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Figuring out the Big Three of free agency

The Bulls ended up doing OK in free agency, even though they apparently lost out on the elite of the class, though LeBron James could still be in play after the Bulls Wednesday reached apparent agreement with Jazz All-Star forward Carlos Boozer.

After all, earlier in the day it was looking like the Bulls had a chance to put together a free agency Big Three of All-Stars and potential Hall of Famers.

Too bad that would have been Shaq, Iverson and McGrady.

Now, the big suspense remains as to what will LeBron do. It seems he has taken his TV embarrassment–I mean spectacular–to a Greenwich, Conn. studio for his announcement Thursday night on ESPN, which is headquartered in Bristol, Conn.

The indicators would then suggest LeBron is signing with the Knicks. Why else go to Connecticut? It is true that LeBron tried to recruit Amar’e Stoudemire to play with him in Cleveland before Amar’e agreed with the Knicks. So the thinking goes LeBron hasn’t played with anyone in Cleveland and still went to a Finals, averaging 63.5 wins the last two seasons. Now, he’d play with Stoudemire.

Of course, the rest of that roster actually makes Eddy Curry one of the better players.

So maybe it’s the Nets.

Yes, you can see the James’ gang having scripted all this.

By the way, this is how stupid this James TV show has to be–even ESPN didn’t think of it. James’ posse presented it to the network.

The Nets have a way better roster, an exciting new billionaire owner/playboy, James’ buddy Jay-Z as a part owner, Avery Johnson as coach and the promise of the world’s newest arena in two years.

The other big speculation going around was that James would go to the Heat to form a super friends team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who Wednesday declared their allegiance to one another in Miami.

They said they passed on Chicago with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng so they could be winners, as they will now play with Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers. James could join up, though then all would have to accept well under a maximum contract, or Miami would have about another $10 million for additional players without James.

So Wade and Bosh have a better chance to win there?

Of course, these are the guys who have one championship and two 50-win seasons between them in 14 combined years in the NBA.

Actually, if you combine Wade, Bosh and LeBron, that’s one championship in 21 combined NBA seasons.

Maybe that’s why we don’t hear much from Kobe Bryant in this mess. He apparently is about winning and has won. The others may just be about talking about winning.

And in all this, there still is a chance James could opt for the Bulls. Yes, we have to keep all the TV markets watching. Hey, maybe a sign-and-trade to join Kobe in L.A. Don’t forget the West market. You’ll notice the show was timed not to be on too early in Los Angeles.

Look, if LeBron opted for the Bulls, as with the $75 million for Boozer they still could give LeBron a five-year max deal, he could walk into a ready made near super team. The Bulls seem to be the only free agent team truly with veteran roster depth and an All-Star. Plus, with a point guard and center, which only New Jersey can also offer. The Nets, by the way, play in Newark the next two years.

I actually think James is best positioned to win if he stays in Cleveland.

I think their roster, with the ability to add a mid-level free agent and new coach Byron Scott, is the most set up to make a run.

If James were to go to New York or Miami, I see the East opening up quite a bit. The Knicks and Heat would be viewed as the big free agency winners and have the praise of the media.

But both teams would need a quality center and point guard, which would not be easy to find with minimum salaries.

If James does join Wade and Bosh, which seems unlikely, how do you compete with three stars and nine minimum contracts?

That’s being with a winner?

Or if James goes to New York to play with Stoudemire, whom his own team wouldn’t pay a max deal, the rest of the roster is Eddy Curry, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Douglas Toney and Bill Walker.

Yes, you probably win 50 games automatically with James.

But would you be better than Rose, Noah, Boozer, Deng and, say, Mike Miller, along with Taj Gibson and Omer Asik?

Boozer is a solid pickup and was on the Bulls’ radar early, though even he understood they had to make a run at LeBron and Wade, especially once Wade opened the door to talks. But Boozer has basically made his intentions known to the Bulls for a year since going on Chicago radio a year ago to talk about how he’d love to play in Chicago. Even Jim Paxson, the Cavs GM when Boozer mysteriously left as a free agent and now a Bulls scout, endorsed the acquisition of Boozer.

While Boozer will be 29 and has had injury issues–though no major surgeries like Stoudemire–Boozer is one of the top pick-and-roll big men in the NBA. He fits nicely with Derrick Rose, who has been an advocate of Boozer coming to the Bulls for some time.

Boozer is a career double-double player, former All-Star and 2008 Olympian. He has been deft running the pick-and-roll with Deron Williams and spaces the floor nicely with his shooting. He’s not regarded as highly as Bosh because of age and size, but he was an all-NBA player just two years ago.

As a result, if the free agents basically divide up, I’d see the East opening up from the three big teams of Boston, Cleveland and Orlando to include the Bulls, Heat, Knicks if they get LeBron, or Nets, and perhaps Atlanta, who is still a 50-win team with Joe Johnson. You’d be looking at a much more competitive and deeper Eastern Conference than we’ve seen since maybe the late ’80s when the Bulls, Pistons, Hawks, Celtics, Cavs, Knicks, 76ers and Bucks were all contenders on some level.

But perhaps the larger question in Chicago is could you be right and everyone else wrong?

Look, I know most probably regret giving up Kirk Hinrich. And I was long a proponent of getting someone early through modest free agency, like Joe Johnson, or trade, like Monta Ellis. But if the Bulls did not do the Hinrich trade, which is not contingent, they probably could not even have gotten an interview with James.

And if they didn’t, what could they say to the possibility of not having a shot at James or Wade because they wanted to keep Hinrich?

They, obviously, had to take the shot.

The Wade chance came out of nowhere, basically, and assuming it was for real, which I am not sure it ever was, it also required two salary spaces.

Now, that could have been the super team.

LeBron and Bosh with what the Bulls had or Wade and Bosh, or Boozer, with what the Bulls had.

