Free agency for dummies

CHICAGO -- Amid the noise pollution and earnest -- if not always cogent -- reportage that has swamped basketball fans from coast to coast in the buildup of the Great Free Agent Chase, Dwyane Wade made more than a lick of sense a couple weeks ago.

"Everyone has their thoughts of what's going to happen," Wade told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "No one knows. I don't even think LeBron knows."

NBA free agency: Where ignorance happens.

Wade's grasp on the reality of this situation is dead-on: No one knows anything, quite frankly, even the experts and the most plugged-in reporters and executives. And if they do, it's been drowned out by competing rumors.

If James' Cavs worked as hard against the Celtics as NBA reporters have on this story, there would have been a parade in Cleveland.

But here's the good news, we will know everything soon; unlike the finale of Lost, there is closure in this plot. July is upon us, and soon we will know where King James will reign.

And since everyone in Chicago is fiending for James to join Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, let's look at the Bulls' competitors, from least likely to most realistic.


Donald Sterling may be ridiculed for his penury, but he made a bid to trade for Michael Jordan in the 1987-88 season, according to Sam Smith's book, "The Jordan Rules." Jerry Reinsdorf turned him down, of course, and you know the rest.

Would James play for a second-class team just to soak in the Los Angeles sun? I think we all know the answer. He may love L.A., but Kobe Bryant will continue to own the town, while the Clippers just rent.

Reason why he'd love it: Well, nice weather, big market, Hollywood. All good reasons for a multi-platform, marketable guy like LeBron.

Reason why he'd hate it: The Clippers are not only a joke historically, but they're even second-class citizens in their own arena. No reason for a superstar of his ilk to deal with that.


The New Jersey Nets have been the wild card for awhile, haven't they? The move to Brooklyn, the Jigga Man sitting courtside, and now the ruble-rich owner and No. 3 pick Derrick Favors, it all sounds good, until you remember this: This team stinks and they'll be playing in Newark, sharing space with the New Jersey Devils, for the next couple years until the interminable Brooklyn arena is finally ready.

James is meeting with New Jersey, and his buddy Jay-Z, a minority owner of the team, will reportedly be there for the wooing. But Beyonce's husband told Rolling Stone he hasn't lobbied James to join him in the Garden State.

"That's his decision," Jay-Z said in the June 24 issue. "We're friends -- we've still got to hang out! I don't want to convince somebody to do something, then have to see him and say, 'Uh, yeah, we're 4 and 30 ... sorry.' "

Reason why he'd commute to Jersey: Well, he'll probably settle down in the state anyway, if you believe Chris Rock's infamous rant about Alpine, N.J. And when the team moves to Brooklyn, it's going to have some marketing cachet in the city.

Reason why he'd avoid the tolls: The team's just not very good. Like the Clippers, the Nets are, and will always be, the second banana in their market. And in their case, the top banana is in the hunt as well.


Let's face it, who wouldn't want to be the biggest star in the biggest city playing at the mecca of the sport?

The 1994 Knicks sure could've used LeBron James. But it's 2010, and the team is god-awful. Spike Lee may still be in the front row, but the Knicks don't have the same prestige as a destination.

About the only good thing you can say about the team is that it plays in New York City at Madison Square Garden.

Yes, the Knicks could instantly compete if they land James and a sidekick, but can they become an instant contender with just James?

And the biggest fake storyline through this whole free agent imbroglio has been the lure of marketing. James already has the big endorsements for top dollars.

Let's get this straight: There are two reasons Michael Jordan became more than a basketball player: Nike and Gatorade. Those commercials seared his fan-friendly image into the minds of out-of-state kids like me in the 1980s. Those days are over, because Jordan set the archetype.

James already has Nike and Gatorade. What will being in New York get him? A watch ad like Derek Jeter?

Why he'll wake up in the city that never sleeps: LeBron, a sports frontrunner who loves the Yankees, is nothing if not confident, and as the saying goes, if you can make it there you can make it anywhere. Wait a second, James doesn't listen to Sinatra. But as Jay-Z sang, you can't knock the hustle. Maybe James tries to build his own empire in Fun City.

