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How the Varejao-Cavs rift may affect LeBron's future

Posted: Wednesday November 28, 2007 3:27PM; Updated: Wednesday November 28, 2007 3:55PM
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Anderson Varejao (right) was a key factor in helping LeBron James and the Cavs reach the Eastern Conference finals last season.
Anderson Varejao (right) was a key factor in helping LeBron James and the Cavs reach the Eastern Conference finals last season.
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LeBron James is playing like an MVP this season while keeping the Cavs afloat. But will this latest chapter in the Anderson Varejao saga -- the unsigned free agent forward now says he no longer wants to play in Cleveland -- affect James' view of the direction of the franchise?

After all, James can opt out of his contract and become a free agent in the summer of 2010.

"They've got to be concerned about keeping LeBron happy," an Eastern Conference assistant general manager said. "That's really the bigger issue in this whole thing. If you're not careful, things like this can cause a chasm between the front office and the players."

Cleveland holds all the cards with Varejao and wants the restricted free agent to sign a multiyear deal in the $5 million-a-year range. Varejao wants either a longer-term deal at bigger numbers (six years, roughly $50 million), or a one-year deal at what he considers a bargain rate ($5 million) that would grant him unrestricted free agency after the season.

The Cavs are unwilling to do the former because it is considered way above market value and would tie up their flexibility for years to come. They don't want to do the latter because it would enable Varejao to walk away next summer. The Cavs were burned a few years ago when Carlos Boozer left via free agency, and don't want to put themselves in that position again.

Negotiations on a new deal have dragged on for months, with no end in sight. On Monday, the situation seemed to take a turn for the worse when Varejao told ESPN.com that he didn't want to play in Cleveland any longer.

James has steered clear of the fray so far -- at least publicly. While he says he would like to have his former teammate back on the court, he has not criticized management. He also has supported Varejao.

"Sometimes things can be twisted the wrong way; I don't know if there is a lot of truth to that," James said in response to Varejao's recent comments. "When I have spoken to Andy, he wants to be on this team. It's his career for him, if he doesn't want to be back here. ... If he has a problem with the front office, then he's young enough to go somewhere else and play."

GM Danny Ferry has declined to discuss negotiations in the media. But he knows fans are concerned about how the Varejao saga might affect James. He has spoken to his superstar to help make certain he knows the situation and the team's position.

"We've let [our players] know our mind-set is to keep going in the right direction both in the short term and the long term," Ferry told SI.com. "We want to win now, but we also want to win long term as well."

LeBron's play certainly has been sensational. He recently had back-to-back triple-doubles, and put up 38 points and 13 assists Tuesday night to lead Cleveland past the Celtics in overtime.

But the Varejao mess has left a cloud hanging over the Cavs. At the beginning of the season, James admitted he was concerned about not having Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic. The latter eventually re-signed, but James' comments were telling.

"We're not as good as we were if we have those guys," he told the Akron Beacon Journal. "It's simple. We all know that. Those two guys are a big part of our team. There's no reason to sit here and say we're better without them. I think they're a key point to our team."

The issue for the Cavs is whether James holds it against them down the road. The bottom line is there is still a lot of time. If Cleveland can continue to surround him with the pieces he needs to contend for championships, this Varejao mess probably won't have much long-term effect. But if the Cavs don't win big, LeBron might look back on it as the beginning of the end.