You’d head off LeBron and basically make him irrelevant for the rest of his career as he couldn’t go to Miami and didn’t have the roster to match in New York or Cleveland.

The media consensus, and now we are sure that is meaningless, was the Bulls were the favorites for James.

So how could he not see that, too, unless we are in for a last minute switch here.

And how could Wade not see that?

The others didn’t have a stake in Chicago as Wade does with family, even though he is going through a divorce and custody, and home.

Wade alluded to that in his comments on ESPN Wednesday in saying what a tough decision it was. It rang hollow because if he really was only about winning, how could he say, especially with the chance to be closer to his family, he has a better chance to win in Miami with Bosh, Beasley and Chalmers than he would in Chicago with Bosh, Rose, Noah, Deng and Gibson?

C’mon, it’s obvious, which is why Wade likely was trying to con the Bulls.

One report had it that Wade was put off by the Bulls because they still wanted to see LeBron after seeing him. What nonsense. The Bulls were supposed to drop pursuit of LeBron to get a shot at Wade, who previously blasted the organization and long has said he’d prefer Miami?

Pat Riley would have loved that.

In fact, the story out of New Jersey was they regretted talking to Wade because they felt he used their information to return it to Miami. Was he doing the same with the Bulls? Did he find their first presentation potentially so attractive to LeBron he had to go back a second time to maybe scare off LeBron and make it seem like they were recruiting him harder?

You can be sure there was plenty of ugly stuff going on everywhere as the free agents were trying to talk one another away from other guys. Clearly, LeBron was trying to get Bosh away from Wade and to Cleveland.

What I also think Wade was up to, and it made more sense, was to use the Bulls as an emergency fallback.

He had long been aligned with Bosh as their shared agent, Henry Thomas, has been working to try to place them together with max deals.

LeBron was recruiting Bosh and Bosh could get a sign-and-trade and so-called super max of $125 million in Cleveland. He also could get it in Houston and maybe Chicago. Chicago was probably out of contention for Wade with Bosh, as if Bosh got the sign-and-trade, Wade would be paid less than Bosh and eventually maybe less than Rose as well. You know Wade never would stand for that. And, frankly, the top player never should.

I had worked out a formula which could satisfy that with Bosh getting a sign-and-trade for slightly less than the max to guarantee the sixth year and let Wade earn more. I don’t know if that ever was broached.

But Wade wasn’t fully sure he could get Bosh to go with him. The terms of Bosh’s deal remain unclear as Toronto could do a sign-and-trade or Wade and Bosh can take similar salaries of Bosh just takes the five-year max and some $95 million.

It’s a tough statement for basketball in Canada as the only guy apparently willing to go for less than the most money seemed to be Bosh.

Meanwhile,  Wade had to protect himself in case Bosh took the money somewhere else.

New York didn’t make sense because Wade can see that roster, and Chicago had not only the talent but many personal reasons that would fit. So the Bulls were likely just an emergency landing spot for Wade. And perhaps to plant the seed a bit with LeBron that the Bulls may not be fully committed.

Look, Wade is a good actor. Have you seen those TV commercials?

So we tune in to watch LeBron Thursday and see where the rest of this heads.

If LeBron is truly about only winning, he’d have to consider the Bulls with Boozer. But hardly anyone in this free agency class has made a statement about winning. It would be hard to justify that even one free agent made a decision about winning over money, even Bosh.

If anyone wanted only to win they would have tried to make a so called super team, and it’s hard to see how any two could do that without including the Bulls. If LeBron goes to Miami is that a super team? Sure, in name, but those three guys would take all the cap room (and none at a max salary) and the rest of the roster other than Beasley and Chalmers would have to be minimum players. And Bosh has made it pretty clear he ain’t playin’ no stinking center. Tough to see that.

So I don’t expect LeBron to come to the Bulls, either, though there has to be a chance.

If he doesn’t, yes, you try to fill the shooting guard spot and there are plenty of candidates, like Mike Miller, Ray Allen, Ronnie Brewer, Wesley Matthews, J.J. Redick, Roger Mason and Anthony Morrow.

But I’d try to go the trade route if I can as you have that approximately $15 million left after Boozer’s $75 million/five-year deal.

I’d narrow in on Golden State, which is for sale and busy clearly salaries as they recently dealt Corey Maggette to the Bucks. One possibility is Deng for Monta Ellis and Andris Bierdins. That’s $20 million in salary for the Warriors, who maybe save $10 million and get back Deng with some No. 1’s and maybe cash. It’s gives the Warriors a veteran who can play while taking two long deals off their books. I’ve heard the Knicks also are pursuing Ellis. Yes, you’d have an opening at small forward, but Ellis with Rose, Boozer and Noah and a lot of size with Biedrins and Omer Asik would be a heck of an uptempo team that would be impossible to defend. Now, that would be exciting.

There are many other possibilities and combinations if James moves elsewhere, but at least the Bulls remain in the game in a potentially big way. That is a lot better than it seemed Tuesday.

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What will 2010 free agency produce?

This free agency week that perhaps heralds the birth of a new dynasty or champion reminds me of the time just before my son was born.

We were at the doctor, and the doctor said it could be any day. So we were told to just go home and relax. Relax!

We walked around a lot and went to malls, then walked around some more. I asked if it was time and my wife shook her head, “No,” and it seemed to just go on without any real signal.

So this is what I think is going on now: LeBron James, first, is calling around to all the guys who haven’t signed not named Dwyane Wade, trying to gauge their interest in joining him in Cleveland. The Cavs don’t have cap room, but can manufacture a sign-and-trade, and, as we know, they would do anything for their little poopsie Bronnie.

