The prospects of NBA fireworks loomed on the U.S. Independence Day holiday weekend as speculation grew on Friday about the future of four-time league most valuable player LeBron James.
James, who four years ago left the Cleveland Cavaliers in a messy divorce to join the Miami Heat, is a free agent and his representative has been quietly meeting with select clubs about the future of a player widely regarded as the world's best.
James's agent Rich Paul met with three teams in the past week in his Klutch Sports offices in Cleveland and fielded a call from another to listen to their pitches, according to a report on the league's website.
The Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers have all touched base with Paul, and representatives of the Los Angeles Lakers are heading to Ohio for a meeting, according to reports.
Another splash could be even sooner in the making, as high-scoring free agent forward Carmelo Anthony is weighing options including maximum contracts offered by the Lakers and New York Knicks, with whom he averaged 27.4 points last season.
Anthony can earn up to $95 million for four years from the Lakers, while the Knicks can pay Anthony $129 million for a five-year deal under NBA rules.
The developments have turned up the pressure on the Heat to find ways to augment their roster despite severe salary cap restrictions, and encourage James to stay following a humbling loss to the San Antonio Spurs in last month's NBA Finals.
The NBA's balance of power could well be at stake.
In four seasons in Miami along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who joined together with the Heat as free agents in 2010, James reached four successive NBA Finals and claimed two rings.
When James first hit free agency four years ago, the process created a media frenzy and the highly publicized sweepstakes led to the versatile forward agreeing to reveal his selection during a 75-minute nationally televised special called "The Decision."
"I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat," James said at the climax, setting off euphoria in South Florida and angry despair in Cleveland, where some fans set fire to replica James jerseys.
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert issued a scathing open letter to fans moments later, calling the move "selfish," "heartless," "callous," and a "cowardly betrayal" - which may require a reconciliation for James to even consider returning to the team near his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
The Cavaliers, who were 33-49 last season, have assembled a promising core of young players on high draft choices accumulated since James's departure, including point guard Kyrie Irving and this year's number one overall pick, Andrew Wiggins.
"I think LeBron made a huge mistake with that 'Decision' crap," said Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. "He's a great player, a great person. I hope he goes back to Cleveland.
"Those fans in Miami are not real fans, those fans in Cleveland are real fans. I've always hoped he would go back to Cleveland. That would be a great way to finish his career."
(Reporting by Larry Fine)