ON BASKETBALL | Whenever LeBron James decides to stay in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, have a prodigal son-like homecoming in Cleveland, take the mantle from Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, or form a new powerhouse with Bosh or Carmelo Anthony in Phoenix or Houston, the real loser will be the lunacy.
So far, the mere presence of the game’s best player on the open market has done wonders for rumors, speculation, fake Twitter accounts and even aviation trackers in the past week. James continues to hold the NBA hostage and the uncertainty has created a level of hysteria that dwarfs any of the actual player movement that has already taken place.
The only way the NBA free agent recruiting period could get more bizarre is if James decides to retire and take up playing minor league baseball for the Chicago White Sox. The crescendo for a conclusion has been so crazy, that if James decided to announce his next decision on a better-produced, less egotistical, (maybe) half-hour long special on a major cable television network, it might not seem so out of bounds. A “Decision, Part II” might actually calm everybody down if only because then we might finally have some concrete information.
James’s power has never been more evident than it is right now, because the four-time most valuable player and two-time NBA champion carries the unenviable position as a portable dynasty creator; wherever he goes, the Larry O’Brien trophy is bound to follow. That’s why most teams have been unwilling to give serious chase to alternatives. Their logic: Because LeBron.
In the two-week span since James opted out of his contact in Miami, the speculation has gone from him leaving Miami, to him giving Heat President Pat Riley the room and time to get something done, to him leaving again — all without a single word from James or a public comment from his childhood friend turned agent, Rich Paul. Paul — one of the Rs in James’s LRMR management team — is a native of Cleveland, site of the headquarters for his burgeoning agency, Klutch Sports. He handled the initial conversations with teams on behalf of James last week and is reportedly pushing his client for a return to his home state.
It cannot be understated that before James sat down in that plaid shirt to inform Jim Gray he was taking his talents to South Beach during the summer of 2010, Paul called Cavs owner Dan Gilbert to give him the heads up.
Back then, Paul was working to make the transition to become an agent. But he wasn’t a fan of how the situation went down four years ago and has served as a bridge of sorts for Gilbert and James. Both were known to have some hard feelings after the departure. Gilbert was hurt to see James leave; James was upset by the scathing letter Gilbert wrote to Cavaliers fans.
But the relationship between Gilbert and James’s camp began to thaw publicly when the Cavaliers chose Paul’s client, Tristan Thompson, with the fourth pick in 2011, ahead of the favored Jonas Valanciunas. And, last season, James was welcomed back when the franchise retired Zydrunas Ilgauskas’s jersey.
A low key guy, Paul mostly stayed out of sight, with the exception of his appearance in a State Farm commercial in which James shamed him for having a CD of the rap group, Kid N Play. But Paul’s profile began to increase two years ago when James signed with him after parting from agent Leon Rose — who represents Anthony and Chris Paul.
Given his Northeast Ohio ties, James is probably the only all-star caliber talent who would consider leaving to play in Cleveland, where he starred from 2003 to 2010. A reunion with the Cavaliers would make for a Hollywood-worthy redemptive tale and allow James to truly make amends with a jilted city that hasn’t won a major title since 1964 and viewed the departure of an Ohio native as the ultimate betrayal.
The danger with James’s flirtation with Cleveland is that he could damage any good will that has developed over the past few years if he isn’t serious about going back. Building up hope and setting up a beleaguered fan base for another crushing letdown could lead some to purchase his No. 23 jersey again from the clearance rack with the sole intent of burning it.
With the exception of drafting and locking up two-time all-star point guard Kyrie Irving, Cleveland has mostly bumbled its rebuilding efforts. The lack of seasoned talent on the roster would make it difficult for the Cavaliers to become immediate contenders — even with the sublime talent of James. But they are stocked with assets, including recent No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and three first-round picks next year, which could possibly be traded for some veteran help.
The Heat now appears to have a challenger when it once seemed to be in competition with itself, but only James knows for sure. And that lack of information has ground the NBA’s free agent period to a near halt.
Eventually, some team and some marquee free agent are going to get tired of waiting and make a deal. Anthony is expected to be the first big-name free agent to make a decision, and that could set off a non-James domino effect.
Bosh could also greatly influence the fate of James and the Heat if he decides to start looking elsewhere after earlier indicating he was willing to take a discount to keep playing with Wade and James in Miami. The Houston Rockets have reportedly offered Bosh a four-year deal worth $88 million, despite not being officially eliminated from the Anthony sweepstakes.
With the Heat slow to get James big-name help, the team appears even more vulnerable than it did after losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. Riley has talked to several players — Pau Gasol, Luol Deng, Trevor Ariza and Marvin Williams — but only generated commitments from role players Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger. Paul listened to pitches from a handful of teams and will soon have a face-to-face summit with Riley.
James returned from his family vacation to discover that Marcin Gortat and Dirk Nowitzki stayed with Washington and Dallas, respectively, and little else has changed. James filmed a commercial in Miami on Monday and will be in Las Vegas this week for a basketball camp before heading to Brazil for the World Cup final on July 13.
At least back in 2010, James provided a deadline for the circus to wrap up. This time, his silence and apparent indifference while on vacation created a vacuum to be filled by every piece of innuendo and stretched out dot-connecting to keep the story going.
In a wild 24-hour, Twitter-fueled rumor-fest on Sunday, reporters in Cleveland noted a plane registered to Gilbert was scheduled to leave for South Florida. The Associated Press then tracked its landing at the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport and flight records showed it returned to suburban Detroit. Never mind that Gilbert said he was home in Michigan or that the plane could’ve been traveling for non-LeBron business. Flimsy info is better than none at all.
And as another sign of a possible reconciliation from that ugly public divorce, Gilbert’s infamous letter was removed from the Cavaliers’ team Website on Monday after three years and 364 days. That seals it, right?
Until James makes up his mind, expect the madness to continue.