My guess is the Bulls have moved down a notch on LeBron’s list, with the Cavs first. The Nets are right there too, with the glamour of the Russian billionaire, Jay-Z, and that LeBron can move his empire to New York City, having the ability to just buzz over to the suburbs for games.

The question is how much improvement James needs to have to commit to return. Would Toronto accept a sign-and-trade? Would Utah do a sign-and-trade? Could the Cavs get Mike Miller and Matt Barnes to split a mid-level exception?

The larger question as it relates to the Bulls, I think, is the Wade/Bosh axis.

Clearly, Wade would like Bosh to accompany him to Miami and they are represented by the same agent and have been friends. Bosh likely wants a sign-and-trade because not only is Bosh no John Kennedy, he’s no Dwyane Wade, meaning five years from now, he may be Juwan Howard. So Bosh likely wants that sixth year in the bank and, thus, the sign-and-trade, which no way he gets to Miami for Michael Beasley.

The fatal flaw in Miami’s grand plan may have been this roster mayhem that’s left the Heat with Beasley and Mario Chalmers and, seemingly, a heck of a long way from competing

Here’s the rub for the Bulls, though, which may not be as much problem for them as it is for me.

I could see Toronto doing a sign-and-trade with the Bulls dealing Bosh for Taj Gibson, three No. 1s and cash. But if you cannot get Wade with Bosh, I wouldn’t want Bosh for all that.

It means you have Bosh for six years as the second highest paid player in franchise history when he’s been associated with not much more than losing. He’s a nice piece, I agree, but if you give up Gibson and three No. 1s, I think you handicap yourself for the future too much. Bosh is a way better offensive player than Gibson, but a far worse defender, and not a pick-and-roll player.

Actually, Carlos Boozer would be better at pick-and-roll and likely wouldn’t cost you Gibson and the firsts. Bosh is better, but I’d rather have Boozer, Gibson and three firsts than Bosh.

But if Bosh can bring you Wade, as they seem to want to play together, then it’s a no-brainer. You do it. Wade and LeBron are the first-tier and it drops steeply from there.

If Bosh gets that sign-and-trade and sixth year, then he will make more than Wade. The Bulls will then be out of options for sign-and-trades. Sorry, no one is taking Luol Deng in that sort of transaction with four years left on his deal.

Could Wade not only give up the extra $30 plus million dollars by leaving Miami (sixth year salary plus now paying state taxes), but could he also then be second highest paid to Bosh? A few seasons later, Derrick Rose could pass him in salary as well. That’s a lot of ego to swallow when every one of his contemporaries will be playing for max money but him. And he’s Flash!

The best chance for the Bulls to get Wade might be if Bosh got a sign-and-trade to Cleveland, Houston, Dallas, Los Angels or somewhere else other than Miami. Could Pat Riley convince Wade he’s better off with that roster and Boozer? And what if Bosh goes, say, to Houston for the extra money? Then the Bulls or Nets get Boozer. David Lee?

It would seem then Wade would have given Miami its chance and they came up short, and he’d have to leave. The way he had to carry that team, Wade wouldn’t last two more seasons in the NBA with that roster. Heck, Beasley’s antics probably would send him into retirement in half that time.

If I were the Bulls, I’d love to have Wade and forget the second guy. Give Wade the max of approximately $16.5 million and then spend the rest on building depth. I can live with Gibson at four and pick up a solid veteran backup big man, maybe someone like Brendan Haywood.

I was early in this for getting Joe Johnson to team with Rose and then a similar plan. The point being: Get someone!

Obviously, Wade would be better, if it’s been a riskier effort. Johnson, as it happens, was out of play with Atlanta’s shocking max offer. The point was, have I mentioned this: Get someone! I think the Bulls would be just fine with one All-Star free agent to add to Rose. Once you have two guys the defense has to double, you have a chance. Going for three has been mostly fantasy basketball.

So it probably rests with Bosh for now.

This is what I’d do now if I could. I’d make the commitment to Boozer and hope I don’t have to spend a max salary. Then I go to Wade and give him 24 or 48 hours before I say I’m moving on for Haywood and the like. Or Mike Miller.

Would Bosh go to Miami without the sign-and-trade? Could Wade afford to take the chance to wait and then find himself without anywhere to go and a roster that might go back to adding Antoine Walker?

It’s not that big a difference, if he goes to Chicago for the full five-year max. And he’s probably in the best competitive position with Rose, Noah, Deng and Gibson. Then the Bulls can add someone like Haywood or bring back Brad Miller. Perhaps they make a deal for Andris Biedrins and take on some Golden State money so they can sell the team. There are a lot of interesting possibilities if you add one free agent and then play the field.

It may be time for the Bulls to try to deliver on that one.

Now begins the hard part, waiting for LeBron

And now we wait.

The last time I heard that in quite this dramatic a sense was in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.

Hey, it was a classic of a sort.

And perhaps that is the most appropriate reference because this Great Free Agent Chase of 2010 has become something of a farce.

Now, the Bulls, Miami Heat, New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Clippers, at least, go home to wait to find out if they have been chosen by the player, LeBron James, who calls himself the chosen one.

How absolutely ridiculous has this been to watch teams of civic, business and entertainment leaders parade into an office building near Akron, Ohio, to basically plead with a basketball player still in shorts and t-shirt to honor their team and their city with his presence.

I know athletes were victimized for years by teams before the advent of free agency, but the symbolism of this has gotten ludicrous.

Here is James hosting some of the most powerful and influential people in the business and sports world and he’s sitting down for these pleading presentations like he’s eating at Burger King.

It remained unclear to me, as in medieval times when greeting a king whether the participants had to leave the room walking backward since kings refused to look upon the backs of subjects or those seeking favors.

I know it’s not much, but at least tuck in your shirt.

