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'Melo Tour,' Miami suspense spice up free agency period

By Larry Fine

(Reuters) - The 'Melo Tour' heads into Day Three on Thursday, the LeBron James and Miami Heat mystery muddles on and a pair of big-name veterans are sparking interest in the NBA free agency market.

Carmelo Anthony, after initial stops in Chicago, Houston and Dallas, has Los Angeles next on his itinerary and a meeting with the Lakers as the high-scoring forward weighs the options of signing with a new team or returning to the New York Knicks.

While Anthony ponders improving his chances of winning an NBA championship versus the opportunity to earn more money by joining Knicks president Phil Jackson's Madison Square Garden rebuilding program, the future of the Heat hangs in the balance.

When James and fellow 'Big Three' cohorts Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all opted out of their deals with Miami to become free agents on July 1, it was thought the moves signaled a concerted action to accept lower salaries in order to revitalize the roster after being humbled in the NBA Finals by San Antonio.

However, after a South Beach luncheon meeting between James, Wade and Bosh, word emerged that James wanted to be paid the maximum salary and that Wade and Bosh were not prepared to take severe pay cuts in order to free money to add other players.

That leaves the Heat in temporary limbo and casting a wary eye on whether James will be scheduling his own free agent tour to explore options.

SPICING UP

The slow to heat up free agent period has been spiced by reports that Pau Gasol of the Lakers and Paul Pierce of the Nets have stirred interest among NBA contenders.

Gasol was being wooed by the Oklahoma City Thunder, was on the Heat's radar, and the champion Spurs were reportedly keen to find a way to add the Spaniard, while Pierce was believed to be a serious target of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Anthony was regaled on Tuesday's opening day of free agent shopping in Chicago, where Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose joined in the pitch to bring him to the Bulls.

Dwight Howard and James Harden turned out on Wednesday to make the case for Houston as a destination for Anthony, and Dirk Nowitzki appealed to last year's second-leading NBA scorer to make Dallas his new home.

Houston splashed Anthony's image across a huge video board outside their arena wearing a Rockets uniform with his number seven on it as a greeting, although it jarred Houston player and former Melo teammate Jeremy Lin, who currently wears the number.

Lin reacted Wednesday on Twitter with a bible verse: "If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them." He later tweeted that he had felt disrespected by the display.

Kobe Bryant was expected to help provide an LA welcome to Anthony on Thursday, who according to reports flew back from a European vacation to assist in presenting case for the Lakers, who last season struggled to a 27-55 record.

(Writing by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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