The NBA's most anticipated free-agency period since 2010 kicks off on Tuesday.
The Miami Heat, the league's closest thing to a dynasty of the last four years, could retool and extend their reign over the Eastern Conference, or they could break up if LeBron James decides to leave Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Beyond the Big Three, Carmelo Anthony is the prize, with the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets expected to be frontrunners to pull him away from the New York Knicks, who still hope to re-sign him. The Heat themselves are expected to get in the fray with the hopes of turning the Big Three into a Big Four.
All of this is going to play out over the next few weeks, and there are lots of moving parts that change every day and are nearly impossible to predict. But that doesn't mean we can't try. Ahead of the madness, Sports on Earth teamed with Strat-O-Matic to simulate next season under five different scenarios that could realistically play out over the summer.
Note: The scenarios are presented in order of likelihood.
Scenario 1: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh re-sign with the Miami Heat; Carmelo Anthony joins the Chicago Bulls
Besides the Rockets, the team with the best chance to steal Anthony from the Knicks is the Bulls. Anthony decides to turn down Jackson's max contract offer and join up with Rose, Joakim Noah and Tom Thibodeau. The reloaded Bulls win 58 games, enough to capture the Central Division and the No. 2 seed, behind the 60-win Heat. The Thunder finish with the best record in the league, winning 66 games, with the Spurs, Grizzlies, Rockets and Mavs right behind them.
The Bulls get past the Raptors and the Hawks to meet the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, but Miami triumphs yet again. The Heat go on to lose to the Thunder in seven games in the Finals after Oklahoma City outlasts Memphis in the West finals.
Scenario 2: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh re-sign with the Miami Heat; Carmelo Anthony re-signs with the New York Knicks
In the next scenario, everybody stands pat: James, Wade and Bosh stay in Miami, and Anthony decides that the lure of Phil Jackson and a five-year, $129 million max contract are too much to pass up. The Knicks bounce back from a horrendous 2013-14 season and win their division, and the Heat finish with the best record in the East by a wide margin.
Out west, the Clippers establish themselves as the team to beat, with the Thunder having another strong season as well. The Rockets and Spurs are right there, even though the Rockets struck out on superstar free agents.
After their pivotal free agency decisions, the Heat and Knicks meet in the second round of the playoffs, and the four-time defending Eastern Conference champions handle business in five games. They beat the Nets in the Eastern Conference finals and then sweep the Clippers to capture their third title in four years.
Scenario 3: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh re-sign with the Miami Heat; Carmelo Anthony joins the Houston Rockets
By all indications, the Heat are probably going to stay together. James hasn't even set meetings with any other teams, giving Pat Riley the benefit of the doubt that he's going to retool a roster that desperately needs reinforcements after a five-game Finals drubbing at the hands of the Spurs.
The Rockets are one of Anthony's first visits in free agency. They've declined Chandler Parsons' option and moved Omer Asik to the Pelicans. They're a Jeremy Lin trade away from having the space to fit a third superstar under the cap to pair with James Harden and Dwight Howard. If Daryl Morey times it right, he could snare Anthony and still re-sign Parsons or match any offer sheet.
In our simulation of this scenario, the Heat and Rockets finished with the best records in their respective conferences and met in the Finals. The Bulls, despite losing the Melo sweepstakes, put together a 52-win season on the back of a once-again-healthy Derrick Rose, and the Raptors repeat as Atlantic Division champions.
The Bulls lose in the first round to the Wizards for the second straight year, and the Wizards advance all the way to the Eastern Conference finals before falling to the Heat. More surprisingly, the defending champion Spurs get knocked out in the first round by the Mavericks, who go on to lose to the Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals. The Thunder fall short yet again. Ultimately, the Big Three from Texas defeat the Big Three from Florida in the Finals. Anthony finally gets the ring he left the Knicks to chase.
Scenario 4: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh re-sign with the Miami Heat; Carmelo Anthony joins them
The Heat are going to make a play for Anthony to join their three superstars, but even Pat Riley has admitted it's a pipe dream. Still, it's not impossible if all four take pay cuts. A James-Wade-Bosh-Anthony Big Four make an unstoppable offensive unit, but the defensive issues that presented themselves in the 2014 Finals wouldn't be solved. But in the weak Eastern Conference, the Heat still win 61 games and sweep the Clippers in the Finals.
Scenario 5: LeBron James signs with the Houston Rockets; Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh re-sign with the Miami Heat; Carmelo Anthony signs with the Chicago Bulls
It seems extremely unlikely that Wade and Bosh are going anywhere. Wade is as synonymous with Miami as Kobe Bryant is with Los Angeles, or Tim Duncan with San Antonio, or Dirk Nowitzki with Dallas. Bosh, meanwhile, has said repeatedly that he's willing to take a pay cut to stay in Miami. But if they can't get outside help to LeBron's satisfaction, he could go elsewhere. Houston would be a better fit for him than it would be for Melo. Having traded Omer Asik to New Orleans last week, the Rockets have no capable defenders outside of Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley, so James would be a game-changer.
In this scenario, the Rockets dominate the West, finishing with a league-best 66-16 record. The loss of James further depletes the Eastern Conference's talent pool, with no team winning more than 53 games (Chicago and Brooklyn), and the Heat finishing below .500, which is still good enough for the eighth seed. Melo's Bulls and LeBron's Rockets meet in the Finals, with Houston winning in six games.
These projections are only some of the ways this month's free agency could play out. The Lakers hope to score meetings with LeBron and Melo, but with no coach and a roster severely lacking in talent, that's a long shot at best. Riley would have to screw up royally for James to actually leave Miami, and in all likelihood, Melo's decision will come down to either the Bulls or the Knicks. Let the madness begin.
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Strat-O-Matic, based in Glen Head, N.Y., and on the Internet at www.strat-o-matic.com, manufactures the top-selling sports board games and is the leading producer of realism/stats sports digital games. The Company publishes baseball, football, basketball and hockey games to play both on and off your computer and mobile screens. "Strat-O" games are known throughout the sports community for their statistical realism and accuracy. The Company has the world's greatest sports game stat libraries with top-of-the-line seasons dating back to the early 1900s.