I weep for the entire NBA in this process for having to prostrate itself to this extent for just the chance to acquire some talent. Look, I understand. It’s the way it is now, and the rewards potentially are great. So you grit your teeth and turn it into a welcoming smile.

Actually, I’ve heard the Bulls presentation to James Saturday afternoon, the last of the teams courting his basketball majesty, was both dignified and spectacular.

Gone was the 2000 debacle of brass band and Benny the Bull for a frightened Tracy McGrady.

The Bulls management team made its presentation along with a film that included testimony from many of Chicago’s top business and civic leaders about how James would profit immensely both on and off the court in Chicago, undeniably more than anywhere else.

The point was perhaps that New York was bigger and Miami had Dwyane Wade, but New York’s roster was a disaster and Miami’s entrée into international finance was a non-starter. The best combination came in Chicago and with the Bulls, and this was a franchise that not only would do anything but despite what’s been spread, including by Wade, the franchise has spent lavishly in free agency and to accommodate it’s stars.

At the height of the Bulls’ championship run, the Bulls had the league’s highest payroll. Jordan in 1988 signed one of the first true groundbreaking contracts in pro sports that shocked the world, the eight-year $25 million blockbuster which was international news. It came when Jordan hadn’t even been past the second round of the playoffs. Ben Wallace, bad investment or not, was offered $12 million more than even his home team offered whom he helped win a championship. When Jay Williams was injured and violated his contract the Bulls paid him anyway, just as they did Jordan when he quit basketball to play minor league baseball.

Come to Chicago and only there can you achieve your championship dreams of outpacing Kobe Bryant.

That likely is one reason why James and Wade and Chris Bosh have some things to think about. Because there also is some significant intrigue going on among the top guys.

As we’ve seen, most of the apparent commitments thus far, like with Joe Johnson, Rudy Gay and seemingly Amar’e Stoudemire to New York, are about chasing the most money. Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce are staying for the same reason, millions of them.  The Bulls cannot give anyone the most money because they likely cannot do a sign-and-trade for James or Wade, and only maybe for Bosh.

But here’s what’s going on: James and Wade still are favorites to return to their teams for the most money and Bosh is trying to figure out if he can get a sign-and-trade deal, though Toronto doesn’t want players back and perhaps will take multiple No. 1 draft or maybe no deal.

The big surprise in this has been Wade making nice with the Bulls.

Long considered a lock to return to Miami, Wade is playing it coy in challenging Miami to improve its roster first or perhaps bolt to the Bulls, which would prove devastating to the Heat.

So James is now left to ponder whether Wade is trying an end run to get he and Bosh to Chicago with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, a foursome that likely would deny James any chance at a championships for years to come if he stayed home. Miami would be out for James, as would New York, and could James justify playing in Newark, N.J., wherever that is, and with a team coming off a 12-win season without a regular All-Star?

Is Wade bluffing, trying to push James out of his Cleveland comfort zone and top salary to the Bulls without Bosh, who then would follow Wade to Miami? And watch James and Rose fight it out for the ball?

Is Wade trying to distract the Bulls and have them show James they are not fully committed to him to scare him back to Cleveland and keep the Bulls from compiling a super team?

Or is Wade serious about what all these guys merely pay lip service to, that being winning at any cost. Would Wade take substantially less money to return to Chicago and team with Rose and bring along Bosh with what would be an ideal fit as the Bulls primary needs are shooting guard and power forward? James plays Luol Deng’s small forward position, and with previous attempts to trade Deng proving unavailing, that could be an ugly locker room with Deng sentenced to the bench and a minimum salary shooting guard to step in.

With Wade and Bosh, or even Carlos Boozer, all the pieces fall into place and the Bulls could be talking contending immediately.

But there’s also the possibility of finishing a strong second in each case, and place doesn’t pay anything in this race.

James could return to Cleveland now that Byron Scott is coach and the rumors are they’d figure out a way to trade for Chris Paul. Maybe another short deal as he’s only 25 and Jordan didn’t win until he was 28.

Maybe Wade goes back to Miami, where he is the most popular athlete in South Florida and has built a reputation in the community while he seems to have a good chance to regain custody of his children and maybe move them there.

So what of Bosh?

He’s been the flake in all this with goofy twitter bulletins about his thoughts about interviewing and psychological angst. And this guy was recruited in high school. What must that have been like?

He’s wanted the sign-and-trade for the six-year deal, and the Bulls and Heat would have a shot if Toronto truly only wants draft picks and cash. But other teams can get in with bigger players, and Bosh has been something less than the most committed competitor.

If you are Bosh and believe you deserve a maximum salary, how the heck do you miss the playoffs twice in a row with a pretty good roster that the general manager said was a 50-win team entering this past season?

That said, I’d still take him if I were the Bulls, even without James or Wade. Look, the reality is there are about five or six players in the entire NBA truly worth a “max’ deal and two players in this class, James and Wade.

This is the talent that plays today, so you have to take the best you can and pay. It’s a players’ market with more teams spending than players to spend the money on. Teams and fans have to get over that.

Stoudemire probably won’t even take a physical lest the Knicks fear losing him.

The Bulls’ sales pitch has to be strong because they can pay each of two top free agents about $1 million less than the lower five-year max with the assurance they would more than make it up on a championship team in Chicago. That’s been proven.

But what if Bosh bolts and takes a sign-and-trade elsewhere?

Would LeBron and Wade pair in Chicago? Everything I continue to hear is they don’t want to be together, and teaming with Rose would be an awkward fit that probably would chase Rose out as a free agent when his deal comes up. I’d take Wade with Rose, but I’d rather have Rose at his age than Wade. Wade just spent two grueling seasons using up a lot of his future to keep the Heat competitive. Ask Patrick Ewing how that kind of play under a Pat Riley system shortened his effective career.

If Bosh does bolt, then it becomes a race among the Bulls, Heat and Nets for Carlos Boozer.

