The six degrees of separation to LeBron James' free agency decision
Thursday marked Day 10 of free agency -- let's call it The Great Wait -- and there is still no end in sight. As LeBron James fishes with his children on vacation and schools prep stars at his basketball camp, the NBA world has collectively edged closer and closer toward temporary insanity. Everyone from cupcake bakers to independent basketball websites have claimed to scoop James' decision, while fans have used online tracking programs to follow a plane belonging by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, reviewed photos allegedly showing James' cars being moved out of his Florida home, and attempted to judge the veracity of an anonymous emailer claiming to know James' decision based on the color choices on a hidden webpage on LeBronJames.com. Meanwhile, reporters in Ohio have claimed local police are bracing for an announcement, while some fans have decided to set up shop near his Akron home.
So far, none of these developments and stunts have had the intended effect of compelling James to make up his mind already. Quite the opposite: James continues to go about his business, stoking the interest simply by saying nothing at all and milking the moment by thoroughly weighing his options before committing. Although there's been plenty of hysteria and nonsense to help fill this information void, the last few days have also shown just how central James is to the fortunes of many teams and dozens of players. His decision -- Miami or Cleveland, Cleveland or Miami -- will have many, many ripple effects. Trying to lay out all of the repercussions of James' choice on a clean flowchart would be impossible, as the interlocking fates of his friends, teammates, potential future teammates, fellow All-Stars and chief competitors would criss-cross so thoroughly the result would look something like what happens when you leave a two-year-old unsupervised with a box of 128 crayons.
With those complexities in mind, and with a nod to Kevin Bacon, the following is a look at James' "Six Degrees of Separation," an attempt to provide some level of order to the uncertainty that has engulfed the NBA for more than a week.
The epicenter: LeBron James
Much has been written this week about the power being wielded by James, and it's hard to mount a counter-argument, even against the hyperbole. For the second time in four years, James has the entire sporting world's attention as he prepares to sign somewhere, with wall-to-wall coverage running simultaneously on multiple television networks, on every major sports website, and around the clock on social media sites.
Even without James publicly declaring a finalist or meeting directly with any of his suitors other than the Heat, a pivotal fork in the road has developed: Will he choose the familiarity of his Miami surroundings and a potential fifth straight Finals appearance, or will he claim a measure of redemption by returning to his home state, where a Cleveland team that has a first-year GM, first-year coach and a young roster awaits?
One degree of separation: Agent Rich Paul
When rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z decided to pursue representing athletes with Roc Nation Sports, he did so thinking he would be able to attract clients with his connections and fame. Paul founded Klutch Sports in 2012 with similar aspirations, except instead of being a global music icon he was best known as James' buddy from way back, if he was known at all. His client list lacks a second sure-fire All-Star besides James, although Eric Bledsoe is clearly on the rise and 2011 lottery pick Tristan Thompson has shown some promise.
But not even the release of a new Jay-Z album can generate the type of buzz James -- and by extension Paul -- has seen for more than a week now. As soon as Paul took meetings with James' suitors on behalf of his client and then became the face of the chatter that James might return to their native Ohio, he quickly transformed from after-thought to household name. Each hour that passes without a decision announced is one more free infomercial for Paul and Klutch Sports. Something tells me the highly touted high school prospects at James' Las Vegas basketball camp will leave impressed by more than just the four-time MVP's abilities on the court.
Considering where he was one month ago to where he is today, not to mention where he might be once James announces his plans, it's possible that Paul will be this offseason's single biggest winner.
Two degrees of separation: The Heat
It goes without saying that the impact of a James departure from Miami would be catastrophic. The world got a taste of a James-less Heat team when cramps struck in Game 1 of the Finals, and it wasn't pretty. The Heat were manhandled by the Spurs, clearly missing the league's best player on both sides of the ball. Dwyane Wade's age and health issues likely prevent him from being able to function as a solid No. 1 option, and James' departure would leave Bosh with no other choice but to consider his options, including the Rockets, who have a huge hole at power forward and have reportedly offered him a max contract.
