LeBron James’(notes) inner circle told multiple NBA officials and players Wednesday night that the two-time MVP is leaning toward joining Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) with the Miami Heat, league sources told Yahoo! Sports.
James’ representatives spent part of Wednesday calling free agents to assess their interest in helping strengthen the Heat roster. James’ camp, sources said, went so far as to propose scenarios where the Heat would trade forward Michael Beasley(notes) to create additional salary-cap space to sign a complementary player. In those conversations, the representatives spoke only of Miami as the destination for James.
The Heat spent Thursday working on several trades fronts to move Beasley, the second overall pick in the 2008 draft. Heat president Pat Riley wants to clear Beasley's $5 million salary off the payroll, so the team can sign James and try to still fit free-agent forward Mike Miller with the remaining cap room.
“They are operating as though they are getting LeBron,” one prominent agent told Yahoo! Sports.
Suspicion lingered in the league whether this was a clear affirmation of James’ intent or a misdirection play designed to generate suspense for his primetime TV announcement. James will announce at 9 p.m. ET Thursday whether he will play for the Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks or New Jersey Nets.
Bosh and Wade decided early Wednesday to sign with the Heat and invited James to join them in forming an All-Star triumvirate that could alter the NBA’s power structure. Sources said Bosh and Wade felt optimistic about their odds of landing the sport’s most celebrated free agent after their conference call with James.
“They think they’ve got a real chance to pull this off with LeBron,” a source with knowledge of the call told Yahoo! Sports Wednesday morning.
One executive whose franchise was among James’ initial suitors said Wednesday morning the Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers were the only teams still being seriously considered by James. James’ representatives did little to quash the Miami speculation when they began helping search for players to fill out the Heat’s roster.
The Heat’s efforts to sign all three players received a boost Wednesday evening when the league announced it had set next season’s salary cap at $58 million, a $2 million increase from what most teams had projected. The Heat can now give James, Wade and Bosh a more modest cut from the maximum salary to fit all three players under the cap. All three are also represented by the same agency, CAA.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Wade said he told the Heat they would have to get a commitment from either Bosh or James to convince him to re-sign.
“It had to be one or the other,” Wade told the AP. “Of course, there’s a lot of talented players in this league. But you want to look at players that complement my game, and Chris and LeBron are two of those guys.”
Even if James decides to sign, the Heat still have significant work to fill out the remainder of their roster. Beasley and point guard Mario Chalmers(notes) are the only two players currently under contract, which, sources said, has been a concern of James.
The Bulls reached agreement with forward Carlos Boozer(notes) on a five-year, $80 million contract later Wednesday in hopes of improving their standing with James. The Knicks previously gave Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) a five-year, $100 million deal while also hoping his presence would help sway James.
Still, the Cavaliers loom as the biggest threat to keeping James from playing alongside Wade and Bosh in Miami. Cleveland is limited to pursuing trades and using its midlevel exception on free agents as ways to improve its roster, but has one significant advantage over James’ other suitors: The Cavs can offer James a six-year, $125 million contract, more than $30 million more than what he stands to receive from the Heat in a five-year deal.
James’ strong ties to Cleveland and Akron have also continued to pull at him, which is why only a few people have characterized his intent to play for the Heat as set in stone. One former confidant said James is often indecisive, and with the announcement not scheduled until late Thursday evening it’s possible James could continue to waver.
“LeBron always waits until the last minute to make a decision,” said Chris Dennis, who used to run James’ foundation. “He always does.”