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NBA landscape to look very different

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Bill Reiter

Bill Reiter reported on LeBron James' first season in Miami and has covered the NBA Finals, Super Bowl, Olympics and NCAA tournament for FOXSports.com. He also co-hosts Hawkins and Reiter on FOX Sports Radio (Sundays, 12-3 p.m. ET), which can be heard on the FOX Sports App, iHeartRadio, XM247 or your local station. Previously, he was an award-winning sports enterprise writer for the Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter.

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Decipherable there in the Memphis Grizzlies’ decision to ship off their bench depth one week and leading scorer Rudy Gay the next, and in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s choice this preseason to trade budding superstar James Harden, are glimpses of how the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement will likely reshape the NBA.

If you look closely enough at the possibilities — if you glimpse underneath the surface of the new CBA’s punishing luxury and repeat offender tax, at a possible 2014 free-agency bonanza, at the way stars now dictate their fates in chasing titles and at how the league’s general managers are trying to discern exactly how this new world will work — some striking things come into focus.

First and foremost among them: LeBron James in a Cleveland Cavaliers or Los Angeles Lakers jersey.

Murky as the future is under the new system, three teams are positioned to be dominant players going forward despite how radically the luxury tax could affect decision-making, and despite how deep the 2014 free-agency class could be: the Thunder, the Los Angeles Clippers and whichever team — and it is unlikely to be the Miami Heat — acquires LeBron’s services.

The second-tier teams? Probably whoever lands Dwight Howard this summer and whichever teams successfully cobble together 2014’s free-agency scraps.

There are a lot of complicated and uncertain moving parts here. No one knows exactly how the luxury tax — a figure that should be between $70 million and $72 million next year — will or will not deter deep-pocketed teams from hoarding stars. Many believe the repeat tax (applied to teams that go over the luxury-tax amount during this CBA’s first three years and, afterward, three out of every four years) will be punitive enough to force teams such as the Heat, Knicks, Nets and Lakers to shed at least one big contract per team.

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It’s also hard to get into the heads of stars and superstars and predict who will take the money at that moment, who will bet on opting out in exchange for a longer-term deal, and who will sacrifice one or both for a better shot at a title.

Kobe Bryant, Danny Granger, Luol Deng, Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol are among those slated to be unrestricted free agents. Players who could opt out of their contacts a year from this summer will include LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Zach Randolph and others.

Yet many of those players, because of the new CBA and where they’ll be at in their careers, are likely to stay put, which in turn will limit who can go after LeBron, where he’s likely to go and which other teams will be best positioned for the NBA’s Brave New World.

Among the most interesting possibilities:

1. LeBron leaves Miami.

Next summer, LeBron James will have the option to opt out of his contract with the Heat, as will Wade and Bosh. Staying in Miami would net each of them more than $20 million next season and about $41 million over two years. And for Wade, in particular, it’s hard to see him finding a suitor willing to offer him a long-term, max deal nearly two years from now that would entice him to leave Miami.

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Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony will have similar player options next season for $6.6 million, $4.6 million and $3.8 million, respectively.

That means, if LeBron stayed to play with Wade and Bosh in 2014-15, he’d be on a team in repeat-tax territory with presumably six players owed approximately $76 million and a lot of roster spots yet to be filled. LeBron’s hopes for more titles would rest with an even older, less capable Wade, a Bosh who still rebounds poorly, and a team not nearly as well-stocked as this year’s. And that’s assuming the Heat are willing to accept the price of keeping those three guys together under the new system.

LeBron being LeBron — the best on earth, and hungry for more championships — he’s likely to make the smart move and move on.

A few places that in the past might have exploited this fact will be in their own luxury-tax hell. The Knicks will have $50 million committed to guys like Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd and Marcus Camby. If 'Melo decides to stick around for $23.5 million, and he might, there’s no space for LeBron. The Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls are similarly hamstrung.

But not the Lakers. And not the Cavs.

If Dwight Howard re-signs with the Lakers this offseason, they would have only Dwight and Steve Nash under contract heading into the 2014-15 season. That would create a world where LeBron might decide donning the purple and gold, pairing with Howard and using the remaining cap space and whatever luxury obligations the Lakers are willing to accept poses his best chance to become the greatest basketball player of all time.

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The Cavaliers will have cap space and a budding superstar in Kyrie Irving, a 20-year-old point guard who will be playing on his rookie contract until 2015 and is already close to LeBron. They’d also have room to maneuver and try to attract some of those free agents, perhaps older and thus cheaper help from people like Pierce, Dirk, Pau or whoever wants to finish a career playing with a LeBron-Irving axis.