Even though Pat Riley has won so much that his reputation can withstand anything at this point, losing James would definitely cut into the mythic status that has grown over the last few years. Then there's Erik Spoelstra, whose job description would change completely. No longer would he be tasked with making the most out of the best; instead, he'd be crossing his fingers about Wade's health while trying to coax whatever he could out of a talent-deficient cast.
We shouldn't forget Shabazz Napier, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger, three players who were brought to Miami with the goal of convincing James to stay. What is Napier supposed to think after being praised by James, only to be deserted by him? Would McRoberts be in a position where going from Charlotte to Miami would actually be a step backwards? How is Granger's ring-chasing going to work out if the Heat are struggling just to make the playoffs?
Those downsides are huge, but the upsides are equally huge. If James does re-commit, the Heat are instantly the favorite to win the East yet again, and the discussion turns to how they can fill out their depth to unseat the Spurs. Bosh gets to remain in South Florida, his first choice, while Wade remains in a role that he handled ably up until his collapse in the Finals. Riley ascends to the next level of hero worship, while Spoelstra gets to continue chasing history. All of the role players, meanwhile, get what they bargained for. Such is the force of a franchise player: he can directly impact the lives of every single player on that franchise's roster.
Three degrees of separation: The Cavaliers
"King" is a fitting nickname for James, but "Panacea" just about sums it up too. Without James, the Cavaliers have missed the playoffs four straight seasons, wracking up a record-setting 26-game losing streak a few seasons back and hiring/firing coaches left and right. Gilbert's cruel public letter to James made the organization look scorned and bitter, and even a can't-miss prodigy like Kyrie Irving started to develop some bad habits.
A housecleaning and the arrival of Andrew Wiggins brings some hope, but there's no particular reason to bet on the Cavaliers jumping into the playoff picture as-is. They are young, there are roster holes, and there are injury issues that, if they flare up again, could quickly kill a season. Let's not forget Cleveland also traded away three players and a pick to clear a max salary slot for James; that move will look considerably worse if the Cavaliers have to settle for a backup plan.
With James? Cleveland is looking at a team that could make a run at the 2015 Finals, especially if a few of James' buddies decide to hitch a ride. More importantly, though, James' arrival would add a credible mentor for Irving and Wiggins, two of the most-coveted young players to hit the NBA over the last five years. Who better to help them learn winning ways than James? Who better to make their lives easier -- to get the most of their talents -- than a player with James' basketball IQ?
Five years down the road, it's conceivable that the James/Irving/Wiggins trio winds up eclipsing the James/Wade/Bosh group as the best "Big Three" of James' career. That's saying something. Until James decides to join the Cavaliers, though, this is all just a fanciful daydream.
Four degrees of separation: The other uncommitted stars
As of Friday, only 10 of SI.com's "Top 25 Free Agents of 2014" had agreed to terms on new contracts or been signed to offer sheets. Clearly, James, Wade and Bosh remain uncommitted, but they are joined by a host of other stars and developing stars who are waiting in limbo, including Carmelo Anthony, Chandler Parsons, Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe and Kevin Love.
At the top of that list is Anthony, who is reportedly ready to re-commit to New York, even if he's yet to make that public. Perhaps he's holding out hope that an unexpected call from James in the middle of the night changes his life, somehow giving him the opportunity to play for a contender in the short-term.
Parsons, too, also waits, knowing that he will join the Mavericks (who signed him to a three-year, $45 million offer sheet) or return to the Rockets. His fate is tied up in whether or not Bosh is available, as Houston must decide 1) whether Dallas' huge price tag is worth matching, and 2) whether it can go all-in with its cap space this summer to land a third star.
Restricted free agents like Bledsoe and Monroe -- the up-and-comers of this year's class -- must wait on James' decision before getting a full picture of the market. It's possible that max money will be available to one or both of them, depending on which teams miss out on James and which other dominoes fall.
Lastly, there's Love, a 2015 free agent who seemingly wants out of Minnesota as soon as possible. Rumors have steadily linked the Timberwolves and Cavaliers in trade talks for weeks, and the prospect of trading up for a chance to play with James must surely be enticing to Love, who has yet to make a single appearance in the postseason. Any interest between Love and the Cavaliers, though, is likely contingent upon James' arrival, meaning Love could be shipped to one of a number of other suitors if James re-ups with the Heat.
