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Clock is ticking for LeBron James and other free agents


Bulls name Tom Thibodeau 18th head coach in franchise history

Say the Bulls were able to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Well, Orlando still has Dwight Howard and a 60-win cast. You could find yourself playing out your career as a perennial also ran. That is why, some are saying privately, to keep an eye on Dwyane Wade. (Kevork Djansezian/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith at Bulls.com

Finally, here we are. The Great Free Agency of 2010 begins Thursday, and, of all things, the Bulls are the consensus choice to land the biggest prize of them all, LeBron James.

There certainly are no guarantees and not even close to any done deal, despite suggestions of such. But just the fact so many league executives and so-called insiders are favoring the Bulls is a substantial step from a year ago, when the Bulls were being questioned for giving up Ben Gordon and later John Salmons and then supposedly in disarray over the firing of coach Vinny Del Negro.

And here it is a few months later and, especially given the trade of Kirk Hinrich last week for more salary cap room, the Bulls are the odds on favorite to win free agency by landing James.

And why not? They now have the combination of the best market to enrich yourself with the best team to succeed. New York has the bigger market, but a poor roster with no center or point guard. The Knicks’ 2009 draft, when they failed to grab one of many point guards, perhaps turns into the fatal flaw in their pursuit of James. Miami also lacks a point guard and center and is hardly the international business market James envisions in his enormous personal worldwide financial goals. Cleveland still has a competitive roster, though aging, but little financial opportunity. If James leaves, it probably will come down to their mistake last summer of giving up cap space for one major free agent to add the likes of Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon to go for it in 2010.

This has not gone unnoticed only by media and fans, but by the free agents themselves. Because, if you believe them, only one team can win, and you don’t want to be buried on one that cannot with little chance of passing a super team.

Say the Bulls were able to sign LeBron and Chris Bosh. Well, Orlando still has Dwight Howard and a 60-win cast. You could find yourself playing out your career as a perennial also ran.

That is why, some are saying privately, to keep an eye on Dwyane Wade.

It’s been mentioned, though with little fanfare, that Wade will make some recruiting visits, namely New York, when the process begins. It’s been dismissed because the assumption is Wade is locked into Miami and seemingly burned his bridge with Chicago with recent comments attacking the organization’s loyalty.

Wade probably will stay with the Heat because of that sixth year maximum dollars he can get and that he is 28 and has had injuries and, unlike LeBron, probably won’t get another big deal after this one. But Wade also is believed to be concerned about a so-called super team developing in Chicago, effectively blocking his way forever to another championship, and, of all places, in his home town.

The thinking, so, goes like this: Wade says he’ll sign with the Bulls and bring Bosh with him as they both are represented by the same agent, respected Chicagoan Henry Thomas.

In many respects, Wade is a better fit for the Bulls than LeBron. LeBron, sure, is better and far more famous and talented. But the Bulls are going to have Luol Deng and it would remain a big question where Deng would play with James. It’s difficult to see Deng as a willing bench player. Plus, LeBron brings an awful lot of entourage baggage which Wade doesn’t.

Wade doesn’t seem to need to dominate the ball like LeBron does, which could be a bit uncomfortable with Derrick Rose. With LeBron, the Bulls still would need a shooting guard, especially to chase on defense, and you aren’t about to get a starting level shooting guard with the minimum salaries the Bulls can offer after paying the free agents.

Though the bigger thing from Wade’s part would be the strategy. He could cut off LeBron and become the major figure in the East to match Kobe in the West, which has bugged Wade for some time. If Wade can get Bosh to go with him, then LeBron could go to New York with almost no roster depth and a lesser power forward, like Amar’e Stoudemire or Carlos Boozer. It wouldn’t even be as talented a roster as James has now in Cleveland. That could force James back to Cleveland as Miami, obviously would be out without Wade and, in effect, Wade could become the one to dictate free agency instead of LeBron.

Would the Bulls be interested? I really don’t know, but you’d have to be interested no matter what little critical thing Wade may or may not have said given the easy fit with Wade and then the balanced roster with Taj Gibson being a third forward.

This is not a done deal by any means, and as much as the Bulls need to make a case to LeBron, I can see where LeBron should be making a case as well as he’s not the only alternative to a championship, and maybe not even the best.

After all, Wade took a bad team to a title (Antoine Walker and Gary Payton were major contributors) in 2006 and James hasn’t been close to doing the same.

Plenty of scenarios to consider

-- Then there’s the nightmare scenario for the Bulls, which also could shape. The Knicks have arranged to be the one of the first teams among some half dozen to schedule recruiting visits with LeBron. At this point, they are regarded as perhaps a fourth option after the Bulls, Cavs and Heat. If they were to get a signal from James that he isn’t interested, they might just make a big pitch with a 24-hour window—before the Bulls can meet with James—telling Joe Johnson they’d give him a max or it’s off the table.

