LeBron James will have a completely different process and a different priority when he opens his free agency at 12:01 a.m. ET Tuesday than he did in 2010, sources told ESPN.com.
Teams that contact James will be informed that he wants no less than the maximum salary number for next season, sources said. The max number is projected to be $22.2 million. In 2010, James accepted a pay cut when he signed with the Miami Heat, taking less than the maximum salary to help make space for other free agents.
As of now, James is not scheduling any pitch meetings with teams; he will let agent Rich Paul handle the opening stages of talks. In 2010, James scheduled six meetings with teams at his offices in Cleveland over the first three days of July.
James' demand for the length of his next deal is in flux. After the Finals, James said flexibility was important to him, hinting that he may not be looking for a full four- or five-year contract.
This information could shake up the contenders and sends the message that James, who has never been the single highest-paid player on his team in his 11-year career, is not as willing to sacrifice money to improve the roster as he was in the past. That burden may now fall to teammates such as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Currently, seven teams have the cap space to offer James a deal starting at $22.2 million next season: the Heat, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz, Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic.
The Lakers and Suns, known to be serious bidders, have the space to add James and other high-level free agents. The Heat have the most cap space at $55 million but have Wade and Bosh to attend to as well. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said over the weekend that his team did not plan to make any max contract offers to free agents.
Without cap space, the only other way to get to James' requisite number is to execute a sign-and-trade, which would require the Heat's cooperation, or make additional moves to clear up cap space.
At least three teams currently without the needed cap space that are known to want to chase James are the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls. All three would need to execute significant shuffling and perhaps even offload star players to clear $22.2 million.
These details have led to a growing pessimism among teams that James is seriously considering leaving the Heat. ESPN reported Sunday that the Bulls and Rockets have scheduled in-person free-agent meetings this week with Carmelo Anthony as a top offseason target.
Over the weekend, ESPN reported that James, Bosh and Wade discussed financial terms on potential new deals with the Heat at a meeting last week in Miami. It is against NBA rules for teams to negotiate with pending free agents before July 1, but players are free to discuss contract terms among themselves.
If James follows through with his demands for a deal starting at the full max number and the Heat also re-sign Bosh and Wade, then Miami will likely not be left with appreciable salary-cap space even if Wade and Bosh accept pay cuts.
However, there are scenarios where the Heat could re-sign all three players plus veterans Udonis Haslem and Ray Allen and still be able to use the $5.3 million midlevel exception, the $2 million biannual exception and a $2.2 million trade exception to bring in some new role players.
ESPN.com senior writer Marc Stein contributed to this report.