Knicks Become Front-Runners in LeBron James Sweepstakes

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Knicks Become Front-Runners in LeBron James Sweepstakes We’ve been waiting for months now — years, maybe — to find out what will happen this summer in the sweepstakes to sign LeBron James after his contract with the Cavaliers expires.

And while many continue to maintain that LeBron staying put in Cleveland is the simplest and most logical answer, events around the league keep suggesting that the simple solution might not be the prevailing one.

Occam’s razor, right? The simplest solution is usually the best one. And with LeBron being a homegrown Ohio hero with seven productive seasons in a Cavs uniform under his belt, it would be easy for him to stay in Cleveland and strive to become a champion there. But the allure of the bigger market, of the endorsement dollars flowing through the big cities, of the “global icon” status he so badly wants, are calling to LeBron more loudly than ever.

The past week has not made matters any simpler. In the days and hours leading up to the trade deadline, three huge-market teams made moves to improve their financial flexibility going forward. If you wade through the contract clauses and all the salary-cap math, you eventually arrive at the truth: The race for LeBron this summer is going to be very, very competitive.

The Knicks are the headliners in the race. With around $30 million on the books for the 2010-11 season heading into the deadline, the Knicks needed to make a big move to free up the room to sign multiple max-caliber free agents. They wanted a shot at not just LeBron, but also LeBron and Dwyane Wade, or LeBron and Chris Bosh. And they needed a big move to get out from under the financial burden of paying Jared Jeffries and Eddy Curry, two historically bad contracts that Isiah Thomas made to hamstring the franchise for years to come.

They pulled the trigger on a big deal, letting go of both Jeffries and lottery pick Jordan Hill to land Tracy McGrady‘s expiring deal in preparation for the offseason. In order to make a run at LeBron and another max guy this summer, the Knicks will probably also have to renounce their rights to David Lee in order to free up still more salary-cap room. They’ve essentially given up two brilliant young talents, Hill and Lee, just for a shot at LeBron and his buddies in the summer. They’re going for broke, and they won’t go away quietly.

Then you have the Clippers. With their season likely a lost cause as No. 1 pick Blake Griffin watches from the bench in street clothes, the Clips decided to rebuild for next season. They dumped Marcus Camby and Sebastian Telfair last week in exchange for expiring contracts, and they’ll have about $16 million more salary cap room than expected. That’s enough to make a serious run at LeBron. There’s no reason King James wouldn’t at least consider playing with a group of promising young players including Griffin and Eric Gordon. That is an immediate Finals contender with LeBron in the fold, even in the competitive Western Conference.

The Bulls look just as competitive. They unloaded John Salmons to the Bucks and Tyrus Thomas to the Bobcats last Thursday, and they now have under $32 million on the payroll for next season, and a strong nucleus of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng still in place. It’s definitely possible to become a global icon while playing in a Bulls uniform. In fact, we’ve seen it before. The Bulls now have the cap room to take a serious look at signing a max deal this summer, and they’re yet another big-market team that could become a powerhouse once they dole out the cash for one more marquee player.

These are three teams that will be serious contenders for LeBron’s services this summer, and none of them looked nearly as strong financially before the events of last week. The trade deadline in the NBA does a lot more than just shake up the playoff picture. It shakes things up for July more than it does for June.

The Cavs themselves made a big move at the deadline, trading for a productive power forward for the stretch run in Antawn Jamison. But ultimately, the deadline deals with the biggest impact on Cleveland’s future might be the ones that everyone else made.

Are the Cavs still the front-runners for LeBron? You could argue yes, but the smart money’s on the Knicks now. With all that cap space and all that big city appeal, it’s going to be hard for King James to turn that down.

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