For the third summer in the past five years, LeBron James is a free agent. He is a free agent because of the institutional power granted to him by the CBA that allows him to negotiate a contract with an opt-out clause. For James, the opt-out clause is more powerful than a no-trade clause. It gives James two things he thirsts for: freedom and leverage.
To hold the Cavaliers hostage in order to get what he wants sounds far more Machiavellian than what it really is, a superstar determining his future given his diminished returns after the age of 30. LeBron James is entering his 13th year and its been a dynamic career with a few potholes and a lot of NBA Finals losses. He and the Cavs have to get this right if only because they don’t want to waste the last four years of LeBron James prime.
Still, the Cavs lack independence here. They can’t call LeBron’s bluff like they did in 2010. Then they were operating on imaginary thinking, believing LeBron was no more and no less than the sum of his parts and that replacing him would not be difficult. The Cavaliers and Dan Gilbert learned the hard way what the NBA was all about: superstars run things.
There is a reason why LeBron James is cautious when dealing with the Cavs front office. Organizationally, they lack a track record. Yes, they drafted Kyrie Irving but Irving was never able to carry a team of average players to the 8th or 9th seed in an anemic Eastern Conference. The Cavs were awful with Irving as their best player even when they had scoring talent in Dion Waiters, rebounding talent in Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varajao, and the luxury of being invisible to the national media.
The front office choked and gagged on the #1 pick, Anthony Bennent. They could have had Victor Oladipo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kelly Olynyk, Steven Adams, Otto Porter. So we are not talking about a high achieving front office. It makes sense why LeBron James doesn’t trust them, why he has to hold their feet to the fire.
And so here we have an ultimatum, a very powerful one that pushes the Cavaliers into a corner: do what Lebron wants or watch LeBron leave.
This time though the Cavs are adhering to the LeBron James plan. They offered Kevin Love a max contract even if they have no clue how to use Love in their offense. Note: more possessions in the paint, not less, is a good starting point. Following that trend, the Cavs are expected to overpay Tristan Thompson because of a couple of good playoff series and his importance to LeBron. Thompson’s worth is between $9-10 million, $12 at the absolute most but will probably net around $16 million because he is LeBron’s guy which is not to say the Cavaliers are paralyzed by their fear of LeBron James. But they do understand he has all the leverage and they have none. LeBron James is no different than a lot of people with superior abilities. He wants what he wants. He expects to get it.
This is not the year the Cavs are on the clock. They are over the cap so their decisions are particularly easy. Sign their own free agents and they are back in business. So far. So good. Shumpert. Love. Waiting on Thompson and J.R. Smith.
While the Cavaliers are bringing everyone back and have to sign a couple of veteran contracted players, the reality is teams have gotten better while the Cavaliers have, for the most part, stayed the same.
The Miami Heat have loaded the deck and are better than they were last year with the addition of Justice Winslow. Milwuakee, a 41 win team, added Greg Monroe to a thin front court. The Hawks added Tiago Splitter, desperate as the were for size. David West is leaving Indiana and if he stays in the east the Wizards are a good possibility. Toronto added DeMarre Carroll.
The only Cavaliers guarantee is the huge luxury tax bill, in the range of $75 million that will be dropped on Dan Gilbert’s desk. It will be worth it if the team gets back to the Finals but it is a relevant question to ask: Can Kyrie Irving remain healthy? Is what happened to him late in the season an outlier or it is a function of fragility and a blueprint for the future, one that indicates Irving will never be a 80 game player. The thing is no amount of LeBron James leverage can fix a body that isn’t durable. Without Kyrie, a 31 year old LeBron James is in quicksand. We witnessed what James can do when he is undermanned, but the long term effect of it will lop off a couple of years of LeBron James career.
In spite of David Blatt’s average rookie year, the Cavs pushed through the adversity. The pressure intensifies for him. The team’s success is aligned with his improvement and he has an added wrinkle. How is he going to handle the minutes of Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varajao so that each feel as if they are contributing but none resent their time on the bench?
The Cavaliers are in desperate need of a back-up point guard, someone who can get to the rim, do something off the dribble and make the occasional shot but they just have the mini mid-level exception availabe and not much out there in free agency.
LeBron James unsigned is calculated. It keeps the pressure on the Cavs to do everything, even if they don’t want to. If you think this is arrogance run amok, wait until next year when the new television money kicks in and LeBron is poised to make around $31 million. We’ll see how much he really trusts the Cavs. Will he sign a 5-year deal, perhaps his last lengthy contract? Or will he continue to nickel and dime the Cavs with these one and two year deals just so, at the end of the day, LeBron James the powerful, can have the final say.