So here’s the tough part for some of these guys.

James could go back to Cleveland and they have a mid-level exception, so they’ll add someone decent and they did win 60-plus games the last two seasons practically uncoached.

But how could Wade return to Miami if Bosh and Boozer went elsewhere, again without help and with a disaster of a roster now? He’d have to have a commitment from someone like Bosh or Boozer to return as I don’t see David Lee in that class.

Could the Bulls lock up Bosh or Boozer, or have they already, and that’s their pitch to James? Or why Wade suddenly became so lovey dovey with a franchise he’s basically ignored for several years.

Maybe he needs to head off James and can’t return to Miami because the Heat cannot assure him of that running mate. Even without Bosh or Boozer, having Wade with Rose and Taj Gibson at power forward would look, at least to me, like as good as there is in the East.

But, again, would Wade take so much less money. Some teams have toyed with the idea of an insurance contract for the sixth year in case  a player like Wade is hurt, so he still can collect a big ending season on his contract.

And Wade has been saying there’s more to his free agency life than just basketball, which no one is quite sure about the meaning.

They all talk about winning, but so far everyone who has committed has put themselves in situations to barely make the playoffs or barely advance a round.

James, Wade and Bosh have a chance to be the exceptions. But who goes first and where remain the questions.

So the Bulls and Heat seem in the most potentially exceptional and vulnerable positions. If Wade returns to Miami and brings Bosh with him and the Nets wow Boozer, it’s David Lee, and I’d probably rather stay with Gibson and test out the trade and utility free agent market and build a team.

If Wade and Bosh go to Chicago, making the Bulls the East favorites, Boozer probably is going to New Jersey and Eric Spoelstra likely would be begging Riley to coach.

As Mr. Magorium said, “Your life is an occasion. Rise to it.”

We’ll soon see if anyone will.

Bulls set for final showdown at LeBron’s corral

Talk about your fireworks. This July 4th weekend may be about to produce some huge sparks—and duds—around the NBA as the free agent beauty pageant is about to conclude with LeBron James Saturday closing his series of free agency meetings in Akron with the hometown Cavs and finally the Bulls.

He’s expected to be wearing his best sweatpants.

The big question is whether James is about to issue his own declaration of independence from Cleveland or remain a loyalist. Because, after all, he is the king, or so he says.

The drama ratcheted up Friday as Dwyane Wade had a second meeting with the Bulls, setting off a frenzy of speculation that Wade was perhaps concocting an elaborate power play to seal off James by beating him to Chicago along with Chris Bosh and arranging the super team for Chicago with Bosh and LeBron to join Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.

Wade’s second session with the Bulls kicked off all kinds of wild theories and anonymous source spread certainty that was perhaps appropriate for this basketball madness that is building to a dramatic conclusion.

That should come shortly after this weekend, as James and Wade likely make their decisions. Though it seems several of the major free agents already have made theirs.

Joe Johnson is virtually certain to return to Atlanta for a six-year maximum salary contract.

Rudy Gay has agreed to return to Memphis for an extension larger than anything he could have garnered on the open market.

Amar’e Stoudemire seems headed to New York for the largest deal he could get as his home town Suns declined to fully guarantee the final years of a five-year deal.

What all the apparent agreements had in common is each player took every last penny he could get, which suggests a return to Cleveland for James and a return to Miami for Wade.

So what, exactly, is going on?

From everything I have heard, Wade does not want to play with James. He wants to beat James. He’s had enough of being the other guy despite the one with the championship. So you ask, what was Pat Riley doing almost all day Friday in Akron meeting with James?

It may be what Wade was asking and his own subtle message to Riley, that if you are pursuing James, I can go other places.

As I outlined in my NBA column last Monday on Bulls.com, it would be a brilliant strategic move for Wade to box in James by going to the Bulls with Chris Bosh, with whom Wade seems closest.

Wade, really, fits better with Rose and the Bulls, who lack a shooting guard after giving up Ben Gordon, John Salmons and Kirk Hinrich, while James duplicates Luol Deng’s position. Then you add Bosh with Taj Gibson a backup, and Noah and the Bulls have a loaded top of the rotation.

That also would eliminate Miami for James and he either returns to Cleveland without a supporting cast to match, or goes to New Jersey with maybe Carlos Boozer and tries to dig out from 12 wins.

That, obviously, would be the Bulls’ dream scenario and the one I’ve felt fits best among the grand plans.

A lot of it requires players giving up money to go for wins, which doesn’t seem to be happening anywhere. Could Stoudemire seriously think he’s going to win more with that Knicks’ roster?

I don’t believe that’s what Wade is up to. I believe he was sending a message to Riley to get to work on Bosh. Others believe Wade was more in a stalling tactic to delay and obfuscate the Bulls’ free agency plans.

The latest word is the Raptors don’t want any big sign-and-trade for Bosh, but might take back draft picks only. The big issue for Bosh is he wants the sixth year maximum along with Wade, and the Bulls cannot deliver that to both. They might be able to put together three firsts for a sign-and-trade for Bosh, though Miami might have a slight edge as they own a Toronto first the Raptors would like back from the Jermaine O’Neal deal.

Would Bosh go elsewhere, like Houston, for that sign-and-trade? Most doubt it.

So comes the Bulls, who met with Wade, Bosh, Boozer and David Lee over the last day or so and head into Cleveland to make their pitch to LeBron.

It’s a tenuous one for salary reasons, though no one seems to think James wants or needs the six year maximum salary deal because of who he is and what he can make.

The Bulls’ appeal to James probably rests on persuading him who else they have gotten an assurance from who could team with James to join Rose and Noah.

Frankly, there’s no way James and Wade are going to play with or mesh with Rose, so the presumption is the Bulls have to lock up a commitment from a power forward and show James that would enable him to win and stay ahead of the team Miami has assembled with Wade.

