Free agency: LeBron, Melo and Bosh
1. Are you buying a LeBron return to Cleveland?
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: Not really. If LeBron's main wish is to continue to compete at a high level, it's hard to argue that Cleveland is the spot to offer him that. That's not to say that eventually the Cavs can't get to that level, as Kyrie Irving mends bad habits and Andrew Wiggins continues to develop, but if we're being frank, this team with LeBron probably isn't ready to compete for a conference title, let alone an NBA championship. And that's not even getting into "The Letter."
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: I'm buying the idea of it. If there's any place he can go and not be labeled a championship chaser, it's Cleveland, because it's near home. But I'm not buying the idea of LeBron forgiving Dan Gilbert this quickly or that he would leave his buddy Dwyane Wade out to dry after he opted out of $40-plus million over the next two years. Nor am I necessarily buying LeBron's faith in a new GM and coach in Cleveland.
Dave McMenamin, ESPNLosAngeles.com: Yes. When he initially bolted for Miami, I likened it to a kid growing up in the same place all his life and choosing to go to college far away from home. It's a healthy desire. It expands your universe. But once you sow your oats, going home has a strong appeal. Plus, Cleveland has young talent to work with, and if he can manage to deliver a title to the Cavs, James will make up for "The Decision" and then some (even though "The Decision" wasn't all that bad considering everyone chooses to ignore that it raised $2.5 million for charity). Winning another ring in Ohio would patch up the negative public perception of him that started with that TV special.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com: Not really. They can't offer him the most money, the team stinks, it's a market free agents don't go to, and the team's owner bad-mouthed him on the way out. Other than that, it makes all the sense in the world.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Not really. But if we've learned anything by now about the free-agency craze, it's to avoid completely ruling anything out. Is it possible LeBron goes back to Cleveland? Sure. Just like it's possible Carmelo walks away from $50 million in New York to join LeBron in Miami. Remember that storyline? Seems like ages ago now.
2. Where is Chris Bosh's best fit?
Elhassan: Miami, provided LeBron comes back. The world wants to panic, but a month ago, the Heat looked on track to win a third consecutive title. There was a point this season when Miami led the league in passes per offensive possession -- the trait for which everyone praised the Spurs. This was not a bad, mediocre or even good team; it was one of the best. The Heat definitely need improving, but the hysteria surrounding their worth as a unit is preposterous.
Gutierrez: A lot of places. That's the beauty of Bosh's versatile game. He can fit in Houston as a stretch 4 next to Dwight Howard. He can fit in Los Angeles as the Lakers' secondary scoring option. He can fit in Chicago as an upgrade from Carlos Boozer. Or he can fit in Miami, where he will probably be looked at as more of an offensive option in coming seasons.
McMenamin: Wherever LeBron is playing. As soon as he teamed up with James, Bosh made four straight Finals appearances and won two rings. Staying in Miami with James should be his top priority. If that becomes unrealistic because of James leaving, Bosh should seriously consider returning to his home state of Texas to play in Houston alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden to form another big three.
Strauss: The Rockets are the best fit rosterwise. Howard would protect the rim and spare Bosh the more bruising defensive assignments. When Howard sits, Bosh bombs 3-pointers from the 5-spot in keeping with Daryl Morey's 3-pointer-heavy approach. Houston seems like a great place for a lot of players to be, save for the part where you're constantly dangled in trade rumors.
Wallace: In all honesty, it's Houston. He would be a perfect fit as a stretch power forward alongside Howard. Bosh is already accustomed to playing as a third option, so it wouldn't be a foreign concept to initially defer to Howard and James Harden. Houston makes all the sense in the world, aside from a return to Miami. But Bosh, a Dallas native, once jokingly told me he's done with the Lone Star State. Plus he says he's "got some crazy cousins in Houston" he needs to stay away from.
3. Could a team built around Carmelo and Kobe contend in the West?
Elhassan: Have you taken a look at the Western Conference? The Warriors, Mavericks, Rockets and Grizzlies are all deep, talented and young -- and those were the teams that were bounced in the first round! The Nuggets, Suns and Pelicans are competitive and up-and-coming -- and they didn't make the playoffs! A Kobe-Melo Lakers squad would have to fill out the remaining 11 roster spots with roughly $25 million. That's not enough to field a roster that can contend for a championship out West.
