When LeBron James coyly advised New Yorkers to keep their eyes on 2010, he was not promising a marriage with the Knicks. When James said this weekend that he might consider extending his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, that was not a commitment, either.
But each comment surely inspired panic among the easily panicked. Cavaliers fans cannot bear the thought of losing James, their native son, to the big city (or anywhere else). And Knicks fans have been dreaming of James on Broadway since the moment the team began dumping contracts last month.
James will unquestionably be the No. 1 target of the Knicks and perhaps a dozen other teams in 2010, if James indeed becomes a free agent. But this has never been an all-or-nothing gambit.
The list of potential free agents in 2010 is deep and spectacular. There are superstars: James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowitzki. There are perennial All-Stars: Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, Michael Redd, Ray Allen, Josh Howard, Manu Ginóbili, Jermaine O’Neal and Steve Nash. And there are high-level role players: Luis Scola, Tyson Chandler, Stephen Jackson, Mehmet Okur, Hedo Turkoglu, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and Marcus Camby.
Combining any two (or three) of those players would make a team respectable. Combining the right two could put a team in title contention.
Chances are, not all of those players will become free agents. Some have opt-outs that they will not exercise. Some could sign extensions before 2010. That possibility was floated by James for the first time in Sunday’s editions of The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.
“You play out this season, of course; I will consider it,” James said. “The direction we are headed is everything I expected and more.”
The Cavaliers are 23-4 and appear absolutely capable of challenging the Boston Celtics for supremacy in the Eastern Conference, and the N.B.A. at large. So James has reason to feel optimistic about his future in Cleveland. He also has every reason to keep his options open and to let the drama play out over the next 18 months while assessing the competitive and economic landscape.
But Knicks General Manager Donnie Walsh could miss on James and still revive the franchise in 2010, just by being in the market again. The possibilities are intriguing: Wade and Bosh? Johnson and Stoudemire? Redd, Chandler and Nash?
As Walsh said the day he was hired as the Knicks’ team president last spring, having cap space “would be a monstrous thing” for the franchise.
“You can turn something over overnight in a lot of ways if you can manage the cap the right way now,” he said.
The Knicks have not had cap room since 1996, when they signed Allan Houston to a seven-year, $56 million contract. They have spent every season since swapping one large contract for another, inflating the payroll to record-setting levels without having the chance to chase Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd or Chris Webber, Elton Brand or Josh Smith.
“He thinks the Knicks should be under the cap no matter what the scenario is,” Coach Mike D’Antoni said of Walsh, “and then deal from strength, instead of being handicapped with certain moves.”
In the N.B.A., cap room also means flexibility. A team under the cap does not have to balance salaries in trades. It can serve as a bridge in three-team deals. And unspent cap space in 2010 can always be rolled into the summer of 2011.
James will keep his options open, his commentary vague and N.B.A. fans on edge for many months to come. A single misplaced modifier will inspire irrational exuberance in one city and despair in another.
The Knicks, however, seem sure of their course.
“You can go through all kinds of hypotheticals,” D’Antoni said, “but this league is a lot of times built through free agency and trades and stuff of that sort. We just want to put ourselves in a position where we can do everything.”