Lurking in the background is the Nets, who have this unusual appeal of the Russian billionaire owner and what vistas that could open for James. They seem like a third option after the Cavs, who officially introduced new coach Byron Scott, and the Bulls.

While the Bulls have their eyes on the big ball heading into Saturday’s final face off, they have to also be considering the alternative and what if James stays. There’s been talk of late Boozer has had interest in the Nets and could go there, which would leave the Bulls grasping for someone like David Lee and an aggressive trading approach that has had them linked to a deal with Portland for Luol Deng and the likes of free agent guards like Mike Miller, whom the Knicks are said to be pursuing to add to Stoudemire, and J.J. Redick.

This is the kind of high stakes poker fit more for Amarillo Slim.

It looks like boom or bust and we’re approaching the final hand.

Hey, it didn’t look good for those rag tag American militia, either. We know the players are going to have a happy 4th. There are no losers with those pay days. We’ll soon find out which teams have reason to celebrate.

Is Dwyane Wade for real and other tall free agent tales

Free agency Day 1: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Yes, I believe that was first written when Charles Dickens was unable to lure the top free agent chimney sweep at the time as he instead moved into a high-rise condo near the Bastille.

This big LeBron free agency is actually becoming a tale of three cities, Chicago, Miami and Cleveland.

Though the big news Thursday, with nothing official until July 8 after the official salary cap figures come in July 7, was the apparent agreement by Joe Johnson to return to the Atlanta Hawks for some $120 million maximum salary and Rudy Gay to remain in Memphis for an extension of more than $80 million.

Unless you have the Hawks and Grizzlies playing in the 2011 Finals, this suggests the first wave of players did what most expected and what many teams with cap room feared—that the players would take the most money and run.

And no one even needed a gub in a holdup.

Sorry, I reference the 60s and 70s and the classics, like Dickens and Woody Allen, at least when he was funny. Dickens actually was quite the humorist himself, as readers know, though it’s still tough to get a good laugh out of the French revolution.

Meanwhile, there was some other free agent money promised, like Drew Gooden—now that’s what the word journeyman means—to the Bucks for apparently a full midlevel exception of about $34 million. Now, if Scott Skiles also wants Tim Thomas then I truly give up.

Johnson was the guy everyone was worrying their team would overspend on with a max five-year contract. And now he’s apparently off the market with a six-year monster deal with the Hawks, who barely got past the Bucks in the first round and were as uncompetitive as anyone ever in the next round against the Magic. The Bulls have long liked the idea of adding Johnson, but never really will get a shot. Johnson apparently will do some perfunctory interviews to say he experienced the process, but he’s back to play before 6,500 fans and hope again to get to the second round.

Heck, Gay hasn’t even been to the playoffs, but I heard he loves watching them. He cancelled his interviews to stay in supposedly cash strapped Memphis for more than he could have gotten on the open market.

Memphis fans have to credit owner Michael Heisley for being so willing to spend and not even for their top producer in a modest sized market with limited consumer support. This is hardly making a great owners’ case that the NBA is in financial trouble and franchises are about to fail. You’d think Memphis had to be among the worst off, and then they go spend like this.

But the worry for teams like the Bulls, Heat, Knicks and Nets has to be that, in the end, the players are going to take the money rather than take a chance on winning somewhere.

The test is soon to come as we’ll see where LeBron, Wade and Bosh, the elite of the market, choose to go and why.

The Bulls have talked with Bosh and have a meeting set. They’ve already met with Wade as well as Carlos Boozer as they’ll make their way through all the top free agents as they head for Akron Saturday and the final LeBron session with his main suitors. James then will talk to the Cavs, who in most eyes crept slightly ahead of the pack with the signing of Byron Scott as coach.

Scott was in line for the Lakers job if Phil Jackson left. But Phil returns for a shot at a third three-peat, and so Scott goes to Cleveland just as it seemed they were about to hire Brian Shaw.

Did LeBron send word? Did Scott get an assurance? No one is saying or seems to know for sure, but Scott fits a profile LeBron has talked about as a former player who will be tough on him and hold him accountable and who has had success. Scott has done well with stars like Jason Kidd and Chris Paul, and Paul is said to be perhaps James’ closest friend in the NBA and supposedly gave James a strong endorsement of Scott.

The speculation began immediately since Scott and Paul remain close that Paul, who has two years left on his contract though he has been the subject of trade rumors, will push for a trade to the Cavs now that he knows the Hornets looked to trade him. It wouldn’t seem the Cavs have enough, but they can add a player with a mid-level deal, give up J.J. Hickson and several first round picks and who knows. You never say never in the NBA.

But the Bulls may have gotten some unexpected good news with a good Thursday session with Dwyane Wade, who sought out the initially reluctant Bulls.

Was he just a spy? Heck, it may have been worth it just for the heart palpitations for Pat Riley.

I wrote about this last Monday, and Wade could make a heck of an end run boxing in James by going to the Bulls with Chris Bosh. Then Miami is out for James and he’d have to stay in Cleveland to have any chance to contend and clearly would be an also ran to Wade/Bosh/Rose/Noah.

New Jersey has suddenly revived with their presentation to James Thursday, and the biggest speculation around the NBA is the mysterious new owner with international billions will just stash away a fortune for James somewhere. Could James seriously talk contending going to a 12-win team moving to Newark? For less money? Really, what is going on!

Wade has to be giving the Chicago scenario some thought if he is serious about winning, and how sweet would it be to outdo James?

If Wade returns to Miami as expected, even with Bosh, if LeBron and, say, Boozer go to Chicago with Rose and Noah, Wade likely would never get back to the Finals and maybe the conference finals. Leaving with Bosh and walling in James would be the strategic move of the year to maybe bury James’s title hopes for the next year. The Bulls were said to be surprisingly upbeat after the Wade session.

