MIAMI — The rumor mill is in overdrive, with nuggets such as these: LeBron James has looked at schools in Los Angeles, he’s not particularly fond of Houston and he’s hugging restaurant diners in Miami.
Ah, free agency is back.
It technically starts Sunday at 12:01 a.m. in the East, 9:01 p.m. Saturday out West, but is already well underway everywhere in the sense that everybody is talking about what might happen. James is once again the biggest domino that will fall. He may opt out of his contract, but that doesn’t mean he’ll leave Cleveland — and he may opt in for nearly $36 million next season, but that doesn’t mean he’s certain to be staying, either.
Boston guard Kyrie Irving has a word for these days: Pre-agency.
“That’s actually a title to describe what’s going on now,” Irving said. “But yeah, we know that 12 a.m. July 1st, that’s when it just starts getting nutty.”
James is hardly the only person who will create that nuttiness.
Paul George has a decision to make about his future — stay in Oklahoma City or move on, with the Los Angeles Lakers believed to be his dream destination. San Antonio has big decisions to make about Kawhi Leonard. They can take a risk and keep him for the final year of his contract, offer him a new deal or trade him elsewhere.
And what happens in their cases will surely impact what James does, much in the same way the Chris Bosh decision in 2010 helped really pave the way for him to go to Miami.
Thing is, nobody knows what’ll happen. Hence, the intrigue.
“That’s the challenge in this league,” James said during the NBA Finals, when his Cavaliers were swept by Golden State. “I think every GM and every president and every coaching staff is trying to figure out how they can make up the right matchups to compete for a championship and win a championship.”
The Los Angeles Lakers will have about $61 million in cap space. Half the league might not have any. So this summer, with cap space for most teams at a premium, the biggest moves might have to come through trades.
“There has been a lot of discussion with a lot of teams about a lot of players,” Heat President Pat Riley said. “I just feel there’s a restlessness on the part of teams, and also there’s a reluctance to do things. ... It’s hard to pull the trigger on that kind of thing.”
Golden State’s Kevin Durant will be a free agent in name only — he’s already said he’s returning to the Warriors. Golden State will spend free agency bolstering its bench, and the best team in the NBA should be better in the next couple of weeks.
All that’s left to decide there is what terms Durant wants.
“Whatever he wants,” Golden State general manager Bob Myers said. “Sometimes you don’t negotiate. ... He’s earned the right to sign whatever deal he wants. I just want him to sign ‘a’ deal. I want him to be happy and want him to know that we want him as long as he wants to be here. He’s earned that, to kind of lay out the terms.”
Philadelphia isn’t tampering, but isn’t being shy: Both coach Brett Brown and newly minted rookie of the year Ben Simmons have come out this offseason and said how much a great veteran will help their team.
“Maybe that is a free agent, a big free agent who we can lean on and learn from,” Simmons said.
He didn’t say “LeBron,” but sure sounds like James.
Houston will look to add James as well in an effort to find the formula that will supplant the Warriors. The Rockets nearly ousted Golden State in the Western Conference finals, wasting double-digit leads in both Game 6 and Game 7 of that series — all while Chris Paul, who seems likely to stay in Houston but could choose to leave, was sidelined with a bad hamstring.
But Rockets star James Harden, the NBA’s MVP, didn’t sound like he would be clamoring for James to come to Houston.
“I don’t think there is a piece that we need to bring in or take away,” Harden said. “We’re great with what we have.”
Miami is the place where James left Cleveland for once before, and it’s clear that he still enjoys South Florida. And the rumors about him and the Lakers have swirled for some time, though Lakers President Magic Johnson — perhaps offering a word of caution — said the rebuild of his team will take two summers.
“We don’t know what people are going to decide to do and we can’t control that,” Johnson said. “So if guys decide not to come here, it’s not a failure. We turn to next summer. Next summer, if nobody comes and I’m still sitting here like this, then it’s a failure.”
James isn’t looking to fail. But until he decides where he can win, everyone waits.
AP sports writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this story.
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