The smart money is still on Miami.
But from Houston to Los Angeles to Chicago, Cleveland, New York and spots in between, they want to land LeBron James. And they're all underdogs.
There are factors he will weigh that couldn't be clearer, elements of The Decision, Part II that will most certainly play a part in the outcome. A look at a few of the questions that must be answered before we can more accurately predict where James winds up:
How badly does he want to play with Carmelo Anthony?
As USA TODAY Sports first reported June 10, James has a desire to play with his friend and fellow member of the 2003 draft. Anthony, who has informed the New York Knicks that he also will be opting out of his contract, has never been a free agent and could join forces with James to make up two of a new Big Three somewhere outside of Miami. The Los Angeles Lakers have been eyeing this scenario for quite some time and even took their time in their ongoing coaching search as a way of leaving every option open come free agency time.
If James wants to go for the high-scale rebuild, he'll head for Los Angeles with Anthony to help Kobe Bryant put the franchise back on its feet. The Lakers could execute a pre-emptive strike, perhaps trading their No. 7 pick and point guard Steve Nash for a high-quality player before Thursday's draft and thus sending a message that they're serious about this pitch.
James and Anthony could meet in Miami, too, but that route would require the sort of financial sacrifices never before seen among NBA stars. That would include Heat stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who would also need to opt out and agree to make significantly less.
How much does James value the blank-check approach?
It's no secret that James was not a fan of the Heat's decisions to use the amnesty provision on guard Mike Miller last summer and trade big man Joel Anthony in January. For right or for wrong, they were seen as the kind of cost-cutting moves that might have ultimately compromised the Heat's ability to three-peat.
The ripple effect happens now, as teams that are hopeful of attracting James' attention will make the blank-check component part of their pitch. That goes for the Lakers, who stubbornly refused to trade forward Pau Gasol in February for a second-round pick in part because it would have sent the damning message to players such as James that they had become a cheap organization.
What does James think of Pat Riley's latest pitch?
Rival general managers who can't woo free agents until Tuesday are having to read the tea leaves just like everyone else for now, and it's safe to assume it got their attention when the Heat president challenged James last week in the wake of Miami's loss in the Finals.
James might well understand the wisdom behind Riley's words and agree that making it work in Miami is the way to go.
Or, as some who are wishing he'd come their way have surmised, he could perhaps see it as some sort of slight regarding the way he left Cleveland four summers ago.
This much is clear: With the Heat's average age surpassing even that of the San Antonio Spurs last season, Riley must convince James that the support system that wasn't there at the end will be there in the form of high-quality role players next season.
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