One Crazy Summer
Now that FA’s here, will there be a shift in the L’s balance of power?
A general manager recently called his personnel people into a conference room and had them take part in what they initially thought was a pointless exercise. Grab a pen, he instructed them, and jot down the name of every NBA franchise player—authentic, high-octane, HOF-bound franchise players only, not just some stat-hoarding choochaloon—on a piece of paper.
If you go by the practical definition, this is not about gauging mere talent and versatility. A franchise player, all GMs agree, has that in abundance. That he is usually the best player on the floor is a given. But he is also a leader of men—a guy who makes teammates better—and when he enters the locker room, he has that indefinable thing called presence.
So they came up with 10 such players, all of them household names to most of us—Garnett, James, Nowitzki, Anthony, Wade, Bryant, Paul, Howard, Nash and Duncan. Four others were on the threshold—Derrick Rose, Deron Williams, Brandon Roy and Kevin Durant—but not unanimous.
That established, the GM posed a question: What do 13 of these 14 players have in common? (Jeopardy theme optional.)
Only one of them, it was finally noted, arrived at his current locale via free agency. Steve Nash, the lone exception, switched teams way back in ’04. Virtually all of the others were drafted by their current teams, and only one was pilfered….er, acquired via trade (Garnett).
This is something we all tend to overlook this time of year, when GMs and fans alike have visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads. Free agency serves a purpose, but it is almost always the greatest anticlimax on the NBA calendar. The process, of course, was designed to make it so. Since they incorporated homecourt advantage—the rule by which an unrestricted free agent’s current team can offer one additional contract year and higher annual raises than an outside team—it simply pays better to stay home.
Which is why only two significant, franchise-making, League-altering free agent signings have taken place in the last decade: Chauncey Billups in ’02 and Nash in ’04.
And that is also why in the last two years we’ve wondered how demented you had to be to pass out salaries such as these: $53M to Hedo Turkoglu, $79M to Elton Brand, $50M to Corey Maggette, $65M to Baron Davis, $40M to Shawn Marion, $58M to Ben Gordon and $40M to Charlie Villanueva.
We’re not picking on these guys—they’re all good players. But at some point along the way, a GM figured they were all game-changers—metaphorically, at least—and decided to sign them as unrestricted free agents.
(Pause here for some quick trivia: How many Playoff games have these seven guys combined to win since they’ve signed their contracts? Answer: Two.)
It makes you rethink that risk-reward thing that general managers recite in such sage and sober tones every July, because those are seven hideous lessons in caveat emptor. Sure, these are GMs, and as such they have but one function—their own destruction. Very few still heed the moral of this story: Free agency is rarely practical or cost-effective. And free agency, in most cases, will not win you a championship.
This is not a new concept. As Ed Tapscott prophesied as the GM in New York a decade ago: “Free agency is an auction, not a negotiation, which means you overspend for even marginal players every time,” he said. “It is the highest-stakes game in the NBA. One day we’ll learn that it’s almost impossible to get fair value.”
And now that we’ve beaten to death this immutable NBA truth, we should add that this summer’s market could be different.
Markedly, profoundly, irrevocably different.
For better or worse.
We say this because no matter what you think of NBA players, failure is a heck of a motivator. And two of those franchise players—LeBron James and Dwyane Wade—just might wear their grief all the way into midsummer, or until some strangers knock on their doors at 12:01 a.m. on July 1.
At that moment, they can change the way we think about free agency.
Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson and Carlos Boozer, whose seasons also didn’t exactly turn out as they had hoped, might join them, if only because there are more teams than ever before—all of them motivated buyers—that could create the cap space to accommodate two max contracts. And there’s the chance that Amar’e Stoudemire could opt out of his contract and join the free-agent party.
The top-tier players most likely to move are probably Boozer and Bosh. The rest could stay home. But before we proceed with any more pointless predictions, consider Rod Thorn’s mantra: “It only takes one team to love a guy and drive the market,” the Nets president says, “and agents are paid to find that team.”
It starts with James. Through seven seasons, he hasn’t accomplished what he originally wanted from his career, other than transforming everyone around him into a drooling entrepreneur. He is the most perfect basketball specimen ever conceived, and now the two-time MVP has to balance the satisfaction of individual achievement with the obligation he might feel to deliver the city of Cleveland a championship.
One thing is clear as we enter the 2010 market: James is the point of the lance, and there are more than a half-dozen scenarios in play for him and the stars lined up behind him.
The Second-City Scenario
You already know this is the emerging consensus, as far as James’ destination is concerned, and it makes sense schematically: If you plug him into a lineup with two All-Star talents—in this case, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah—and drop two shooters in his orbit, the Chicago Bulls become a contender overnight.
For James, voila—he gets an immediate shot at redemption. And if he comes over via the sign-and-trade route, there’s enough left over in Chicago’s bank account to land a second major piece.
The Bulls are better positioned than any other team in this market. They’ve got the best point guard in the East, three young bigs on rookie deals, only two others under contract, $20 million to spend, and that gaudy Be Like Mike inducement hanging over everything.
But even if James elects to pass, they’re going to push hard on Wade. The timing of the James and Wade decisions will dictate the market: If James does his Hamlet of Cuyahoga routine, Wade may jump at Chicago’s offer first. Either way, the Bulls are going to come out of this summer with at least one major player, and it can’t be counted out in the pursuit of Bosh, either.
The Russian Revolution
New Jersey’s point-and-giggle season has dovetailed into a weird transition—new owner, new coach, new arena, top-three Draft pick. But none of that may be as relevant as the grim fact that they’re still in New Jersey.
