The free-agent frenzy doesn’t officially begin for another two days, but the speculation already is rampant. Here’s the first edition of the Free-Agent Tipoff, a morning look at the news of the day from front-office executives and agents:
• We won’t know for a few days, or maybe longer, whether LeBron James sees his free-agent opportunity through the same prism I do. But as the week begins, the consensus among rival executives and influential agents is that the Knicks are in for a tough time when the clock strikes 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Word circulating over the weekend was that Knicks president Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni faced a “very tough sell” to the top free agents, according to one rival executive monitoring the free-agent buzz. The reason, according to an agent involved in the process: “They’re going to have a lot of convincing to do for guys. There’s not a lot of pieces there to make it attractive.” According to other sources, it’s even worse than that for the Knicks. A representative for one prominent free agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiating period hasn’t begun, said the Knicks may have as hard a time – or even harder – persuading second-tier free agents to go to New York. “If you come in there, expectations are so high you almost can’t – unless it’s LeBron, anybody else will have a really hard time living up to it,” the agent said. “What if the team makes playoffs and loses in first round? Is that a success? Probably not. You’re starting off negative. That’s the way you want to start off? Everybody should be happy about getting two All-Stars, but they’re not the ones you thought you were getting or were sold on getting.”
• Having said that, Hawks free agent Joe Johnson is expecting a hard sell from the Knicks in the event LeBron opts to go elsewhere. Johnson has set up shop in Los Angeles with his agent, Arn Tellem, who has an excellent relationship with Walsh. As of early Monday, Johnson had yet to schedule any free-agent visits – in L.A. or elsewhere. One person with ties to Johnson suggested a possible reason why he is 1) in L.A., and 2) in no hurry to entertain visitors. Don’t be surprised if his strong connection to Clippers GM Neil Olshey explains why Johnson is conveniently ensconced in L.A. for the purposes of signing a max deal with the Clips. As a trainer for Tellem when Johnson was entering the draft, Olshey worked with Johnson and has maintained a strong relationship with him. The Clippers situation is ideal because Johnson wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden as the franchise cornerstone, a title and responsibility that will fall on Blake Griffin. The Clippers, with enough cap space for one max player, will make their run at LeBron, but the answer is expected to be a swift and polite, “No, thanks.” At which point you can expected them to move on to Johnson as their Plan B.
• Henry Thomas, the agent for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, shot down reports Sunday that Bosh had already decided to join James in Chicago. “Completely untrue,” Thomas told NBA.com. “He hasn’t decided anything.” Be that as it may, rival executives already are bracing for a LeBron-Bosh tandem in Chicago. “They’d immediately be the favorites to win the East, I think,” one of them said. The same exec said he believes that if LeBron and Bosh do team up with the Bulls, that would quickly set the next domino into motion – Amar’e Stoudemire signing with the Heat to play with Dwyane Wade.
• Stoudemire will be receiving visitors in Los Angeles, a person close to him said. As of Sunday night, no visits had been set up. Stoudemire made a few waves over the weekend when he tweeted about having dinner in Chicago with his agent, Happy Walters, and discussing free agency. He went on to mention how good it was to see his friend, Dwyane Wade, at the Nike Skills Academy in the Windy City. (It turns out, there were numerous people at the dinner, not just Amar’e and Wade. So slow your roll, conspiratorial internet rumor mill.) But the person close to Stoudemire provided some insight into what the man they call STAT is looking for in free agency: “He wants to be in a situation where he can win, and where there’s a team around him,” the person said. “He doesn’t want to be the only guy, obviously, and he wants to be in a city he wants to be in. I think everyone forgets that a lot of these guys are going to get pursued by teams that aren’t under the cap and people are going to want to do sign-and-trades.” That’s right, the Knicks, Nets, Bulls, Heat and Clippers aren’t the only teams capable of landing a marquee free agent in the next couple of weeks.
• To that point, the Magic are said to be actively considering trade scenarios that could provide Dwight Howard with a post-up power forward to play with, a play-maker to replace what Hedo Turkoglu brought to the 2009 Eastern Conference championship team, or a dynamic point guard. It would be easy enough to move Rashard Lewis to small forward and satisfy Howard’s first wish – something he feels strongly enough about to begin “heavily recruiting” free agents that fit the description, according to a source. As for the second item, if I were GM Otis Smith, I’d be exploring a Vince Carter-for-Joe Johnson sign-and-trade; what an upgrade that would be for a team that sorely missed Turkoglu in the conference finals against Boston this year. The third option is the most interesting: A person with knowledge of the Magic’s plans said a trade for Gilbert Arenas, the one-time superstar whose reputation took a massive hit with his gun suspension last season, remains a “definite possibility.” Smith has a good relationship with Arenas, but a stumbling block could be the fact that Howard has questions about whether Arenas would fit in. If Howard gets the answers he’s looking for, there could be legs to the Arenas-to-Orlando scenario.
• An aside on the potential LeBron-Bosh tandem in Chicago: Bulls GM Gar Forman will have a hard sell in this respect: Persuading both players to come on board with straight signings instead of through sign-and-trades. The pitch would be this: Despite losing a sixth year and 2.5 percent more in annual raises, they’d have a better shot at a title if the Bulls didn’t have to give up, say, Joakim Noah or Luol Deng to get them.
• Rod Thorn is telling colleagues that his impending departure from the Nets is “not about the money,” but that horse has left the barn. It’s well known in front-office circles that Thorn was asked to take a massive pay cut on a new contract, perhaps as much as 80 percent, according to two sources. It’s possible that after a cooling-off period, Thorn could be retained in some sort of advisory capacity while owner Mikhail Prokhorov pursues the young, dynamic voice he’s said to be seeking. Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti would make sense, and already there are rumblings that Presti is on Prokhorov’s list of targets. But in addition to Jerry Colangelo, another name that surfaced Sunday doesn’t fit that description: Spurs GM R.C. Buford, who is not one of the young guns in the NBA’s GM club but has done as good a job as anyone building a perennial contender on a small-market budget. Now that the Spurs’ run is nearly over, it’s scary to imagine an executive as shrewd as Buford turned loose with the limitless financial backing of a Russian billionaire. In any event, rival executives are scratching their heads as to why the Nets would allow themselves to enter free-agent pitch sessions with a lame-duck GM and no replacement on board. Makes you wonder whether Kevin Pritchard, fired by the Trail Blazers on draft night, could switch gears quickly enough to join Thorn on the recruiting trail as his official replacement. Also makes you wonder whether Pritchard would be emotionally prepared to work for another eccentric billionaire so soon after getting canned by one.