Most scientists believe it was roughly 14 billion years ago when a single point exploded to create the universe. Of course, it was a more thoroughly documented Big Bang four years ago that blew a hole in the NBA space/time continuum, sending the celestial bodies of LeBron James and Chris Bosh south to join Dwyane Wade in Miami.
Two championships and four Finals trips for the Heat later, the potential for another explosion is on us.
Carmelo Anthony’s declaration that he will opt out of the final year of his contract with the New York Knicks was the first stick of dynamite ahead of the July 1 start of the annual free-agent scramble. Then, Tuesday, LeBron told the Miami Heat that he was going to test the waters, too.
You can feel the ground quiver as the movers and the shakers in the league start to do their thing …
Who has the space?
There are a lot of big-name free agents on the market — or there will be July 1. But the number of teams who have enough space under the salary cap that would enable them to sign some of those big-money players … well, that’s a lot smaller. Here’s a list:
Miami Heat: Up to $55 million, assuming virtually everyone opts out of contracts.
Dallas Mavericks: Up to $32.4 million
Utah Jazz: Up to $29.6 million
Philadelphia 76ers: Up to $29.0 million.
Phoenix Suns: Up to $28.4 million.
L.A. Lakers: Up to $28.2 million.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Up to $23.4 million.
Orlando Magic: Up to $22.2 million.
Detroit Pistons: Up to $22.0 million.
Charlotte Hornets: Up to $19.5 million.
Atlanta Hawks: Up to $13.9 million.
Milwaukee Bucks: Up to $13.0 million.
Memphis Grizzlies: Up to $12.0 million, if Zach Randolph opts out of his final year.
Chicago Bulls: Up to $11.3 million if they use their one-time amnesty on Carlos Boozer.
Boston Celtics: Up to $9.3 million.
Many other teams could clear salary space, though they’d have to make trades. Among that group:
Golden State Warriors
New Orleans Pelicans
Oklahoma City Thunder
Portland Trail Blazers
The first domino
It’s the old riddle about the spot where a seven-ton elephant sits. (Anyplace he wants.) No matter what photos are posted by his wife on Instagram or what the leaves at the bottom of a teacup say, the only one who has a real clue about where the game’s best player will call home next season is LeBron himself. And with The Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs still fresh, he is likely not sure yet.
Step 1 was LeBron making the decision to opt out of his contract, which was really no surprise. It doesn’t mean he’s leaning one way or another. It does give Heat president Pat Riley the first bit of breathing room — and applies the pressure — to retool the Heat.
If he stays in Miami, James would be choosing the heavy lift of putting the derailed championship run of the Heat back on the tracks. Many other suitors seemingly given him an easier way of adding to his jewelry collection. The Rockets surprised many in the relentless pursuit of the top free-agent prize a year ago and successfully landed Dwight Howard. Though he and James Harden are not the most perfectly-fitting puzzle pieces, just in terms of raw talent the Rockets would seem to provide James with the most immediate springboard back into title contention. General manager Daryl Morey would have to move the contracts of Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, but he’ll get that done if James gives him the nod.
If it’s just Texas that LeBron wants to call home, the Mavericks could have the salary cap space to sign him outright to play along Dirk Nowitzki.
There’s also talk about him in Chicago, with Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose. Some have speculated a trip West to join buddy Chris Paul and coach Doc Rivers with the Clippers might be a possibility.
Or, if James really wants a challenge, he could go back to Cleveland to rejoin a team that has young talent, but plenty of holes.
Breaking up The Heatles
Many are still banking that James will simply stay put in Miami where, it should be pointed out, he can get an extra year on a contract and more money than anywhere else (a reported five years and $114 million). But at last glimpse, the Heat were worn out, beaten down and thoroughly befuddled by the Spurs’ play in The Finals. As they walked off the court that night in San Antonio, it hardly looked like James, Wade and Bosh were going to be able to reach that promise of “not one, not two, not three, not four…” championships.
Still, Riley made his pitch to the Big Three’s pride — and his own self-interest — saying that it takes more character to stay and pick up the pieces. But can the Heat make the needed upgrade at point guard — Kyle Lowry? Patty Mills? — and sign another forward they so desperately need to make another run in the Leastern Conference? Could Riley pull another rabbit out of his hat and convince all three of his current stars AND Anthony to form a Fantastic Four?
It would seem to a longshot. But if 2010 taught anything at all, it’s that Riley is never to be dismissed.
If Anthony signs somewhere else, he (like any free agent who leaves his current team) can sign for only four years. That’s the built in advantage for every current team in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. In the case of Anthony, that’s a difference between $129.1 million (for signing with the Knicks) and $95.9 million (for going elsewhere).
Still, it was a foregone conclusion that Anthony would opt out and see what he could get on the open market, something he missed out on four years ago when he forced a trade from Denver to get to New York. Some thought the arrival of Phil Jackson in the front office would help convince Anthony to stay. But the Zen Master brought only his 11 championship rings along with him, not any All-Star talent. Which has Anthony at least considering playing elsewhere for less money.
The Bulls and Rockets both seem ready to make the biggest push to land the perennial All-Star. Assuming Rose returns healthy, the addition of Anthony to a lineup with Noah and coached by Tom Thibodeau just might vault Chicago to the top of the Eastern Conference. It’s a tougher row to hoe in the Western Conference. Rockets coach Kevin McHale would have his hands full coming up with an offense that could keep ‘Melo — and everyone else in Houston — happy. Still, making Anthony a third star along with Howard and Harden would rival what Miami did in 2010 for glamour and give the Rockets firepower.
Then again, ‘Melo could take his talents to South Beach. That’s been rumored, too.
Same old Spurs
Did anybody really watch the joy with which the Spurs shared the ball during their playoff run, and see the smiles in the afterglow of the fifth championship in franchise history, and think they were not going to keep the era of good feeling alive for at least one more year? Tim Duncan made it official on Monday, announcing he would be re-joining Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and coach Gregg Popovich for a chance to go back-to-back. The Big Three all have contracts that run through the 2014-15 season.
The Spurs do have other business. Probably first on the list is re-signing free agent Boris Diaw, who was such a critical element in the middle of the lineup with his passing and defense. Australian point guard Patty Mills is also an unrestricted free agent and could get a big offer from another team based on his playoff run.
Would he turn his back on the team that finally gave him a chance to play in the NBA for a bundle of cash? Would he even jump across The Finals aisle to the Heat, who badly need a point guard?
Remember the Lakers?
Wondering what happened to the glitz, the glamour, the excitement that used to surround the Lakers? Well, it went down the hall of Staples Center to the Clippers. Now what’s left are a bunch of purple and gold question marks. With Nick Young opting out of his contract, only Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Robert Sacre and possibly Kendall Marshall are under contract for next season. The Lakers do have the No. 7 pick in the NBA Draft, which could be paired with a contract or two as a means of replenishing the talent level more quickly. The Lakers have an urgent need to return to relevance quickly as Bryant’s career nears a finish. They have no coach and, it seems, no firm plan. The Lakers were rumored to be trying to find their way onto the edges of the Kevin Love dealing with the Timberwolves. Would one of the biggest names of the big free agents — LeBron, Carmelo — even consider throwing in with Kobe? It is one of the summer’s great conundrums.