Courting The King

July 11, 2010

The sports world was riveted by the moves of LeBron James & Co. as the hottest free-agent market ever tipped off

LeBron is a 25-year-old from Akron with big dreams. Dwyane, 28, is a divorced father of two who appears torn between his hometown of Chicago and his new life in Miami, while 26-year-old Chris makes friends easily and doesn't like to say no. Last week they and a half-dozen friends and rivals became roommates in a virtual household created by Twitter, talk radio, 24-hour news channels and the economics of supply and demand, and were subsequently elevated to a position of Kardashian-sized attention in America's consciousness. They are the stars of NBA Free Agency 2010, a reality show that is too big for any one network or medium.

Fueled by two years of speculation, the NBA recruiting window opened last Thursday to an unprecedented level of anticipation and intrigue. The chase to sign LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh began four years ago when all three opted to sign shortened contracts that allowed them to become free agents this summer, not only to exploit the final year of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement but also to manipulate the market as a group. All had entered the league as top five picks in the 2003 draft, all are represented by agents from CAA Sports and all of their dreams of seizing power and wealth were materializing more easily last week than they could have imagined. The promise of each young star choosing to rescue a new team—and consequently destroying the franchise he leaves behind—has created a multiplatform drama (or is it comedy?) enabled by team executives and billionaire owners jetting back and forth for brief meetings with players who appear to crave the attention.

Cavaliers fans who have been bracing for LeBron's departure waited on the sidewalk outside his Cleveland offices last Saturday holding up cards that read HOME as James arrived to hear recruiting pitches from the Cavs as well as the Bulls, the last of the six teams who arrived for private meetings with the King last week. No basketball game could generate as much of a frenzy as Bosh reportedly did on Friday in Chicago when he unexpectedly sat in on a meeting between Wade and the Bulls, thus raising a momentary alarm that they—and not LeBron—would be the ones to restore Jordan's former team to championship level. "Things are getting very interesting," offered Wade afterward. "I will say I'm intrigued." Among those recording his words was a video crew hired by Wade and Bosh to document their recruitment.

Basketball has been building toward this eruption of star power since 1980, when Magic (Johnson) and Larry (Bird) resuscitated the NBA and made it a league of celebrities who would be known in American households on a first-name basis. When asked during the recently completed Finals about a proposed free-agent summit in which James, Wade and Bosh would collude to decide their futures like a five-families meeting of Mafia godfathers, commissioner David Stern—the producer and director of the NBA's cult of individuality—didn't put up a fight. "They can have it," he said.

The truth is, Stern wants them to have it. Since when was the NBA so popular in the usually dead hoops month of July as it was last week? Team Trinity, as LeBron, Dwyane and Chris have been breathlessly nicknamed, may or may not have had their summit in Miami during the final days of June; several Internet news organizations have been bickering about whether they really did meet to plot their futures. But there is no doubting that Bosh and Wade dined together three days in a row last week in Chicago, and presented themselves as a package deal. Just had dinner w @dwadeofficial, tweeted Bosh on Friday while attaching a photo of himself with Dwyane at the table. Great way to end day 1 of #freeagency although it feels like someone is missing....

LOL: Bosh was referring to James's absence at that particular table. But the Raptors power forward was proving to be the most unpredictable of all the free agents. He was in the market for a sign-and-trade worth up to $125 million over six years—a $30 million raise over the five-year max he could earn on the open market—which in turn enabled teams like the Rockets and his hometown Mavericks to bid for him in spite of their absence of cap space.

While most reality TV is empty-caloried entertainment with no redeeming or enduring impact, this chase for free agents can't be dismissed as fluff—not after watching rich franchises such as the Knicks, Nets, Bulls and Heat turn miserly over the last season while giving away talent in the hope, however far-fetched, of recruiting one or more of these elusive stars. The beauty of speculation is that everyone has an opinion and there is no right answer. Do Dwyane and LeBron really want to play together, or are they yanking our chains? Can two playmaking perimeter stars who need the ball possibly thrive on the same team? Would Carmelo Anthony of the Nuggets or Chris Paul of the Hornets force a trade to join one or the other? Were Bosh and Wade sincere about playing together, or were they feeding the Internet gossip machine like a basketball version of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie?