Why he's not in an Empire State of Mind: James can visit New York any time he wants, and as we know, James doesn't need a big market to market himself. He's already a one-word phenomenon and one of the most famous athletes on the planet. And with all the talk about winning on the biggest stage, isn't it more fun to beat New York in MSG? Ask Michael Jordan.


Miami became a so-called frontrunner when Stephen A. Smith declared, with a surprising "100 percent" certainty, that James and Chris Bosh would join Wade to form a triumvirate of world-beaters in South Florida. Heat sources have backed up that Wade believes it could happen, a Sun Sentinel report declared Monday.

It's certainly not a certainty, because it involves the whims of three grown adults with competing agendas. Just because some team executive offers his opinion doesn't mean it's going to happen.

But heck, the best South Florida team-up since Miami Vice would have to be tempting to all the parties, only because nothing like this has ever been done, given the ages of those involved. It would be pretty fun to play on a Dream Team-like team, if everyone could sublimate their egos. And Wade's actually won a title.

Why James would welcome himself to Miami: If he's all about winning, and Bosh agrees to join him and Wade, this would be intriguing. Plus, you have Pat Riley in charge, no state income tax and South Beach.

Why it's Your-Ami: James has been the alpha dog all his life, and it suits him. This is the type of idea that appeals to the 30-something athlete with creaky knees and an empty space on his figurative mantel. James loves to distribute, but he'll really have to share the ball for this team to win.


Chicago is full of Ohio émigrés, myself included. It's our New York City. Could James join the legion of Ohio State fans and win his chip in the House that Michael Built?

As suitors go, the Bulls should be the favorites. They have the cap room to add James and one other big name in a slightly-less-than-max deal. They have future stars in Rose and Noah and two other legit starters in Taj Gibson and Luol Deng.

The idea that James is scared of Michael Jordan's legacy seems like shallow thinking. He's going to be compared to Jordan regardless, because Jordan is the archetype of a NBA superstar. But while we all love to reminisce, the Jordan Era is fading fast. Young basketball fans have virtually no memory of him in his heyday, and older fans just want to see a winner.

Did playing in Magic's shadow affect Shaq and Kobe? Did Celtics fans give less love to Garnett, Allen and Pierce because they're not Bird, McHale and Parish? Of course not. Jordan's the past. James knows he's the present and the future.

Chicago's not perfect -- you really think James gives two dribbles about Tom Thibodeau? -- but it's pretty close.

Why he'll be the second coming: James wants to win, and he wants to be in a big city that feels a little like home. He knows that Rose and Noah are perfect teammates, and that another free agent would gladly give up a few shekels to play with them. Chicago's the best chance for him to win now and again. And if you think Worldwide Wes has some pull, he supposedly said the Bulls are his favorite target.

Why Chicago will be the second city: There's no clear answer here. James doesn't care about John Paxson shoving Vinny Del Negro, or any of that nonsense. He probably doesn't know Gar Forman from Garfield. Everything about Chicago is positive, but I have a feeling the Bulls are going to lose to Cleveland once again.


The consensus among the babble is that Cleveland is in the rear view mirror for James, but we are all connected to our homes. For all its economic turmoil and dearth of sophisticated downtown life, Clevelanders love their city. The fact that James is making teams meet him in Ohio says something to me. It means, "show me why I should leave my home."

The Cavs' season ended so ugly that it seems antithetical that he would stay there. But let's not forget how good the Cavs have been in the regular season and how balky James' elbow was, not to mention his desire.

Can he really go out like that for his hometown team? The Cavs are pretty capped out, but they can add a veteran and run it again. Sure, he refused to meet with Tom Izzo when the coach was being courted, a move that screamed "I'm outta here." But maybe he just didn't, and still doesn't, know what he's going to do, so what was there to say? I have no doubt James has thought about leaving his home behind like so many of us do, I just can't say, with 100 percent accuracy, that he's given up on Cleveland.

Why he's going to stay: James is his own man and he wants to build his own legacy. He's only 25. He loves the comforts of home. For better or worse, he owns this team. Being your own boss is always better than working for someone else. Plus he can make another $30 million if he goes full boat, all-in with this deal.

Why he's going to leave: Well, it's already been guaranteed that he's gone, so why waste more words?

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.