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It's summer, when free-agent dreams come true for NBA general managers

There's a Christmas-in-July vibe as NBA free agents (including, this year, LeBron James) hit the open market
LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony are among prizes available, though actually getting them could be a tall order

NBA general managers may have felt this week like siblings watching the stack of presents swell under the tree in the days before Christmas.

Look, there's LeBron James next to the electric train set!

Wow, that's Carmelo Anthony beneath the stockings!

Hey, the shape of that gift sure looks a lot like Chris Bosh!

Of course, just because there are fancy packages to be opened doesn't mean front-office executives won't wince when they see the names on the wrappers. "FROM LEBRON JAMES" can only mean "TO" one team.

James may very well return to the Miami Heat, though a legion of front-office executives can dream.

"When you recruit," said one general manager, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be considered tampering, "all you have to do is turn someone's head for a minute."

The decisions of James, Anthony and potentially Bosh to opt out of their contracts could make a handful of executives merrier than expected when free agency begins at 9 p.m. PDT Monday.

The wooing will commence with phone calls and meetings and creative enticements (hopefully more effective than the "STAY" signs that couldn't convince Dwight Howard to remain a Laker last summer). Players cannot officially sign with teams until July 10.

In keeping with the Christmas-in-July theme, here's a look at the dreamy gifts, worthy splurges and stocking stuffers teams will be trying to load up on in the coming days:

Dreamy gifts

Everything starts with James, who has already dined with Heat teammates Dwyane Wade and Bosh to discuss their futures. Bosh reportedly is still deciding whether to opt out of his contract. The consensus is that they are all going to return with contracts structured to enable the Heat to significantly upgrade its roster.

One likely target in a stay-together scenario would be Kyle Lowry, giving James a dynamic point guard to play beside for the first time in his career.

If James decides to leave the team he led to two championships and four Finals forays, possible destinations would include Houston, Chicago, the Clippers or Cleveland. One front-office executive said it wasn't a given that James stays with the Heat.

"Whenever a player opts out, it creates uncertainty," said the executive, speaking on condition of anonymity because he could not publicly discuss free agents. "You look at Dwight last year, he left the Lakers, and that's the Lakers.

"Players these days come up through the AAU circles where they like being recruited, they like being shown everything they can be shown. It's a fun, sort of ego thing for them but there's also something real there because I don't think anything's ever a sure thing."

Anthony acknowledged as much last year when he said he intended to explore free agency for the first time. The New York Knicks hope to keep him but will have to ward off advances by Chicago, Houston, Dallas and the Lakers, all of whom would consider Anthony a rousing consolation prize if their pursuit of James failed.

Dallas is probably a longshot to land either player considering its history of failed pitches to elite free agents (see Deron Williams, Howard), but one player the Mavericks can count on retaining is Dirk Nowitzki, still among the game's top 15 players at 36.

There are two other transformative talents available this summer.

Lance Stephenson sure can be maddening, but there will be plenty of teams willing to shrug off idiosyncrasies such as blowing in an opponent's ears and gyrating on the court as long as the 23-year-old continues to blow by defenders the way Stephenson did last season. And did we mention he's only 23?

Eric Bledsoe probably isn't leaving Phoenix, though teams could give the Suns pause about keeping the restricted free agent by offering a maximum contract. Bledsoe proved last season he was worth it when he almost carried the Suns into the playoffs despite missing nearly half the season with a knee injury.

Worthy splurges

The Knicks have already turned Madison Square Garden into the Lakers alumni club by hiring President Phil Jackson and Coach Derek Fisher, so why not make it a triumvirate and go after Pau Gasol?

It sounds pretty enticing until you consider that Gasol, who made $19.2 million last season, would have to take a roughly 75% pay cut because the Knicks are so far over the salary cap.

The Lakers have plenty of money to bring back Gasol, who turns 34 on July 6, at a reduced rate, but there are a handful of younger centers who would be better long-term fits, including Marcin Gortat, Greg Monroe and Spencer Hawes. One problem: Gortat and Monroe probably will command yearly salaries stretching into eight figures.

Hawes, who made $6.5 million last season, might be an option to fill the Clippers' backup big-man needs if he's willing to take a pay cut.

Small forward Luol Deng is generating surprisingly little buzz for a 29-year-old who was an All-Star only two years ago. Blame it on his awful second half of the season in Cleveland, where he disappeared on a team that failed to make the playoffs.

Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward are technically available but probably staying put, with the Rockets intending to match any offers for Parsons and Utah hoping that Hayward can accelerate a return to relevancy.

Stocking stuffers

This is where the Lakers will do most of their shopping considering they have only four players under contract for next season. Fortunately, there are lots of quality options.

Need a point guard? Try Darren Collison, Ramon Sessions, D.J. Augustin, Devin Harris, Isaiah Thomas, Shaun Livingston, Patty Mills or Mo Williams.

A shooing guard? There's Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Rodney Stuckey, Mike Miller, Ray Allen and Kirk Hinrich.

How about a serviceable big man? Emeka Okafor, Channing Frye, Jordan Hill, Andray Blatche and Josh McRoberts are all there for the taking.

Clippers President and Coach Doc Rivers all but laid claim to Collison, saying his first need was "a little guy" who had just opted out of contract.

Was his name Darren Collison?

"Yeah," Rivers said, "that's a good name."

Just one of many that could leave executives feeling like they got what they wanted on their list.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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