Perhaps fearing the Bulls lock up James and Bosh, Johnson then could commit to the Knicks, though he’s told friends his preference is the Bulls. But you can’t be left without a chair in this free agency musical chairs, and he doesn’t want to go to the Clippers.

The Lakers also are expected to enter the picture with a bid for Bosh as it became clear in the Finals they need more scoring. And you can be sure they don’t want to see a LeBron/Bosh pairing in Chicago with Rose and Noah to go against. The Raptors would like to get something in a sign-and-trade for Bosh, but they likely won’t deal him in the East. The Lakers are expected to offer Andrew Bynum, a legitimate low post center, and Lamar Odom, and take back Jarrett Jack, whom the Raptors would like to move.

Then the Raptors move Andrea Bargnani to power forward and they have a good nucleus. Bosh wouldn’t have to play center with Pau Gasol in L.A. A big issue with Bosh is not playing center, which he might have to do in Miami or New York. Remember, once you sign your leverage is gone. So Bosh isn’t rushing to teams with no center. The Cavs would like to get him in a sign and trade with Toronto, but it seems unlikely without giving up Anderson Varejao. And then Cleveland would have no center. Shaq? C’mon.

So if Johnson is gone and Bosh goes west in a sign-and-trade, LeBron may elect to stay home, as Miami could scoop up Stoudemire and the Bulls would be left picking between an unreliable Boozer and David Lee.

There is going to be plenty of scenarios to consider as the machinations haven’t even started yet.

Rounding out your team’s roster

-- One of the big questions for all the major free agent teams is going to be how to fill out the roster after spending your money on free agents. There are no exceptions when you are under the salary cap, so those teams, like the Bulls, Heat and Knicks, will only be able to sign players for the minimum salary. So forget big names, but you can get someone like NBA veteran Bonzi Wells, who last was playing in China, I believe. He remains a possibility for the Bulls summer league roster for the team to take a look at him. … I liked the pick of Greg Monroe for the Pistons, and he had a nice start saying he’ll wear No. 10, which was once worn by Dennis Rodman. Said the usually low key Monroe: “I’m just going to try to be as good a rebounder as he was. And less eccentric."… One of the surprises of the draft was the fall of Hassan Whiteside to the second round and No. 33. He chose No. 33 as his uniform number to remind him of that as he goes to the Kings, who suddenly are huge with the trade for Sam Dalembert and draft of DeMarcus Cousins. If those guys develop, they have the makings of a power with star guard Tyreke Evans. … Teams that fail in free agency likely will be looking toward the Warriors, who are pretty much stuck until a sale is completed and have several players they could move, including Monta Ellis, Anthony Morrow and Anthony Randolph.

NBA Draft notes

-- Some other thoughts from the draft: It was small minded and petty of the Trail Blazers to let go lame duck GM Kevin Pritchard the night of the draft, though I’ve seen a lot worse and much more malicious and baleful behavior in the newspaper, financial and housing businesses the last few years, though since the people who got dumped on weren’t as famous they didn’t get as much sympathy. The fact is if you are in charge you can be as mean spirited in this recession era as you like and know that everyone can be replaced and if they aren’t nice to you they will be. That was Pritchard’s mistake. In talking to GMs around the league, though, they said right up to his dismissal Pritchard was acting as if nothing was different in discussing deals. And Portland did have a nice haul with Luke Babbitt, Elliott Williams and Armon Johnson. It does also seem to open up the possibility of a long speculated deal of Rudy Fernandez with all perimeter guys. … Memphis picked up a pair of good guards in Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez. It could raise questions on keeping players like Mike Conley and Sam Young. … I think Marquette’s Lazar Haywood may be one of the big surprises of the first round in Minnesota with a lot to come there as Al Jefferson clearly is on the market now. … I’ve always liked Nick Young, who should be available now with the Wizards getting John Wall and Kirk Hinrich and likely unable to move Gilbert Arenas, who, if he drops the dramatics, could be an explosive scoring partner with Wall. … With the Rockets raving about getting Patrick Patterson and saying they’ll match any offer for Luis Scola, Jordan Hill should be available again. … Oklahoma City may be a team to watch. They traded up to No. 11 for Cole Aldrich. But I wonder if that was a preliminary move toward going after Tiago Splitter. There’s a big question on whether the Spurs can afford to sign him given their precarious payroll situation in the luxury tax. The Thunder’s wily GM Sam Presti was involved in the Splitter draft and is said to have had his eyes on Splitter for some time. The Thunder has cap room to absorb a good contract and it’s a Presti sort of move to stay away from the big free agents and use a cheaper player like Aldrich as bait to get Splitter.