Gutierrez: Sure. It just depends on who's around them. They would need a rim protector and floor spacers to give them room to operate. It wouldn't be ideal, especially in the first season while they attempt to figure one another out, but it's possible. With the Clippers, Thunder, Rockets and Spurs all potentially improving, though, I wouldn't bet on that duo this season.
McMenamin: If Bryant is back at 100 percent and that team also has Pau Gasol, a healthy Julius Randle and a host of talented, veteran-minimum guys taking pay cuts to jump on board to try to win it all, sure. They wouldn't be the favorite with teams like San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Portland, Golden State, Houston and the Clippers looking how they're currently constructed, but the Lakers would find a way to win a bunch of games and maybe even put a scare into a contender in the postseason, kind of like the Brooklyn Nets last season.
Strauss: Not really, but the Lakers should still pitch Melo. Right now they don't have anything to build on, and getting that first big star can help you lure some others. (Kobe at this age and health is only a nominal star.) Anthony isn't a perfect player, but L.A. doesn't have the luxury of choice. It's crazy to think of the Lakers like this, but beggars can't be choosers.
Wallace: Yes, especially if Gasol finds a way to return. A starting core of Steve Nash, Kobe, Carmelo, Randle and Gasol would certainly be interesting. Of course, their biggest challenge is to find depth on the bench and to avoid injuries to the AARP portion of the roster. I see contender, not championship material just yet in the wild West.
4. If Melo leaves, where do the Knicks go from here?
Elhassan: Bide their time for a year, cash in on a rare first-round pick and use their cap space to target marquee players who could fit the triangle. (Marc Gasol, anyone?)
Gutierrez: Tankville. Seriously, there's no franchise-changing talent you can get into a Knicks uniform this offseason if Melo goes elsewhere. They may as well wait until next season, when Amar'e Stoudemire's contract comes off the books, and do some serious free-agent shopping then.
McMenamin: They try to build the Spanish national team at Madison Square Garden. They already traded for Jose Calderon. The next step would be to persuade Pau Gasol to come for one season on the cheap, with a promise to renegotiate the following summer with a more generous deal. Once you have Jose and Pau, then Marc Gasol becomes the Knicks' top free-agent target in the summer of 2015. If it works, Phil Jackson will have a team with a core that has familiarity and continuity right off the bat despite being slapped together so quickly.
Strauss: They have to rebuild and be patient. It's hard to envision James Dolan embracing delayed gratification, but that's what has to happen. Otherwise, it's more frenzied spending and more protracted failure.
Wallace: Directly into full cap-purging mode to completely clear the deck for 2015 free agency. Perhaps Jackson is secretly rooting for this route. Ask yourself just how far Carmelo has taken the Knicks in his time there. Truth is the Knicks could probably still contend for a playoff spot in the East with or without him. All that said, I have a hard time seeing him flee all that cash.
5. If LeBron leaves, where do the Heat go from here?
Elhassan: Persuade Bosh to stay with a substantial deal, then aggressively pursue young, talented free agents like Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe et al. Try to remain flexible enough to make another free-agency run next summer.
Gutierrez: Plan B would probably still begin with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh re-signing. Then the Heat would have to sell free agents like Luol Deng and Pau Gasol on the idea that, first, they now have serious money to spend, and second, they could still win at a high level without LeBron. It wouldn't be easy, but Miami would move quickly to attempt to recover.
McMenamin: Do their best not to curl up into the fetal position and weep. Losing LeBron would be a major blow. There would be no quick fix. They would probably make a half-hearted run at keeping both Bosh and Wade, but what good are two aging complementary pieces without an alpha dog to put them around? I'd throw the max at Bledsoe, hope Phoenix doesn't match and try to build around him as the future of the franchise.
Strauss: They're so gutted if this happens. It's hard to even imagine what the roster might look like. I think the play is to try to keep Bosh, and if they can't, start tanking. Whoops, I didn't mean "tanking." I meant "rebuilding."
Wallace: A LeBron departure would totally sink the Heat and represent Pat Riley's worst nightmare. He would be indebted to Wade, who opted out of $42 million over the next two years in order to be taken care of long term in Miami. Riley would be in an awkward position to reclog the Heat's cap with a big payday for Wade on a team that would be better off rebuilding from scratch amid a post-LeBron reality. But again, I'd be surprised to see LeBron bolt.