1. A New Final Four For the East?
That earthquake you just felt was the balance of power shifting south in the Eastern Conference. If reports are true that LeBron James will announce he's signing with the Miami Heat on his made-for-TV extravaganza Thursday night, we can immediately elevate the Heat into the ranks of the contenders and demote the Cavaliers to the also-ran scrap heap.
Forget about the black-and-blue battles between Cleveland and Boston; in 2011, the Eastern Conference finals are looking a lot more like the Florida state championship. That will be particularly true if Orlando's Dwight Howard gets his wish and the Magic are able to add New Orleans point guard Chris Paul later this summer. The one piece of good news for Hornets fans on that front is the higher-than-expected salary-cap number also diminished the Hornets' luxury-tax concerns.
Regardless, this move would create a new landscape in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland had the conference's best record the past two seasons; I'll go out on a limb and say it won't three-peat without LeBron. The Cavs would still have some pieces in place to put together a decent team -- in addition to quasi-stars Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao and Antawn Jamison, Cleveland would be $13 million or so under the cap once it got rid of Delonte West's non-guaranteed deal (incidentally, the Cavs might prefer having that cap space to the trade exception they would get from sign-and-trading LeBron, not to mention helping them avoid the stigma of trading the best athlete in the city's history). That said, without LeBron they're going to be scraping to make the playoffs the next two years instead of competing for championships.
Meanwhile, a move to Miami by LeBron would mean there's a new elite in the East. The list of favorites would have to begin with the new kid on the block, the Heat, though Team Trinity and the Miami Minimums would have plenty of question marks, as the three stars would probably have a slew of retreads and point guard Mario Chalmers surrounding them.
Would they be the East favorites? Here's how I rank them in midsummer:
1. Orlando. The Magic have won 59 games each of the past two years and proved their mettle in the playoffs, where they won the East in 2009 and made the conference finals in 2010. Additionally, only one weapon has proved effective against the Magic in the playoffs: a center who can check Howard. The Heat, despite their assets, lack that type of big man, and won't be getting one in the coming months for the wages they're offering. If they somehow stumble into Shaquille O'Neal or Kendrick Perkins, we can revisit this, but for now Orlando has the advantage.
2. Miami. It's tough to get excited about a team that lists "Replacement Player X" at six of the 10 rotation spots. But it becomes much, much easier if three of the other four spots are occupied by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. My previous analysis showed they'd be a 60-win team if they had good health from their three stars, and since the Heat will be a beacon for veterans waived late in the season, Miami should be even stronger in the playoffs. If it isn't the team to beat, it certainly is on the short list. Unfortunately, the Howard matchup looms large in any postseason scenario, and that's the one base the Heat haven't covered.
3. Boston. The one team that does have an antidote to Orlando's Howard is Boston -- we think. The Celtics won the East largely because Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace could single-cover Howard in the Eastern Conference finals, and the Magic offense got stuck in the resulting muck.
With Perkins recovering from knee surgery and Wallace contemplating retirement, however, it's an open question whether the Celtics can do it again. Additionally, their core players all are a year older, making it tougher for Boston to earn a good playoff seed. And remember, it might not get the desired matchup with Orlando if it draws Miami in the second round on the other side of the bracket.
4. Chicago. Adding Carlos Boozer won't do it alone, but the Bulls still have about $18 million to spend on shooters and wing players and may be able to parlay small forward Luol Deng into a wingman who fits their Rose-Boozer-Noah core a bit better. We don't know exactly what pieces they'll add, but if Chicago can use the cash to add some shooting and one more big man, it's going to be a handful. I think that's a reasonable assumption, and I think that makes the Bulls the fourth serious contender in the East this season.
As for the others, I suppose stranger things have happened, but I'm not feeling it. Atlanta had everything go about as well as it could possibly go, won 53 games and lost in four games in the second round. Its ceiling seems pretty well defined.
Milwaukee has made some interesting moves to add more scoring after a surprisingly successful campaign a year ago, but without any star talent it's tough to see the Bucks making a push for the upper crust either.
Charlotte and Cleveland were last year's other two Eastern Conference playoff teams. We noted Cleveland's problems, and I think that while the Bobcats will be competitive, they're not going to be in the top four. And none of last year's lottery teams seem prepped to make a run for glory either -- I think we can rule out a 2002 Nets-type scenario.
As a result, all eyes are on Florida. If LeBron joins the Miami Thrice attack, it appears that free agency will upend two of the top four spots in the Eastern Conference hierarchy even if the Heat aren't able to emerge as conference champions in Year 1.
John Hollinger is a regular contributor to the Daily Dime.
2. Wilbon On LeBron, Wade And Bosh
3. Wade, Bosh To Sign With Heat
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are teaming up together on the Miami Heat, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
ESPN's Shelley Smith also reported the pending move through independent sources.
Whether LeBron James -- the kingpin of this summer's celebrated free-agent class -- will join them remains to be seen. James will announce his decision at 9 p.m. ET Thursday during a one-hour special on ESPN.
Wade and Bosh are expected to announce their decision Wednesday afternoon, according to the source, and continue to lobby James, along with Heat president Pat Riley, to join them in Miami, despite the financial complexities involved for the Heat to make room for all three.