But it would cost Wade a fortune since he would forfeit the six-year max and likely that $28 million sixth year pay day as he is 28 now, and even that extra three percent or so Florida doesn’t pay in state taxes.

So we’ll see where he is as well, but a door previously thought closed seems to have opened a bit.

One of my favorite parts of the day was the report when the Nets met first with James that a “Nets source” called the meeting “front runner tremendous.”

This reminds me when my group was the first off when a golf course in Miami had just opened. When we got in, someone asked what the course record was. They said we were the first to play the course so there was none. Yes, for about 15 minutes I had the course record at the Golf Club of Miami with a 94.

The Nets were first in. Of course they were the front runner.

Then came the Knicks with their grand tradition of having won a championship 40 years ago with a bunch of white guys and basically booing out of town the best player they had since, Patrick Ewing. Sure, they’re going to be on top of everyone’s list. The Knicks were said to be pursuing Ray Felton.

And then there was Darko getting $20 million for four years from Minnesota as Gay cancelled his scheduled meeting there. Yes, $20 million for Darko. Then $30 million for Channing Frye. Some $34 million for Amir Johnson. Who? Really, has anyone ever seen Amir play? How many could pick him out of a lineup? Do you think Luol Deng is overpaid now? I expect Deng to ask for renegotiations seeing the productivity of guys getting these contracts.

The Magic were said to be quietly exploring sign-and-trade scenarios for Vince Carter, and I can see why as if they weren’t quiet everyone would laugh out loud.

Day 2 should be even more fun.

Bye, bye Kirk? Hello, LeBron?

The Bulls Thursday on the night of the NBA draft took another step toward the potential recruitment of a top free agent like LeBron James with a tentative trade to send Kirk Hinrich and the No. 17 pick in the draft to the Washington Wizards, sources close to both teams confirmed.

The Wizards would not be sending anything back to the Bulls but absorbing Hinrich into their salary cap room. The trade for the Bulls would be to create additional salary cap space, close to about $31 million now, to perhaps be able to sign two top free agents.

It’s an unprecedented situation in the history of the NBA with teams paying others to take their players, as Miami did Wednesday in giving their No. 1 pick to Oklahoma City so the Thunder would take Daequan Cook. The Bulls also were believed to have sent cash to the Wizards, suggesting the Bulls aren’t backing off or sparing any expense in their pursuit of top free agents.

The pitch then would be to a free agent like James that the Bulls could add another free agent, like Chris Bosh or Joe Johnson, along with James and the current roster of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng.

The not-yet-official-deal puts the Bulls likely in the best position among all the competitors to obtain perhaps the biggest free agent prize of alltime, James.

Only the Knicks now have more salary cap space for free agents than the Bulls, and the Knicks roster is decimated with only Danilo Gallinari, Toney Douglas, Wilson Chandler, Bill Walker and Eddy Curry under contract. It would be a huge stretch to believe the Knicks could be championship contenders with James and even Chris Bosh, especially because Bosh would have to be their principal big man and Bosh doesn’t want to be a center and isn’t known as much of a defensive force.

The Miami Heat also is angling for James. They may be able to trade Michael Beasley for cap space as the Bulls are apparently doing with Hinrich and get enough for two full maximum free agents, which they don’t have yet. But it’s difficult to see James coming to a team with Wade when Wade is a similar wing player and it is Wade’s town and LeBron would be at best a costar.

The Nets and Clippers also are hoping to be contenders, but with the Nets playing in Newark and Clippers’ history they are considered longshots. The move figures to put the Bulls in prime position to appeal to James when a few months back it seemed like an impossibility to everyone.

It’s also possible James could remain in Cleveland, especially because of his hometown ties to the area and his desire to live there in the future. Would he be able to after leaving the city like that?

Still, the Bulls now assuming the deal goes through as believed have put themselves in probably the best position to make the strongest case to James for ultimate championship success as they are just about in position to make offers to another maximum player like Bosh along with James.

It was not the case until the deal for Hinrich. It’s why it’s such a major move even though it seems so one sided as the Bulls, effectively, have the Wizards their first round pick and cash so Washington would take one of the best top players. It seems so one sided on the surface to be ludicrous, but it could be a deal people will be looking back on in the future as one of the great moves like when the Lakers gave away players like George Lynch for nothing in 1996 to create more salary space to sign Shaq.

The Bulls still would need to trade someone like James Johnson to get to just about the full expected $16.5 million starting salary for two veteran free agents like James and Bosh.

There are potential roadblocks, like if both or either want six year full maximum deals as the Bulls, really, no longer would have the players to do a sign and trade and the Raptors and Cavs are unlikely to help the Bulls create a super team in their conference.

But the presumption is the Bulls would explain that even without the sixth year and even if the starting salaries are slightly less than the allowed $16.5 million, the players if the team is hugely successful will more than make it up with current and future sponsors.

The potential complication in the deal is it cannot be completed until July 8 because the Wizards will not officially have the space under the salary cap to absorb Hinrich’s contract until then. There is a moratorium period in the NBA until July 8, after which teams know the value of the salary cap and then can renounce players, like the Wizards are expected to with Josh Howard.

The potential issue, though it is rare that it would occur after sides have agreed, is since the deal cannot be official until July 8, if something were to happen to Hinrich before then, like an injury, the Wizards could theoretically say they do not want to proceed. But that would be unlikely because a team cannot afford to get a reputation in the league that it will back out of deals. If that were to occur, it would be difficult for a team to make trades. So it would be unlikely a team would back out, especially with a new owner, Ted Leonsis.