One real-life concern was affecting Wade's decision. The Heat guard is in the midst of a bitter divorce and was recently awarded temporary full custody of his children, Zaire, 8, and Zion, 3, and he has spent much of the off-season in Chicago to be near them. Would the needs of his children help push him back to his hometown? "I'm taking everything into account here," Wade told The Miami Herald after he met with the Bulls for the second time in 36 hours. "It's as simple as this: At the end of the day, I'll make the best decision for my family."

Another surprising element has been the disappearance of LeBron, who is mostly responsible for creating this uproar. He shunned the attention by spending last week behind the tinted glass of his fleet of vehicles, unrecognized by fans who prematurely tossed baby powder in the air as his aides' cars preceded him into a parking garage on Saturday for the last of his two-a-day meetings with the Nets, Knicks, Heat, Clippers, Cavaliers and Bulls. The closed-door nature of these presentations demonstrated that he was making a sober decision (although the Cavs, who know him better than anyone, based their pitch around new coach Byron Scott and a Family Guy--style cartoon featuring inside jokes about James and his teammates). His refusal to go on the road also showed that James has an unrivaled understanding of less-is-more—that by remaining out of sight he was creating more speculation and intrigue than he would have by opening his mouth.

But the market couldn't afford to wait on LeBron's decision. While Wade, Bosh and others, such as Jazz forward Carlos Boozer, remained undecided at week's end, five of the top nine free agents were either committed or about to be. Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki had opted out of their contracts in order to commit to four-year extensions with the Celtics (for $61 million) and the Mavericks (for $80 million), respectively. Amar'e Stoudemire, whose inattention to defense and other crucial details had created issues with coach Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix, spent the Fourth of July weekend in New York City before agreeing on Monday to a five-year, $100 million offer from the Knicks that would reunite him with D'Antoni. The two had breakfast on Sunday to hash out past grievances, but any differences were outweighed by new desires—Stoudemire to play in a market where he could become a star, and D'Antoni to coach talent again after the Knicks had unloaded most of their players to create cap space over his two years in New York.

Two players who had been assumed to be on the move were 29-year-old Hawks shooting guard Joe Johnson and Grizzlies small forward Rudy Gay because of the frugality of their teams. In the opening hour of free agency, however, Atlanta offered its four-time All-Star a maximum contract of $119 million over six years, and later in the day Memphis owner Michael Heisley shocked the league by awarding a five-year deal worth $82 million to Gay, a 23-year-old restricted free agent who averaged 19.6 points during the Grizzlies' surprising 40-win season. Johnson's return to Atlanta was especially disappointing to D'Antoni, who had coached him in Phoenix. "Joe loved playing for D'Antoni and was excited by the possibility of joining him in New York," typed Johnson's agent Arn Tellem while confirming news of Johnson's commitment in an online column he wrote for the Huffington Post. "It seemed like a perfect match: a tenacious player who never naps on court in the city that never sleeps." Everyone's a writer.

Yet this profligacy will do the league no favors during negotiations with the players' union over the coming year. Stern has predicted $400 million in losses when the books are reconciled this summer, and he has promised to create a new structure that reduces salaries and contract lengths to reward players less for potential and more for performance. And yet Stern's owners are fighting among each other to offer max deals to lesser lights such as Bosh, Johnson, Stoudemire and potentially Boozer. The divide between the owners' actions and their demands makes a lockout next summer very likely.

Lost amid the frenzied speculation were two moves that may be most important in the coming NBA season—the returns of coaches Phil Jackson to the champion Lakers and Doc Rivers to the runner-up Celtics after each had considered retiring. The 2010 playoffs were a repudiation of free agency and quick fixes, as the two teams who had kept their core rotations together the longest were able to knock back challenges from the Cavaliers, Magic, Mavericks and Spurs—teams that had made major personnel changes and didn't have enough time to blend their talent together. Will the money spent this summer turn into fool's gold? That could be the most painful reality of all.

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The NBA has been building toward this eruption of star power since Magic and Larry resuscitated the league.

PHOTOPhotograph by WALTER IOOSS JR.DECISION 2010 In a whirlwind first week of free agency, James met with six teams in three days—but kept his thoughts mostly to himself. PHOTOGLENN JAMES/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (BOSH)POWER OF THREE Most of the buzz featured LeBron (right) joining forces with Bosh (4) or Wade to create an instant title team. PHOTOISSAC BALDIZON/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (WADE)[See caption above] PHOTOBOB ROSATO (JAMES)[See caption above]

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