Both players are expected to get the maximum amount allowable under the league's collective bargaining agreement, though the addition of James could change the players' salaries. Contracts cannot be officially signed until Thursday.
• To read the entire column, here.
4. Daily Dime Live Wrap
ESPN.com writers and TrueHoop Network bloggers chatted with fans, giving their opinions about free agency -- all in Daily Dime Live.
5. Durant Gets It Right
Five years from now, it could turn out that the biggest NBA news event of this summer wasn't LeBron James' announcement special on ESPN but rather Kevin Durant's tweet. With no fanfare (and a misspelling or two), Durant sent out the word via Twitter at 10:44 a.m. Eastern time that he will sign a five-year extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder:
"Exstension for 5 more years wit the #thunder God is Great, me and my family came a long way I love yall man forreal, this is a blessing!"
No summit, no TV show, no drama. The NBA's top up-and-coming team knows its franchise player won't be going anywhere.
We don't know who will fill in the gaps in Miami around Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Perhaps it will be James -- or maybe LeBron will have to figure out how to make it work better in Cleveland.
We've seen the Thunder's roster in action. We know it works. All it needs is a little seasoning. The Thunder will be the biggest threat to the Lakers in the Western Conference next season. I see OKC going down to L.A. in a classic Western Conference finals -- in what could be the last stand for Phil Jackson's Lakers -- then emerging as the West's No. 1 team in 2011-12. Is the Heat's future that simple to project? Cleveland's? Chicago's?
• To read the entire column, click here.
6. Are The Heat Title Contenders?
1. Do Wade, Bosh and a supporting cast make the Heat title contenders?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: The two of them with Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers and some of the cheapest players in the NBA will not get it done. However, if their pairing is powerful enough to entice players to play below market value -- LeBron James at a max contract is below market value, incidentally -- then absolutely.
The problem is that 7-foot shot-blocking centers and truly capable point guards almost never play at below market value, so that will be Pat Riley's consuming challenge, with or without James. Bosh is not best deployed wrestling the likes of Kendrick Perkins and Dwight Howard, so the Heat still need help.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Those two alone, plus small pieces, aren't enough. Bosh has never won a playoff series. That would change in Miami next year but the Heat won't win two playoff series.
Kevin Arnovitz, TrueHoop: Wade, an elite big man and a supporting cast were enough to win a championship in 2006, so there's a precedent. The Heat's supporting cast in 2010-11 doesn't need to consist of world-beaters, but if it can create open space for Wade and deliver Bosh the ball where he likes it, the Heat will be a very tough out in the East.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: It makes them instant contenders for the Eastern Conference title, not the NBA title. Not yet, anyway. Still need a shooter and a banger. Still have to decide if Beasley is a keeper or a trade chip. Still need to see who LeBron signs with.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Not until they get more help. With LeBron, Miami would have a trio so conceivably good that it could offset the inevitable lack of depth we expect with so many roster spots still open and no money to fill those spots. Without LeBron, Miami is going to have to address its lack of size and depth before we can talk about title contention. Or even Eastern Conference title contention.
• To read the rest, click here.
7. Free Agent Slot Machine
The ESPN Free Agent Slot Machine results are based on the likelihood of each potential scenario for each player and team, as provided by ESPN.com NBA experts.
• Click SPIN for another possible outcome.
Complete 2010 Free-Agent List
8. Wade And Bosh Not Enough
So the Miami Heat are the second team that can rest assured that their cap-clearing strategy will not be for naught.
With commitments from both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh coming early Wednesday morning, the Heat have landed two of the three players they targeted when this whole process started. And although the third piece -- LeBron James -- has yet to tip his hand on which way he's leaning, it's a positive summer for Miami regardless.
I'll quickly share my seven-word analysis of whether this is a good move: Of course it is; don't be stupid. Now let's talk about what it means for the Heat. From here they can go in one of two directions -- with LeBron or without -- and they'll learn which one in the next 36 hours.
• To read the entire column, click here.
9. Allen Inks Deal With Celtics
ORLANDO, Fla. -- While pondering his future at the start of the offseason, Celtics coach Doc Rivers stressed that he wanted to make a decision quickly to allow the team time to plan moving forward and prevent his situation from becoming more of a spectacle than it already was.
Watching from afar the LeBron James circus -- which will culminate Thursday with James announcing which team he plans to play for next season in a live, one-hour broadcast (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) -- Rivers isn't in quite the lather others are about the matter.
• To read the entire story, click here.
10. Boozer A Good Fit In Chicago
Forget about LeBron James for a minute.
Signing Carlos Boozer to a five-year, $80 million deal is a pretty solid move on its own merits, especially considering the market. I would take Boozer over Joe Johnson, who is getting $40 million more from the Hawks, in a nanosecond. I viewed Boozer as essentially even with Amare Stoudemire -- less risky, but with less upside -- and Stoudemire is getting $19 million more from New York. In fact, beyond the holy trinity of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and the aforementioned Stoudemire, I would take Boozer over every other player on the market. On that alone, this was a strong maneuver by the Bulls -- it was one of the best value plays in this year's market, as crazy as that sounds.
• To read the entire column, click here.