will this really happen?
The LeBron James sweepstakes will kick off in Ohio on his home turf Thursday as five teams — the Chicago Bulls, the Miami Heat, theKnicks, the Nets and the Los Angeles Clippers — travel there in an attempt to woo James away from the Cleveland Cavaliers, an executive of one of the teams in the hunt said Saturday.
But the meetings might not be much more than a formality. The executive, who did not want to be identified discussing a player who is not yet a free agent, said he had gathered from discussions with his fellow N.B.A.executives that James was strongly leaning toward joining the Bulls in tandem with another free agent, Chris Bosh of the Toronto Raptors.
“I think it’s a done deal,” the executive said.
He said he thought James was going ahead with the meetings in Ohio “to be respectful to all these teams who jumped through these hoops,” a reference to the clubs, like the Knicks, who traded reasonably talented players like Jamal Crawford the last two seasons in an effort to open up as much salary-cap space as possible. But if James and Bosh are indeed going to Chicago, moves like the ones the Knicks made will have been done at least partly in vain.
The executive also said that the Dallas Mavericks were trying to join the Ohio meetings with James. Unlike the other potential suitors, however, the Mavericks are over the salary cap and could obtain James only through a sign-and-trade deal with the Cavaliers.
Even if the Bulls are now perceived to have the inside track, the other teams will make their pitches to James, who has been in the league for seven seasons, all with the Cavaliers, and has yet to win a championship.
But their proposals will be without the flair and drama of a free-agent tour, because James has decided to have everyone come to him. Various teams, like the Knicks, had lined up chefs and celebrities to help attract James, but with the meetings in Ohio, the discussion will be about rosters, not restaurants.
“He is going to make a basketball decision, so all that is unnecessary,” the executive said. “He just saved a lot of people a lot of money.”
In last Thursday’s draft, the effort by a number of teams, including the Bulls, to open up salary-cap space overshadowed the introduction of new players to the league.
On draft night, the Bulls traded Kirk Hinrich, a solid and gritty contributor who had helped them make the playoffs in five of his seven N.B.A. seasons, and the 17th overall draft pick to Washington for a future second-round pick.
It certainly did not make the Bulls a better team on paper, but it did put them $29.2 million under the projected salary cap of $56.1 million for next season.
That in itself is not enough cap room to sign both James and Bosh to maximum free-agent contracts, and it means the Bulls would have to make another move. But the team executive said he felt the Bulls would be able to do so, and if they can land James and Bosh, they will form a formidable core with Joakim Noah and the electrifying point guard Derrick Rose.
As for the Knicks, they are projected to be about $34.15 million below the cap, with the Nets at $27 million and the Heat at $27.6 million if they re-sign Dwyane Wade and waive James Jones. It is unclear what the Knicks and the Nets will do with all that money if they can’t sign James or Bosh and if Wade stays put.
Free agency officially begins at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Later that day, teams will start meeting with James, although not all of them on the first day.
The Knicks can try to lure him with stories about how he would become even more rich and famous than he already is by playing at Madison Square Garden. However, their best player, David Lee, is about to become a free agent as well, and few other players are under contract.
The Nets can try to convey the buzz being created by their new owner, Mikhail D. Prokhorov, and by their planned move to a yet-to-be-built arena in Brooklyn.
Even the often overmatched Clippers can point to a respectable young core of players.
The Cavaliers can cite loyalty and the comfort of home and the fact that James has already been to the N.B.A. finals once as a Cleveland player. Under the terms of free agency, they can also offer him somewhat more money and an extra contract year — six versus five — compared with the other teams trying to land him. They have talked to James all along, of course, and will continue to do so.
The decision for James to host teams in Ohio was first reported by Yahoo. Maverick Carter, James’s business manager, told ESPN that his client “never planned to go on a tour and has not been a part of any team’s plans for a recruiting trip.”
Instead, he will stay near home and will probably be joined in the meetings by Carter, his agent Leon Rose and his longtime confidante William Wesley. They will listen to everyone, although at this point, it appears they may be listening a little more closely to the Bulls.