With two of the big three free agents off the table, all eyes now turn to LeBron James. The star forward has revealed when he will announce where he'll play next season, but the deliberations in James' camp regarding where continue.
Amid a growing sense among rival executives that James intends to stay with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that James is still seriously considering joining forces with Wade and Bosh in Miami and had a discussion about the possibility that all three could wind up playing together for the Heat on a conference call at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday.
ESPN's Shelley Smith is also reporting that LeBron to Miami is a "strong possibility."
As we ended the sixth full day of free agency, multiple sources told ESPN.com that James is not expected to reveal his decision until his official announcement on ESPN on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET.
The news comes after two days during which several teams around the league told ESPN.com that James was increasingly likely to re-sign with his hometown Cavaliers and that Wade and Bosh were on their way to the Heat.
Yet there was a growing sense late Tuesday that the Heat's hopes of landing all three All-Stars were being revived.
Said one Eastern Conference official close to the situation, when asked to predict James' landing spot: "Cleveland or in Miami with Wade and Bosh."
ESPN.com reported June 28 that the trio held a scaled-down version of the free-agent summit originally suggested by Wade to seriously discuss their futures, with a focus on the idea that all three could team up with the Heat. Sources close to the situation insist, though, that James has not promised anything to his Team USA colleagues and is not tipping off which way he's leaning.
Signing with Miami would pose its fair share of challenges. It would be difficult, but not impossible, for the Heat to make the numbers work. No one knows what the NBA's official salary cap will be until Wednesday night. Under virtually every scenario, the Heat lack the cap space to give each of the free agents maximum contracts. They could try to clear enough room by working out a trade that would send Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers to a team with cap space. However, even if the Heat completely evacuate the roster, they still would fall slightly short of being able to pay each player the max.
If the Heat can't clear the cap space, each player could sign for slightly less than the max and likely lose roughly $7 million on a five-year contract. That number could be adjusted based on the league's final cap numbers.
Alternately, the Heat can work with the Raptors and/or the Cavs to do sign-and-trades for Bosh or James. Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo has indicated that he's willing to talk sign-and-trade with the Heat but so far has balked at the idea of taking Beasley in any such deal. Cavs owner Daniel Gilbert has been steadfast that the Cavs won't participate in a sign-and-trade for James.
If the Heat cannot work out a sign-and-trade with the Raptors or Cavs, James and Bosh could each leave an additional $30 million on the table thanks to collective bargaining rules that allow their home teams to offer higher raises and a sixth year on their contracts.
Bosh in particular has been adamant that whatever deal he works out is a sign-and-trade.
Despite the obstacles, sources say that the trio are open to taking pay cuts to make the dream team happen if the Heat can't find ways to give them more money.
If the three end up together, it would be a partnership many years in the making.
James, Bosh and Wade were the first, fourth and fifth picks in the 2003 NBA draft. In 2006, they signed essentially identical contract extensions -- all earned $15,779,912 salaries last season -- with the right to become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2010.
Although the 2010 free-agency market has featured big names such as Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, James, Wade and Bosh have been the headliners. Their presence on the open market, in the primes of their careers, has touched off a frenzy. The conversation around Ohio native James in particular has reached a fever pitch since the Cavaliers were disgraced in the second round of the playoffs at the hands of the Celtics in mid-May.
Although the Cavaliers have carried high payrolls, the lack of co-stars on the roster has been an issue throughout James' seven NBA seasons.
NBA free agency began at the stroke of 12:01 a.m. on July 1, and instantly, James, Wade and Bosh were bombarded with presentations. Bosh met with the Rockets, Raptors, Bulls, Heat, Knicks and Nets. In addition to talking to the Heat, Nets and Knicks, Wade spent considerable time in his hometown of Chicago getting to know the Bulls.
Meanwhile, at the downtown Cleveland offices of LRMR Marketing (a company founded by James and friends Maverick Carter, Rich Paul and Randy Mims), James' free agency opened with a visit from rap mogul Jay-Z and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who led a Nets contingent that presented its case Thursday morning. In the days that followed, the Knicks, Heat, Clippers, Cavaliers and Bulls each had half-day meetings with James and his team of advisers, which included James' longtime friend and business partner Carter and agent Leon Rose.
The Heat certainly seemed to have James' attention. According to reports, Heat president Pat Riley and his staff met Rose in the lounge of the downtown Cleveland Ritz-Carlton late Thursday night in anticipation of the Heat's Friday presentation. The following morning's meeting dragged on for nearly three hours, keeping Clippers front-office executives waiting for their turn.
James met with Riley, owner Micky Arison, coach Erik Spoelstra, retired center Alonzo Mourning and vice presidents Andy Elisburg and Nick Arison, the owner's son. The younger Arison traveled with Team USA and is said to have a good relationship with all three of the free agents.
The Heat face two profound challenges in making the pitch that all three free agents should join together in Miami. The team's cap expert, Elisburg, was tasked with explaining scenarios under which the three could unite in Miami. The Heat face the task of persuading at least one, if not all three, of the free agents to take less money than they might make elsewhere.
Another issue pertains to cap rules, which dictate that if the Heat dedicate all their available cap space to the free agents, the team would have the monumental challenge of lacking any players at the league's most expensive spot -- center -- while being able to offer only minimum salaries to the players who would fill out the roster.
Nobody questions that any team with James, Wade and Bosh would be good, but good enough to win a title? Might the three consider taking even bigger-than-necessary pay cuts to increase the team's likelihood of being able to secure a title-worthy supporting cast? Riley reportedly brought his seven championship rings to the meeting in part to instill confidence that he knows how to run winning teams -- even though sources say that the players expect Spoelstra to keep his job, despite Riley's leaving open the possibility that he might return to the sideline.
But as we approach LeBron's news conference on Thursday, it looks as though we're down to Miami and Cleveland for the ultimate prize.
Henry Abbott and Chad Ford cover the NBA for ESPN.com.