Saturday, May 22, 2010
By Aggrey Sam
Now that the dust has settled a bit from the immediate aftermath of Cleveland's defeat at the hands of Boston (less shocking now that the Celtics appear to be a rejuvenated juggernaut on the way to a repeat of the 2008 NBA Finals against the rival Lakers), it's become more appropriate to examine the free-agent status of the one and only LeBron James.
LeBron-to-Chicago mania hit a fever pitch last week, complete with rumors both scurrilous and frivolous. Could the MVP be suiting up in a Bulls uniform next season? Sure. Could a No. 6 James jersey next season read Knicks, Nets, Heat, Clippers or even Cavaliers on the front? Without a doubt.
Anybody who believes James will make an emotional decision -- a business decision -- based on a game, a series or a season is uninformed. Clearly, he will explore his options -- as was known since he first signed his last contract -- but to claim he already knows his next destination is more than a bit presumptuous.
With the talent on Chicago's roster and the appeal of a major market, it's easy to assume the Bulls could be the frontrunner for his services. However, James' season just ended. As he made clear in his season-ending press conference -- the last time he spoke on the record to media and likely the last time he will do so until at least July 1 -- James will approach his free agency with the "right mindset," something that shouldn't taken lightly.
That mindset could mean he values winning, a bigger market, another superstar teammate, the ability to choose his coach and anything in between, but without knowing his true intentions -- as nobody besides likely his inner circle, consisting of childhood friend Maverick Carter, agent Leon Rose and adviser William Wesley is privy to -- any guesses about his destination next season is simply pure speculation. More than likely, however, even James doesn't know his next move yet, as a lot could change between now and the beginning of July.
James was rendered vulnerable at season's end, with the dual blows of critics attacking him from all angles and constant wondering about where he will end up next having to affect him, regardless of his focus and experience with being in the spotlight at a young age. What was made clear is that he's indeed "human," as music mogul and friend Jay-Z stated in one of the myriad interviews focused on the superstar's failings. Forget any comparisons to the early struggles of Michael Jordan or references to "Tragic" Johnson when Magic was temporarily categorized as incapable of delivering under pressure -- in the 24-7 instant news cycle environment of 2010, James' gift (his unparalleled talent) and curse (overexposure) put him under siege in a way that neither Magic nor Jordan could have been subject to in their respective primes.
Speaking of Jordan, many expect James to take over the throne abdicated here in the Windy City back in 1998. While it may seem like a match made in heaven on paper, both the practical and illogical reasoning for that to happen are flawed. Yes, James did profess his admiration for the Bulls' roster, namely All-Star point guard Derrick Rose, who he referred to as "one of the two or three" top players at his position in the league after the Cavaliers ousted Chicago from the first round of the playoffs. By itself, that could prove to be problematic -- the good kind of problem, but still an issue nonetheless -- as Rose, a true playmaker forced into taking more of Chicago's scoring load due to a lack of offensive firepower, is at his best as the primary ballhandler. James is also accustomed to having the ball in his hands most of the time and if anything -- from solely a basketball perspective -- can be gleaned from his subpar performance against Boston's defense, it's that for all his prolific point-producing ability, he prefers the option of being a distributor as opposed to being just a scoring machine.
Regardless, the Bulls would rather deal with that situation as it occurs, as James' presence alone and the combined ability of Rose, center Joakim Noah and the other young talent on Chicago's roster would surely (or so it's assumed) offset any necessary anticipated strategic adjustments. However, it's unlikely that the Bulls as James know them -- at least in the form he faced in the playoffs -- would be intact if the Ohio native migrated to Chicago.
With Cleveland's ability to pay him the max (and if anyone thinks he would take anything less, time to stop reading), if James truly wants to depart his home state, it will be via a sign-and-trade scenario. Thus, even with all of its cap room, Chicago would have to send the Cavs a package of players as compensation. Even if James insisted on only leaving for the Bulls and Cleveland acquiesced, it would likely take small forward Luol Deng and some combination of either promising forward Taj Gibson (who James specifically praised), veteran guard Kirk Hinrich and a draft pick to get it done. Chicago would still have the money to add another somewhat high-profile free agent (such as a Carlos Boozer or perhaps even an Amar'e Stoudemire; it would take some maneuvering, but with the Suns' current struggles against the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, it's possible the Phoenix forward is leaning toward changing locations), but the chemistry of the team's nucleus would be altered.
But it's not as if the Bulls won't have competition in vying for James' services. In addition to the aforementioned Knicks, Heat, Clippers and Nets (whose chances lessened after Tuesday night's NBA Draft lottery, when they received the draft's third pick, instead of the top selection most expected them to garner by virtue of having the league's worst regular-season mark), it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that teams such as the Lakers and Mavericks will attempt to enter the fray, even without possessing the requisite cap space. As previously noted, it's likely James, if he does indeed leave Cleveland, will have to depart through a sign-and-trade situation, putting teams with attractive pieces on nearly equal footing with free-spending franchises. The Cavaliers obviously will look to retool in the offseason if they still harbor championship or even contending aspirations -- whether or not James leaves or stays -- so to think they won't attempt to get as close to equal value as possible (impossible in most trade situations, but especially in the case of the league's top player) for their homegrown star, let alone allow him to walk with nothing in return.
In the end, a compromise of sorts will be struck. Maybe a new coach (by all accounts, Mike Brown will probably not begin next season on Cleveland's sideline) -- such as James' friend and University and Kentucky head coach John Calipari; sources insist to CSNChicago.com that he intends to remain in Lexington, but the former Nets head coach could listen to pro offers, although the Pittsburgh native is likely out of the Bulls' price range and probably doesn't fit the organization's culture or what the team is looking for in a replacement for the deposed Vinny Del Negro -- and whatever can be done to tweak an inflexible, flawed and aging roster could persuade him to stay at home, where his comfort level and folk-hero legend eclipses even his "global icon" status.
If not, competitors other than Chicago (the allure of South Beach, playing with Olympic teammate Dwyane Wade and the possibility of being coached by Hall of Famer Pat Riley with the Heat; the bright lights of the Big Apple, Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo offensive approach and the opportunity of being on the NBA's biggest stage night in and night out for the Knicks; the potential of new Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov's deep pockets and joining aforementioned buddy Jay-Z in a future move to Brooklyn with the Nets; playing with a talent-laden roster -- arguably more so than the Bulls, regardless of success -- competing in the same city as Kobe Bryant and the Hollywood lifestyle for the Clippers), the respective merits touted by each city's local media, will also attempt to tempt James into switching jerseys.
One thing, however is clear: James, despite his end-of-season struggles on the court and regardless of personal rumors, has the world at his feet--more than ever. Let's not pretend we know how he'll manage that power. Until July 1st, that is.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.