July is several hours from away from starting and the NBA is about to take center stage in the sports world.

Come again?

The NBA barely matters most of the year and deservedly gets its turn atop the sports world in May and June. Once the NBA Finals conclude, the NBA normally quietly disappears as soon as the little-suspense NBA Draft concludes.

That all changes this year at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Time.

That’s when the LeBron James sweepstakes begin with the start of the long-awaited NBA free-agency period. Free agents can’t officially sign with teams until July 8th but the frenzy of seeking James’ services starts on July 1.

James isn’t the only stellar player in this year’s free-agent class. Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudamire and Joe Johnson all figured to be heavily sought as well.

Other big-name free agents include Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The class also includes Carlos Boozer, Rudy Gay and David Lee.

Some teams have been tanking it the past few seasons and moving contracts just to have cap room for this summer’s class. But when it comes to James, there are only a few serious contenders.

The Chicago Bulls and New Jersey Nets are expected to go to great lengths to lure James and the Cleveland Cavaliers can’t be counted out because they are allowed to offer their long-time star nearly $30 million more than any other team. The New York Knicks are lurking but seem more likely to go in the direction of Johnson and Stoudamire.

NBA rules allow Cleveland to offer a max contract of $125.5 million over six years to keep James. Other NBA teams can only offer $96.1 over five years.

But James has known that for quite some time now and didn’t sign an extension with the Cavaliers. If he really wanted to remain in Cleveland, I think he would have re-signed long before hitting free agency.

His only hope of receiving $125 million with a different team is for Cleveland to agree to a sign-and-trade. But why would Cleveland ever agree to that? The Cavaliers goal is to keep the player who is the sole reason for why they have been suddenly relevant in the sports world. Why would they let James get max money AND go to another team?

James says he wants to win and the Cavaliers have had the best record in the NBA over the past two seasons. That they haven’t won a championship yet doesn’t mean they can’t next season or the following year. (You may recall Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts had to make a lot of playoff trips before he won a Super Bowl ring.)

So the key component is whether James is willing to leave $30 million on the table to go elsewhere.

Wade figures to re-sign with the Miami Heat even though his hometown Chicago Bulls could prove tempting if they lose out in the James sweepstakes.

Bosh has excelled in obscurity with the Toronto Raptors and will be highly coveted. So will Stoudamire (Phoenix Suns) and Johnson (Atlanta Hawks).

It’s hard to see the Dallas Mavericks letting long-time star Nowitzki get away. It’s also hard to believe Pierce truly wants to play anywhere other than with the Boston Celtics.

It certainly is a bit amusing to hear that there are teams willing to pay Boozer (Utah Jazz) the $125 million max. He’s a nice complimentary player but not a difference-maker.

That a guy like Boozer could land a contract like that tells me NFL players need a much better brand of free agency. Only a handful of NFL players – mainly quarterbacks – have ever landed $100 million contracts.

But we’re talking NBA here – in July to boot.

All because of LeBron James.

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