So why would the Wizards want Hinrich given they are set to draft John Wall No. 1 and have Gilbert Arenas? It’s a legitimate question, though the Wizards were said to like the way Hinrich operated as a sort of mentor to Derrick Rose to keep pressure off Rose as he came into the NBA and feel Hinrich can do the same for Wall. Some do feel Arenas and Wall will be dynamic together and Hinrich would be the perfect third guard.

The Bulls made their No. 17 selection Thursday night for Washington, Kevin Seraphin. It will officially be listed as a Bulls selection.

The Bulls have been in discussions for several weeks, as has been widely speculated, that they were in talks to see if they could deal players for salary cap space.

There was the most interest in Hinrich. The talks with the Wizards were strong earlier in the week, though sources said the Wizards would not commit. The Bulls were then engaged in serious talks with the Sacramento Kings about the same deal, which spurred the Wizards into action early Thursday before the draft.

Though on the surface it looks like a major risk to give up their best defensive player and only backup to Rose plus a solid first round draft pick for a chance at free agents.

But it is truly the only way the team could go if they want to make a serious pitch to someone like James. Now the Bulls can say in addition to All Star Rose and top rebounder Noah, they can have another All Star in addition to, say, James. It’s a highly appealing package for any free agent who would say he wants to win.

With the deal the Bulls aren’t quite at the $33 million under the cap believed to be needed for two maximum free agents. Some top free agents, like David Lee, don’t require a $16.5 million starting salary because they have fewer years. Lee would start a deal at about $12 million, so he’s a possibility as well with James for both to get the full maximum available for players leaving their teams.

The Bulls figure to work on another deal, perhaps trading a future first, like the one they are owed from Charlotte, if someone would take James Johnson. Perhaps Taj Gibson, though you figure the Bulls would want to keep him. Such a deal could get the team within less than $1 million from two max deals. There’s also the possibility into July if teams with salary cap space like, say, the Clippers or the Nets, cannot attract a free agent. Then the Bulls could trade Deng, which could potentially give the Bulls room for two maximum contracts and almost a third, or at least a high salaried veteran.

Again, it’s a risk to lose so many players on your roster for just the right to pursue the top free agents. But it’s a risk you have to take if you are serious about becoming a true basketball superpower again. The Bulls officially dove into the free agent pool aggressively Thursday and hope to emerge in a few weeks with the catch of all time. Thursday’s deal was the best and only way.

Thibodeau wastes no time in setting the tone

New Bulls Head Coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t hesitate when it came down to outlining some of the items he hopes to accomplish in the short-term future. Namely, he discussed setting a tone and establishing goals as his introductory news conference.

“There are five things I think we have to establish right away in terms of who we are,” said Thibodeau. “We’re going to be a defensive team, a rebounding team, a low turnover team, an inside-out team, and an unselfish team. I think that has to be clear and we’re going to establish that right from the start.

“Secondly, you have to build championship habits from the start,” he added. “How you practice and prepare yourself, whether it’s in the weight room, practice court or off the court, I think you should conduct yourself in a certain manner. Being part of this organization is very special and you have to take it seriously.”

For Thibodeau, the announcement of his hiring, which was delayed until his duties as the Boston Celtics Associate Head Coach ended, represented the culmination of his 21 years in the NBA.

“It’s been a long wait for me to get a head coaching job in this league and to be in this city with this team is a dream come true for me,” Thibodeau said.

Thibodeau added that he would not have left Boston if he did not feel Chicago was in a position to become a championship caliber team. He considered several factors, including players, front office and ownership, before making the decision to take the Bulls job. He passed on two other opportunities, with the New Orleans Hornets and New Jersey Nets, he confirmed on Wednesday.

“The thing that stood out to me was how hard they competed,” Thibodeau said of what separated the Bulls, citing Derrick, Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich specifically as he recalled past Chicago and Boston matchups. “They had no fear.”

When asked about his offensive philosophies, Thibodeau stated it will start with the Bulls’ defense and rebounding and getting it into the open floor.

“We’re going to try and attack and take advantage of the strengths of our team,” he said. “We want to get as many easy baskets as possible.”

Thibodeau offered high praise for All-Star guard Derrick Rose, who as a rookie led the Bulls in a historic first-round playoff series against Thibodeau’s Celtics that ended with Boston winning in seven games.

“Derrick Rose is a very special player,” said Thibodeau. “When he’s coming at you with a full head of steam, he’s very difficult to contain. A big part of his growth has to be on the defensive end for him to be a complete player. It starts on the ball if we’re going to be a great defensive team. It starts with him.”

Thibodeau added, “When you look at the future of the team, I think it has everything you would look for—a good, young, nucleus; in position to add through the draft and free agency; it’s a great city. I certainly understand the great tradition and history of the team.”

As far as free agency, league rules prohibit Thibodeau from commenting on the Bulls’ plans and/or targets until July 1. But he spoke as if what happens after that day was somewhat insignificant in terms of his decision to come to Chicago.

“When you take a job, you look at the players that you have,” he said. “That’s what made this job so appealing to me.”

Thibodeau did respond when asked how he might make his pitch for a player to join the Bulls.

“There is a lot to sell here obviously,” he said. “The rich tradition, great city, and a great young nucleus you can build around. There is so much to offer. I can’t imagine why any free agent wouldn’t seriously consider this team.”

In the coming days and weeks, the future of the Bulls will unfold via the NBA Draft and free agency. Thibodeau also has a coaching staff to round out. He has a number of candidates he wants to speak with regarding the openings, some of which are under contract with other teams.

“We’ll put a premium on teaching,” he said of that process, which he hopes will include former Bulls assistant coach Ron Adams, a close personal friend of Thibodeau’s. Another contact of his, Maurice Cheeks, has been mentioned as a possibility.

Audio — General Manager Gar Forman and Head Coach Tom Thibodeau meet the media at the Berto Center (Parts I & II – 06.23.10):