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On the Free Agency Bubble

In late February and early March, there are always about a hundred college basketball teams who think they have a legitimate shot to get into the NCAA tournament.  The trouble is, there are only 65 bids available, and only 34 at-large bids.  And less than two days from the start of 2010 NBA free agency, I can't help but think about those NCAA bubble teams.

Here's the thing.  In the constant stream of analysis about 2010 free agency, I have yet to see a basic breakdown of supply and demand.  And it turns out, it's not a pretty picture for the teams in the market for players.  Some of them aren't going to get invited to the big dance.

Let's look at the demand side first.  There are five teams that are most commonly discussed as being ready to make a maximum offer  to a free agent whose name rhymes with LeSchmon Schmames.  Those five are the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Clippers.

But in addition to those five teams, there are at least two others with big bankrolls.  Neither Sacramento nor Minnesota are discussed in the context of LeBron, despite the fact that they are each very close to having enough money under the salary cap to make a maximum offer.  Of course, LeBron is believed to want to go to a bigger market if he leaves Cleveland, so in that sense neither Sacramento nor Minneapolis makes sense. But they certainly have the money to be in the market for one of the other big name free agents this summer.

Washington also had a ton of cap space, but ate into it with their deal for Kirk Hinrich last week.

Speaking of Hinrich, by dealing him Chicago has entered the ranks of the multiple free agent hopefuls, joining the Knicks in looking for two big signees, while the Heat would dearly love to sign THREE superstars.  For the time being I won't quibble over the fact that the Bulls don't really have enough money to sign two max deals, nor do the Heat have enough to sign three.  They have a lot, and they could sign players for huge amounts, even if they weren't all maximum deals necessarily.  Moreover, if Chicago had an agreement in principal with LeBron and Chris Bosh contingent on clearing the space to pay each of them the maximum, they'd have that deal done quicker than you can say "Luol Deng and a future first rounder to the Clippers."

So let's say for now that there are three spots in Miami and two in Chicago and add up the demand side:

Heat 3

Knicks 2

Bulls 2

Nets 1

Clippers 1

Kings 1

Wolves 1

That's a total of 11 big name free agents that would be necessary to satisfy all those shoppers.  So what do we have on the supply side?

Obviously, there's only one LeBron James, but we all know it's an historic free agent market, with multiple MVPs and Finals MVPs available.  There must be plenty to go around, right?

Sure enough, this list on HoopsHype goes exactly 11 deep with coveted free agents.  In order, they list:

  1. LeBron James
  2. Dwyane Wade
  3. Yao Ming
  4. Chris Bosh
  5. Dirk Nowitzki
  6. Amare Stoudemire
  7. Joe Johnson
  8. Carlos Boozer
  9. Rudy Gay
  10. David Lee
  11. Paul Pierce

So 11 big names and 11 salary slots for the big money teams.  Everyone goes home happy, right?  Well, not so fast. 

For one thing, several of these players have options for the coming season.  Although it isn't official yet, it's an open secret that James and Wade and Bosh will opt out of the final year of their contracts.  However, it's far from certain that Yao and Dirk and Pierce will do the same.

But there's another problem as well.  The collective bargaining agreement allows teams to go over the salary cap to sign their own free agents.  So by introducing the specific names into the discussion, we introduce an equal number of new suitors on the demand side (except in the cases of Wade and Lee, whose teams are already under the cap).  Any number of these players, including LeBron, could choose to re-sign with their current team.  In our NCAA tournament analogy, that would be a little like a poor team unexpectedly winning a conference tournament - they get the automatic berth, leaving an additonal team battling for a fixed number of at large bids.

The whole situation is of course further complicated by possible sign and trade scenarios.  The simple fact of the matter is, almost anything can happen.  But what would we expect to happen?

The best guess is that Yao, Dirk and Pierce will re-sign with their current teams, reducing the number of big name prizes by three.  In addition, given that up to six of the remaining eight could change the math by going back to their current team, there's a good chance that at least one of them will do just that (LeBron and restricted free agent Rudy Gay seem like candidates). 

If that were to happen, you'd be looking at the possibility of seven teams, with room for 11 high paid players, battling over just seven available stars.  If all the stars use the buddy system and end up going to Miami, Chicago and New York, that leaves four teams with the money to pay maximum free agents, and no one to spend it on.