The general feeling in the league is that LeBron will return to Cleveland. Yes, when it’s time for LeBron to seriously ponder his future the idea of repairing the damage done there will probably be very appealing. But beyond that is the stark choice that LeBron will have in choosing who he wants to play with as he chases his legacy and the championships he needs to enhance it — particularly as he approaches his 30th birthday.

Here are some of his choices:

* Play with a very expensive, even older, less-effective version of Wade; an equally-pricey Bosh; and a team otherwise impinged by the new CBA and perhaps leaning heavily on league-minimum scraps to fill out the roster.

* Play with Irving and Anderson Varejao on a team with cap room to build around them.

* Play with Dwight Howard, a very old Steve Nash and whoever LeBron and Dwight can then entice to Los Angeles with all that remaining cap space. (And, yes, this would exacerbate the question of what becomes of Kobe after his Lakers’ contract expires next season — where he plays, how much he makes, what role he accepts and whether it's points and playing time or rings he covets to close out his illustrious career.)

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So, yes, LeBron will have choices. But Miami shouldn’t be one of them. If the Big Three stays, LeBron is saddled with lesser stars. And if for some reason Wade and Bosh opt to leave, LeBron could not attract any combination of free agents more compelling than what Cleveland or a Lakers team with Howard could offer elsewhere.

LeBron may have been mocked for saying “Not one, not two, not three … not seven,” but that’s probably his goal. That should be his goal. And since his basketball IQ is as impressive as his God-given ability, he’ll probably understand all of this and leave.

He may have proclaimed what he wants in Miami, but his best shot of getting titles after next season will be somewhere else.

2. The Thunder get better relative to the rest of the league.

Oklahoma City has somehow managed to lock up its core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka (average age of 23) without crossing into luxury-tax territory. That’s in large part because they said goodbye to Harden, but the Thunder will still have Nick Collison at a very low price and Kendrick Perkins under contract through 2014-15. Throw in the three young, cheap players (Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones and Reggie Jackson) the Thunder are trying to develop, the two first-round and one second-round picks the team got for Harden and the space that could be there if they choose to pay a luxury-tax penalty, and general manager Sam Presti has them as well-positioned as anyone.

They’ll have to make decisions on Kevin Martin after this season and Thabo Sefolosha after next season, yes, but the Thunder have shown they can make tough decisions about the future while not wholly gutting the present. They are perhaps the best team in the NBA, and they certainly are better positioned for the future than anyone else. That’s a strong combination.

3. The Clippers — if they don’t screw up the Chris Paul re-signing — also improve drastically compared to the league-wide curve.

If the Clippers re-sign Chris Paul this summer — and they should — they’ll be in a position very similar to the Thunder. They’d have a core of Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan under contract, an affordable player in Jamal Crawford and some remaining maneuverability under the cap. They also have this season and next to acquire assets if they trade Caron Butler or Eric Bledsoe, a free agent and a player with a qualifying offer heading into the 2014-15 season, respectively.

Like the Thunder, the Clippers have built one of the best teams in the league without exposing themselves to the kind of luxury- and repeat-tax territory that could lead an owner to pull the plug or force the trade of a key player. That puts them far ahead of the Knicks and the Nets, and perhaps even the Heat, especially if LeBron opts out and Wade and Bosh do stay.

Other teams could be in a strong position to capitalize as the NBA shifts under these new rules. Several general managers believe the Pacers and Jazz have the pieces to get themselves to a position of strength by next summer, and the Bulls have their core of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer (but not Deng) under contract for several years. To my eye the Knicks and Nets are buried under big contracts that could weigh on them as the CBA’s punitive measures kick in, but perhaps each team’s owner has a higher threshold for that kind of financial pain than we think.

If the Lakers keep Howard, they’re in great shape. If they don’t, they have a ton of cap room — almost all of it — to make decisions about Kobe and who else to cobble together if they somehow miss out on Dwight and LeBron.

If Dwight leaves, the team that gets him — Houston or Dallas or Atlanta — could also be in very strong shape.

The NBA is changing, and despite the uncertainty and high stakes behind it, we’ve had glimpses of what it will look like, and how stars (Harden) and depth and dark-horse championship status (Memphis) must be sacrificed for what’s ahead.

Few things are certain, and we’ll have to see if the CBA modifies the behavior of the richer teams the way it was intended to.

If it does — even a little — the league is going to look much different, most likely with LeBron in a new jersey and the league’s smallest-market team situated as one of its longest-lasting, surest success stories.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.

Tagged: Bulls, Cavaliers, Rockets, Clippers, Lakers, Heat, Nets, Knicks, Thunder, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Nick Collison, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, James Harden

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