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LeBron leads free-agent crop ready to change NBA


Posted Jul 1 2010 12:41AM - Updated Jul 1 2010 6:45AM

NEW YORK (AP) -- Finally free to leave Cleveland, LeBron James is ready to hear reasons why he should.

The NBA's long-awaited free agency period opened early Thursday, with teams such as New York and Miami focusing their attention on California.

Now all eyes will be on Ohio.

James was set to welcome the New Jersey Nets and the Knicks to his home state, with additional teams awaiting a later audience with the King.

The Clippers have scored an invite, proving even longtime losers have a chance for a transformation in this highly anticipated shopping season.

Teams could begin making their pitches at 12:01 a.m. EDT, and some got started quickly. Chris Bosh heard from four of them, including presumed favorites Chicago and Miami.

Atlanta's Joe Johnson was expecting early visits in Los Angeles from the Hawks and New York Knicks, with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporting that the Hawks were prepared to offer the All-Star shooting guard a maximum salary contract.

James could get multiple offers Thursday as the head of perhaps the deepest class in history.

It includes other All-Stars such as Dwyane Wade, Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Amar'e Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer; veterans such as Shaquille O'Neal and Ray Allen; and young up-and-comers such as Rudy Gay and David Lee.

"We've never had anything like this in my time that I can remember," New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn said. "There have been big-time free agents before, but never this many teams that are trying to woo them. So it's unprecedented."

Teams were headed around the country to speak with players, though the Mavs were saved a long trip when Nowitzki informed them he would meet with them Thursday in Dallas -- with the message arriving while president Donnie Nelson was at the airport preparing for a flight to Germany.

Showing they planned to be active, the Knicks confirmed on Twitter they would also meet with Wizards swingman Mike Miller in Los Angeles. But they did so without team president Donnie Walsh, who went directly to Ohio in preparation for Thursday's meeting with James.

Pat Riley and a Heat contingent also began their free agency tour in California, where teams were hoping to meet with Stoudemire. Miami also planned to meet with Johnson.

It promised to be a wild first few days of July, with plans changing by the minute.

"You're not in control, as much as you would like to be," Timberwolves president David Kahn said. "I don't think any team feels right now they're in control of the situation. There's too many teams with room. Too many fine players out there. I think in those types of situations, it's best to be really nimble and change course if need be."

Kahn said early Thursday that Gay would visit Minnesota later in the day and Lee would arrive on Saturday. Gay is a restricted free agent, so Memphis can match any offer for him.

Lee was an All-Star this season in New York, but may not be back since the Knicks are hoping to land two bigger names.

So are the Clippers. General manager Neil Olshey announced in a statement the team had already contacted several players and confirmed it had been invited to meet with James.

"At that time, we intend to present the many reasons why his joining our organization is the best possible choice he could make," Olshey said.

The Cavaliers might have a new reason for James to stay home. They are in "serious talks" with former New Orleans coach Byron Scott, a person familiar with their search told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

James can earn perhaps $125 million over six years by staying in Cleveland; $96 million over five years if he goes. (The exact figures can't be determined until next season's salary cap is set in July). But leaving could put him in a better position to win a championship.

He'll first meet Thursday with the Nets' traveling party that includes new owner Mikhail Prokhorov, coach Avery Johnson, president Rod Thorn and hip-hop superstar Jay-Z, a part-owner and James' longtime friend.

Then the Knicks will drop in. They can afford to pay him and another classmate the maximum next season, which might be what they need to finally get going again after a franchise-record nine straight losing seasons.

"We've had to live through some tough times in order to get where you think you start rebuilding the franchise," Walsh said. "We have that opportunity now. How well, how fast we can rebuild the team can be shortcut by getting great players."

They'll have plenty of competition. The Heat, Nets, Bulls and Clippers also can afford to offer a player about $16.6 million next season, which is the maximum someone with James' amount of NBA experience can make. Chicago and New Jersey made trades in recent days to push them closer to joining the Knicks with enough to offer two max deals, and the Heat can keep Wade, give an additional max contract and have enough left over for another quality player.

Top players rarely leave via free agency because NBA rules allow their teams to offer them more money in the long run. The difference comes not in the first year of a new contract, but in the raises.

A player signing with his own team is eligible for annual increases of 10.5 percent, while a new team can offer only 8 percent bumps. The home team can also offer six-year deals, whereas players joining new teams can get only five-year contracts.

Still, teams have been slashing payroll for years in hopes players would move this summer.

"It is an 'all-in' strategy, in that even when it works, you're going to have to operate with a very low payroll," Houston general manager Daryl Morey said. "If it doesn't work, it can be catastrophic in terms of if you strike out, it's going to be very difficult to be competitive."

Morey used his Twitter feed to announce he'd met with Bosh in the opening hours of free agency.

"He is about winning so I focused on how (with) Houston he can win a championship," Morey wrote.

Bosh also took to Twitter to inform followers he'd also received presentations from Chicago, Miami and Toronto.

The Raptors expect to lose Bosh. If the All-Star forward joins James or Wade, or both, that team figures to become an immediate championship contender. Boston won the title the year after assembling its Big Three -- which could now be broken up with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on the market -- and the Lakers have reached the finals every year since acquiring Pau Gasol to complement Kobe Bryant.

Numerous teams are now dreaming of similar pairings once deals can be signed on July 8.

"You look at the teams that have an awful lot of cap space, there could be a lot of power shifting in this league," Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis said.

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