Or turn that scenario over - what happens if one of the teams with enough room for multiple players gets completely snubbed?  There's a school of thought that says this is exactly what will happen to the Knicks.  If LeBron doesn't go to New York, who will?  The team made itself so bad that it would be pure hubris for anyone other than the league MVP to think they could turn it around.  Not to mention, who wants to be the second choice of a bunch of rabid New Yorkers who were sold multiple seasons of losing by design for the express purpose of getting LeBron James?  They didn't suffer through Al Harrington just to embrace Joe Johnson as the savior.  It could get ugly in Gotham.

It's important for all of these teams, including the Clippers, to remember that they don't have to spend their money on a single player.  Little known fact, they don't have to spend their money at all.  At least the Clippers are in a position to field a team if they whiff on the free agency market - the same can't really be said for the Knicks and the Heat and the Bulls.

No one really knows what's going to happen.  Depending on who you listen to, any number of things are 'done deals'.  Only problem is, those 'done deals' are all mutually exclusive.

If I had to predict (reverse mojo alert) here's what I would guess is going to happen (in order of most likely to least likely):

  • LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will NOT be teammates next season.  To me this has always been the most obvious conclusion about this free agency class.  Dwyane Wade led the NBA in usage last season.  LeBron James was second.  I hope that each of them is self aware enough to realize that it wouldn't work - that one or both of them would have to give up a tremendous number of touches and share the spotlight.  It ain't happening.
  • Dwyane Wade will re-sign in Miami.  They've treated him well.  He's been an accomplice in the 'clear the decks' strategy, so although the team around him has been pretty terrible the last few years, he seems to have faith that  Pat Riley and Micky Arison will someday succeed in putting some decent pieces around him.
  • James and Bosh will pair up in Chicago.  It seems like somebody was sending a pretty clear message to the Bulls that they needed to make some more cap space.  I'm much less confident in the predictions after the Wade in Miami thing, but this is my best guess.
  • Stoudemire will join Wade in South Beach.  Boozer has always been on Riley's radar, but Stoudemire is younger and longer and I think Miami will be the most attractive desitination after the Bulls are done.  They'll pick Stoudemire, and Stoudemire will accept.
  • Miami will NOT be able to sign a third marquee name.  They'll use their remaining cap space to re-sign Udonis Haslem, and HOPE that they can find someone better than Joel Anthony to play some center.
  • The Knicks will sign Carlos Boozer and re-sign David Lee.  The Knicks will be desperate to sign SOMEBODY and will overpay to not get frozen out.  Boozer proved once before that it's all about the money for him so he'll take their money and walk into the MSG lion's den.  Lee has already been there, and is well-liked by the New York fans, so re-signing him at least helps to salvage the situation a little.  The Knicks starting lineup for next season becomes Toney Douglas, Bill Walker, Danilo Gallinari, Carlos Boozer and David Lee.  Their bench is a bunch of guys playing at Rucker.  That's what you waited two full years for, New York fans.
  • Joe Johnson will accept a full maximum offer from the Nets.  With Devin Harris at the point, Brook Lopez at center and number three overall pick Derrick Favors at power forward, the Nets need wings, and once James and Wade make it clear that they won't be playing in Newark, New Jersey will throw a ton of ruples at Johnson.  Johnson proved to be pretty mercenary when he left Phoenix for Atlanta - he'll take it.
  • Gay is the least impressive of the names on the list.  Think of it this way - the Grizzlies didn't extend him when they had the chance.  There aren't a lot of names on that list you can say that about.  Since he's a restricted free agent now, teams will have to overpay in order to sign him or else the Grizzlies will just match.  Nonetheless, someone will blink as they watch the other guys getting snapped up.  I dearly hope it's not the Clippers who blink, but I fear it might be.

Frankly, the Clippers would be much better off eschewing the big signing, and looking to build the roster with multiple smaller signings.  Especially in the case of RFA Gay; the Grizzlies would have seven days to match.  If the Clippers had their cap space tied up in Gay for a week in a last ditch effort to sign a big name this summer, they'd likely lose any chance of signing the solid mid-range players that are probably their better long term options.  If the Grizzlies then matched at the end of a week, the Clippers would be left with nothing.

Not even an invitation to the NIT.