NEW YORK — The date has been circled on calendars around the NBA for years.
July 1, 2010: The day LeBron James becomes a free agent.
The day the league might begin to change forever.
“I think the landscape could really shift,” former Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr said.
Check out our photos of LeBron throughout his career:
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Shopping season for free agents starts at midnight Thursday (0400 GMT) with James as the biggest prize, a two-time league MVP just reaching his prime.
Also for sale are perennial All-Stars Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson, and NBA champions and Olympic gold medalists in search of something else for their collections: A maximum-salary contract.
Teams have been manipulating their salary spending to get to the starting line with money to burn.
“We’ve never had anything like this in my time that I can remember,” New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn said. “There have been big-time free agents before, but never this many teams that are trying to woo them. So it’s unprecedented.”
Thorn is headed to Ohio, where James will welcome suitors to his home state on Thursday. Thorn will be joined by new Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, coach Avery Johnson and hip-hop superstar Jay-Z, a part-owner and James’ longtime friend.
Then it’s back home to make pitches the next day in New York to Wade and Bosh — though minus Jay-Z. (Sorry guys, the day job calls. He’s touring in Europe).
The New York Knicks plan to drop in on James, too. They can afford James and another max player, which might be what they need to revive after a team-worst nine straight losing seasons.
“We’ve had to live through some tough times in order to get where you think you start rebuilding the franchise,” team president Donnie Walsh said. “We have that opportunity now. How well, how fast we can rebuild the team can be shortcut by getting great players.”
They’ll have plenty of competition. The Nets, Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers can offer max deals, which will pay about $16.6 million next season. Chicago and New Jersey made trades in recent days to push them closer to joining the Knicks with enough to offer two max deals, and the Heat can keep Wade, give an additional max contract and have enough left over for another quality player.
So much for the theory that free agency isn’t the route to building a winner in the NBA, where top players rarely leave because their teams can offer them more money. (James would give up about $30 million if he bolts Cleveland).
The Knicks traded away Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph — the NBA’s top sixth man and a first-time All-Star, respectively — to get their $34 million in salary cap room. New Jersey shipped out Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter in recent years, resulting in a 12-70 win-loss record last season but hope for a quick turnaround. Miami essentially left Wade to play by himself last season in exchange for the chance to get him more help than he could ever want starting on Thursday.
“You look at the teams that have an awful lot of cap space, there could be a lot of power shifting in this league,” Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis said.
The clock started ticking four summers ago, when James, Wade and Bosh passed on maximum-length extensions on their rookie contracts in favor of shorter deals that allowed them to opt for free agency this summer.
Momentum kept building as fears grew that owners will seek radical changes in length and value of contracts next summer when the league’s collective bargaining agreement expires. That made it wise for a player like Nowitzki, even if he has no intention of leaving Dallas, to exercise his early termination option now and sign a new deal under the current rules.
Toronto Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo called it a “unique set of circumstances that’s got everyone into a frenzy” during a radio interview on Monday, when he said it was likely Bosh would leave.
If the All-Star forward joins James, or Wade, or both, that team should become an immediate championship contender. Boston won the title the year after assembling its Big Three — which could now be broken up with Ray Allen on the market — and the Los Angeles Lakers have reached the finals every year since acquiring Pau Gasol to complement Kobe Bryant.
Deals can be agreed to but can’t be signed until July 8. The process often goes quickly but this year that’s probably up to James and his advisers, because teams in the running for him probably won’t move on to Plan B until they know his intentions. With so many potential good options, he might want to take his time.
After years of jockeying by teams, anticipation by the players and speculation by the media, it’s time to get started.
“It’s what we live for,” Dallas Mavericks president Donnie Nelson said. “It’s fun.”