Two years in the life of a franchise goes by very quickly, but two (at least) prime seasons in the career of a player such as James is probably something he can’t bring himself to spend in Newark.
Just the same, try this, just for kicks: Send a screenplay off to Hollywood about a Russian criminal mastermind and a rapper from Bed Stuy teaming up to knock on the door of some lower-middle class kid from Akron in the middle of the night. High jinks ensue.
Second thought, don’t quit your day job.
The Nets are hopeful that the mere presence of Mikhail Prokhorov—the oligarch with the prodigious melon and the Promethean business sense—will make LeBron faint. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. Our guess is the latter, and the Nets find themselves battling it out for Rudy Gay and David Lee.
Still, it will be an extraordinary transition for this orphan franchise. With the right coach and two starting-quality forwards—something they’ve lacked for two years and now have $26 million-plus to purchase—they can go from 12 wins to the Playoffs in short order.
The South Beach Covenant
Admit it: You watched that first-round series against the Celtics, and when you looked up and down the Miami bench, you said, “Who built this team, vandals?” They had one of the game’s top-five players—Wade can already be regarded as one of the top-five shooting guards in history—yet their roster was by far the least talented of all the Playoff teams, and they have very few assets that are worth keeping around.
Luckily for them, they don’t have to: Eight of their 14 players are free agents, and they wish they could give away the rest—particularly Michael Beasley, who will be offered around the League at the kind of discount you’d apply to a used Camry—but presently, the Heat have nearly $24 million to spend on free agents even after they re-sign Wade.
So they are essentially dealing with a blank canvas, and their first order of business is to appeal to LeBron’s artistic sense. By now, he has already taken a few dozen calls from Wade, whose spiel is probably on a loop: “Let’s buddy-up,” it says.
The inducements are obvious. First, it’s Miami, which is just like Cleveland, other than the fact that it isn’t a rusting shell of a city. Second, you’d give Pat Riley another crack at Brett Favre’s lifetime record of sudden jarring comeback announcements after he kicks Erik Spoelstra to the curb. And third, there is actually a way to get another guy to crash the party—Boozer, Bosh or Stoudemire—if the other studs are willing to give up just a little.
(Pause here for raucous laughter.)
We have a problem with this scenario, though, and it relates to LeBron’s monomania for worship. Simply put, if he and Wade don’t team up this summer, it’s probably not because they can’t agree on a secret handshake. It’ll be about sharing the spotlight.
Maybe LBJ’s motives are pure, and he wants to prove he can win the hardware without a luminary sidekick. Maybe his motives are purely ego-driven, and he doesn’t want to share the credit.
One way or the other, that’s a conversation James is going to have to have with Wade himself. Or maybe he’ll just send an emissary to have it with him.
We know this much: Riley will be the most aggressive recruiter in the game, and he has room for a max guy and a second impact player. He had better bring both home, however: He’s taken baby steps the last two years in preparation for this summer, and his credibility with his present franchise player is on the line.
Because Wade isn’t the patient, tranquil kid he used to be. He’s the going-on-29 superstar who has won four measly Playoff games in four years. If LeBron won’t come, they can’t come away with anything less than one of the power forwards and/or Johnson.
The Gotham Gambit
Yes, James will absolutely consider the Knicks, who have the largest bankroll of any team. Yes, there will probably be additional marketing opportunities, though only the barnacles on the Good Ship LeBron could possibly care what those might be. Yes, he can give the League at large a significant jolt, just by walking into Madison Square Garden 41-plus nights a year.
But for all the salary-slashing Donnie Walsh has done over the last two years, they still have a lot of bad karma to burn off. There are just two building blocks (Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler), so even if James came, who comes with him? Even if it’s Johnson or Bosh, or David Lee deciding to stay, there are probably still too many holes to fill because they’re going to overpay the stars like crazy.
There is no first-round Draft pick, and the current roster boasts no real competent bigs or point guards—Toney Douglas’ body of work is too small to make any judgment. And if Walsh has no hidden strategy to obtain a starting-quality point (Ricky Rubio?), he must know that he won’t find it in this market, where Raymond Felton is the only unrestricted worth having.
The Sterling Option
Did we mention that an L.A. team has nearly $18 million in its war chest?
That means LeBron could actually become a Clipper just like other players did—through a series of really bad decisions.
The Status Quo
We may have neglected to mention that the Cavs can still give him nearly $30 million more than he can get anywhere else, topping out at six years, $125 million.
So in a selfless act of Buckeye pluck, James could forego the pas de deux with Riley, the flirting with Chicago, the coronation in Manhattan and return to his natural habitat.
For the last four years, the Cavs franchise has lived in abject fear that this kid was going to bolt, so they’ve coddled him and patronized him and feared him, like he was that brat in the Twilight Zone movie who traps all the adults in a room and makes them watch cartoons and eat cheeseburgers for months.
Three years ago, we said you can’t win like that. And lo and behold, they haven’t. Because as soon as one guy decides he has to be King or Global Icon or Vice Chancellor of the Philip Knight Empire of Indonesian Sweatshops—at the expense of keeping a group together in adverse times—that’s when the coach’s authority and team solidarity are compromised.
Of course, he can always prove us wrong.
Oh, and he can still decide to opt-in for a $17.1 million payday from the Cavs if he doesn’t feel like playing the field after all. For the privilege of having his company for one more year, 11 million Ohioans will allow their emotions to be refried and frazzled all over again same time next year.
Not exactly the best antidote for the anticlimax, is it?