LeBron James ushers in NBA's most fascinating offseason

Posted: July 01, 2010

THE BIGGEST offseason in NBA history has begun.

By the time you read this column, the power structure of the league already might have been drastically altered.

Several hours ago, when June 30 became July 1, the most historic free-agent class in the NBA, in all of American sports, officially hit the market.

Although contracts can't be signed until July 8, the first phone calls with offers were probably made seconds after the clock struck midnight, 9 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

And because the maximum contract amount and length is already set in stone by the collective bargaining agreement reached by the NBA and the NBA Players Association, there isn't much to negotiate over.

It's possible that LeBron James has already crushed the heart and soul of Cleveland by agreeing to leave the Cavaliers and take his massive talent elsewhere.

The Toronto Raptors could have another high-profile star heading for the U.S. border in Chris Bosh, having lost an unhappy Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter in the past.

If the latest, hottest rumor has been realized, then James and Bosh are the newest residents of South Beach, joining Dwyane Wade with the Miami Heat.

Of course, it is also possible that all three are the newest Chicago Bulls, ready to add to the championship legacy created by Michael Jordan.

Or maybe just James and Bosh went to Chicago while Wade stayed in Miami and was joined by Phoenix Suns center Amar'e Stoudemire or Utah Jazz forward Carlos Boozer.

Or perhaps the New York Knicks or New Jersey (soon-to-be Brooklyn) Nets pulled off a surprise coup by convincing James and Bosh to come to the Big Apple.

These things may already be fact, they may become fact or they could fall in the popular basket of unrealized rumors.

The class includes James, Wade, Bosh, Stoudemire, Boozer, Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks, Joe Johnson of the Atlanta Hawks and Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics, all of whom were 2010 NBA All-Stars.

Still, I think this is a unique alignment of NBA karma.

I've heard some speculation that this is the future of NBA free agency, but I think it's more of a one-time thing than a trend.

First and foremost, most of this hype is keyed on James, who could join the Mount Rushmore of all-time great NBA players.

Take him out of the equation, and there isn't nearly this much interest, even with Bosh and Wade on the market.

James, Bosh and Wade were members of the 2003 NBA draft. Include fellow draft pick Carmelo Anthony in that group and the '03 draft is close to rivaling the draft of '84 (Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton) as possibly the best ever.

James, Wade and Bosh were always on the same contract schedule. The curveball was in 2007, when James, Wade and Bosh made the unheard-of decision to bypass the 5-year extension for maximum money on their second contract to gamble that they could earn bigger pay days by signing 3-year extensions instead.

Once that happened, several franchises scrapped their entire short- and long-range plans to figure out ways to position themselves to make runs at James.

On the surface, this might seem like a good lead for future young stars to follow, but how many players are as good as James, Wade and Bosh?

Only a select few - Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose, to name a couple - could get franchises to think about risking so much just to have a shot at hitting a home run.

If you're the affected franchise, like Cleveland or Toronto, you hate the idea of your superstar signing a shorter-term deal just to hang you out to dry later. But don't think The Association, as a whole, is bothered. The league office understands how unique this situation is.

Besides, the NBA is going to likely push for 3-year maximum contracts in the collective bargaining negotiations coming up in 2011.

It won't stop teams from making poor decisions in free agency, but it will prevent those mistakes from burying a franchise for close to a decade.

The inclusion of other stars in this FA class is just a coincidence.

Johnson and Boozer just happen to be finishing 5-year deals, while Stoudemire, Nowitzki and Pierce used player options to void the final year of their contracts.

But those moves could all be seen as players looking to secure 5-year extensions at near-maximum dollars before that kind of contract goes the way of the dinosaur.

They should all thank James because they will likely get much bigger contracts than they deserve as the teams that lose in the James-Bosh-Wade Sweepstakes try to save face by salvaging something.

The most fascinating offseason the NBA has ever experienced has started, but this will not become the routine.

It's hard to imagine such a convergence of talent occurring anytime soon; timing and circumstance will need to come together on a regular or even semi-regular basis to make that happen.

Send e-mail to smallwj@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/smallwood.

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