Five degrees of separation: Second-tier stars
The names on this list -- Lance Stephenson, Luol Deng, Trevor Ariza, Pau Gasol and Jeremy Lin -- might not be as enticing as those in the group directly above, but they are all still quality players who are capable of moving the needle for playoff teams. They all also find themselves waiting for the stalemate to end so they can get about their business.
Although Stephenson, Deng and Ariza are all unrestricted free agents, they find themselves in much the same spot as Bledsoe and Monroe: waiting to find out who misses out on the A-list guys and still has significant cap space to burn.
Gasol is an intriguing example, too, as he's reached the point of his career where he will likely have to choose between maximizing his compensation or taking his best shot at winning. Pairing with Anthony has been floated as a possibility, as have discounted deals with the likes of the Thunder and Spurs. It's next to impossible for him to read the lay of the land until some of these pieces firm up.
Lin is in place to be a domino after a domino after a domino. If Bosh decides to sign with Houston if and when James goes to Cleveland, Lin (among other players) will need to be traded to create the space to land the prized power forward. What happens if James and Bosh decide to go back to Miami? Does Houston still move him? Does its asking price suddenly get higher?
Six degrees of separation: Coveted role players
The guys in this group are veteran role players who aren't likely to command more than mid-level compensation, if that. All find their next jobs on hold until the teams and players mentioned above settle their issues. The biggest names in this pool include Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Mo Williams, Ray Allen, Mike Miller, James Jones and Marvin Williams.
Carter and Marion were expected to return to Dallas, but that could change given the Mavericks' huge offer to Parsons. If Houston doesn't match, one or both of Carter and Marion could need to find new digs. Williams, meanwhile, spent last season with Portland but has been mostly linked to Dallas in rumors, as he keeps a home in the area. The Blazers decided to go a different direction, signing Steve Blake on Thursday, leaving Williams to wait on the Mavericks or find a different option.
Allen, Miller and Jones all played the important "shooter next to James" role in Miami over recent years, and all are getting up there in age. Presumably, all would be interested in playing with James again, although Miller can't if James returns to the Heat because of the NBA's amnesty rules. Tagging along after a star, by definition, requires waiting for that star to make up his mind.
Williams is just one of many examples of role players who are tangentially impacted by James' decision. The Hornets have been linked to interest in him after McRoberts agreed to sign with the Heat, as Charlotte had been hopeful it could keep McRoberts. Does that series of events change if James goes to Cleveland? Is it possible that Williams' priorities or desired destinations change too?
The sheer volume of unsigned free agents means you can play the speculation game as long as you like. Would Jameer Nelson be down for some ring-chasing? What about Emeka Okafor, who missed all of last season with an injury? Anthony Morrow and Francisco Garcia are without homes and would be nice additions for contenders. And on, and on, and on.
1,531 degrees of separation: The Spurs
If there's one single entity in the NBA divorced from James' decision, it's the Spurs, who just last month wiped the floor with the Heat in the Finals. San Antonio has already re-signed its two key free agents, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills, and it is now in position to defend its title with every single player who logged at least 700 minutes last season. Other than the Spurs' reported interest in Gasol, who would have to settle for the mid-level exception and fewer minutes in San Antonio, these guys are just about total bystanders.
The contrasting approaches between the Spurs and James were already self-evident, but they have further crystallized this summer. Tim Duncan quietly opted in to the final year of his contract, ensuring that the foundation of San Antonio's two-way dominance would remain intact. As Twitter raged over James this week, the Spurs hilariously issued a two-sentence press release announcing a contract extension for coach Gregg Popovich.
The impression that San Antonio's all-business approach gives off is that even if James, Wade, Bosh, Anthony, Bledsoe, Monroe and Love all decided to team up on the same squad, the Spurs would still feel confident in their way of doing business and in the systems and values that have delivered five titles during Duncan's legendary career.