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Thankless job

Paxson, Cavaliers pay price for trying to do right by Boozer

Posted: Friday July 9, 2004 6:29PM; Updated: Friday July 9, 2004 7:02PM
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LeBron James; Carlos Boozer
While the full story has yet to be told, it appears that the emerging Carlos Boozer turned his back on a Cavaliers team intent on doing him a multimillion-dollar favor.
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Why would anybody want Jim Paxson's job?

Paxson, the Cleveland Cavaliers' general manager, is being ripped for allowing forward Carlos Boozer to escape as a free agent to the Utah Jazz.

Boozer was a second-round pick by the Cavaliers in the 2002 NBA Draft. Despite being a three-year star at Duke, he was ignored in the first round because many NBA teams believed he was too unathletic and small at 6-foot-8 (which is his true height, though he is listed as 6-9) to excel at power forward. But Paxson saw Boozer's potential and signed him to a two-year guaranteed contract for $989,000 (more than the minimum salary awarded to most second-rounders) with a team option for the third year.

Boozer turned out to be a steal. He averaged 15.5 points and 11.4 rebounds last year and earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. But Boozer was apparently worried about his longterm financial future. That's why he asked the Cavaliers to cancel their option for next season and instead allow him to become a free agent. In that case, Boozer promised (according to sources -- and common sense) that he would then re-sign with the Cavaliers for as much as $41 million over six years, the maximum they could offer a free agent with fewer than three years experience under their salary-cap constraints.

Paxson held all the cards on this deal. He could have ignored Boozer's pleas and forced him to fulfill the team option at a salary of $695,000 in 2004-05. Next summer Boozer would have been a restricted free agent, giving the Cavs the right to pay him as much as they wished along with the ability to match any offer Boozer received.

Instead, Paxson and Cleveland owner Gordon Gund nullified their option. They gambled on Boozer's word and set him free. According to a source who was in the room at the time the verbal deal was struck, Boozer told Gund, "If you respect me by not picking up the option, I'll show trust and loyalty to you by signing with you."

But instead of keeping to his word, Boozer agreed this week to a six-year, $68 million contract with Utah. (I tried, through a variety of sources, to give Boozer's agent, Rob Pelinka an opportunity to respond, but I was unable to reach him.)

Cleveland cannot match the offer because the Cavaliers are over the salary cap. The only way Cleveland could retain Boozer would be to dump several players and create more than $10 million of cap space, because Pelinka negotiated an offer that is front-loaded to make it that much harder for Cleveland to match.

"This is the worst thing I've ever seen," a top NBA agent told me. A respected NBA team executive confirmed the opinion in a separate conversation.

"There is no honor in this," the agent said. "You don't shake a man's hand, get him to do something nice for you, and then turn around and screw him."

The executive echoed the sentiments. "That was so bad. [Boozer and his agent] convinced Cleveland to let them out, and then instead of saying thanks, they said, '(expletive) you.'"

Paxson is being taken to task in the press for allowing Boozer to escape, but the short-sighted duplicity of a basketball player is the least of his troubles. Paxson's wife, Candice, has spent the past year fighting central nervous system lymphoma, a rare form of brain cancer. This week Jim and Candice flew to Portland, Ore., for the funeral of Candice's daughter-in-law from a previous marriage, Tina Kosmos, who died of cancer.

Paxson was trying to console his wife and family in-between calls from Pelinka, who, according to a source, matter-of-factly explained how he was reneging on his agreement with the Cavaliers.

Speculation has held that LeBron James is angry with Paxson for losing Boozer.

Not true, says James' agent, Aaron Goodwin.

"LeBron gave his thumbs up (to the plan enabling Boozer to become a free agent) because he believed his friend just wanted to be taken care of," says Goodwin. "He thought it was great that the Cavs wanted to help him out." Goodwin says that James was "disheartened" when he realized that Boozer was exploiting his free agency by negotiating with other teams.

Goodwin adds -- and I've confirmed this with other sources -- that Gund took personal responsibility for approving the plan to make Boozer a free agent.

"My understanding is that Carlos, his wife and Pelinka all gave their words to Paxson and Gordon Gund that Boozer would re-sign with Cleveland," Goodwin says. "By letting him become a free agent, Gordon was saying, 'I'm doing this to help the Boozer family, not just Carlos.'

"Gordon Gund isn't stupid. He knew there was a chance Boozer would leave if he let him out of his $700,000 contract. But he was [telling] the kid 'I respect you and I care about you and your family.' For him to get slapped in the face is wrong; even as an agent I have to say it's wrong. I talk to Gordon and I hear the devastation in his voice because he's from the old school, where if someone says something to you, you take him at his word.

"What Rob Pelinka did," said Goodwin, "was he figured out a way to get his guy out of his contract. And he lied to do it."

One can spin this any number of ways, but here's how I see it. On the court Boozer appears to be a player of integrity because he plays and practices hard. But if I were Paxson, I'd be glad he was gone. His integrity has a price tag of $30 million -- money that Boozer could have made up over the long run by playing alongside James.

I'm sure Paxson has his share of enemies who will accuse him of being tough, and possibly unfair, in negotiations; most of the contracts in this league are conducted on the edge. Some people will also point out that the Cavaliers were trying to sign Boozer to a smaller contract than he could have negotiated next summer.

But Boozer and his agent made their choice. Instead of rewarding Paxson, they are punishing the GM for doing a good deed.

The Cavaliers will now try to fill their power forward vacancy by applying their $5 million free-agent salary exception to either Antonio McDyess, who is coming off three injury-ruined years, or Vin Baker (represented by Goodwin), who is looking for a one-year opportunity to raise his stock.

But those are short-term answers. Over the long haul, you have to wonder if Jim Paxson, given all that he and his wife have been through in the last year, will simply say life's too short to be involved in this dirty business.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Ian Thomsen covers the NBA beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.