nails that sentiment before any concrete moves have been made:
It’s a mad, mad NBA world when the Chicago Bulls become the celebrated star of draft night for dumping the salary of Kirk Hinrich, one of their better players.
LeBron James would only add to the madness if he rewards fawning overtures from underachievers by punishing the Cavaliers for going all out to bring a championship to town.
Leaving is James’ right through free agency. That doesn’t make it any less unseemly if he decides to go elsewhere on the basis that another team has more roster flexibility and a younger talent pool to build a title contender.
Gee, wonder how that happened? How did the Cavs get so far over the cap, so handcuffed in comparison to Chicago, Miami, the Knicks and the Nets?
A mystery it is, but only if he conveniently forgets they tried to win a title in the three years James gave them when he signed his contract extension.
James kept ownership on high alert by shortening his term of employment last time around. Good business, it was. At least for him. For the Cavs, it was a dangerous game of Russian Roulette in which the contracts of Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison became extra bullets in the chamber.
After the first playoff crash against Boston a few years back, James cried out for more help. The Cavs couldn’t chance that again. So they signed Shaquille O’Neal a season too late. They took on Jamison’s contract, then watched him and Williams slip out of view in the postseason.
(Of course, James did, too, in Game 5. If he’s who he says he is, he doesn’t leave like that. End of story)
Meanwhile, the Bulls have only occasionally been worth the price of admission since Michael Jordan’s retirement. That’s 12 years ago now. There’s a reason they were in position to draft Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
This season they won 41 games and finished 20 games behind the Cavs. They fired their coach and hired a rookie in Tom Thibodeau from Boston. And now, they’re the sexy option, the one given a serious chance to catch James’ eye when the free agent equivalent of “The Bachelor” begins Thursday?
As exciting a time as this is for so many, and even a mediocre free agent class adds some spice to the summer, it’s going to end ugly for twice as many other teams and their fans.
That’s what happens when the smoke signals continue to rise like this, day after agonizing day.