Countdown: The LeBron Fallout
LeBron James wouldn't have gone to Miami if it weren't for Pat Riley
Even with the Big Three in Miami, the Lakers are still favored to win it all
Other topics: Partnerships that fail, Kevin Durant, Jerry Colangelo
So now we know.
Oops! All season I've been predicting that James would remain in Cleveland. I stayed with it on the assumption that he would not be able to leave home on the terms that he arranged Thursday night. When I forecast in November that James would announce his free-agent decision on a live TV broadcast, the idea made sense only if he was going to use that setting to declare his allegiance to Cleveland. Eight months ago it was as obvious as it was Thursday night that an hour-long TV show to spotlight his departure from Cleveland would not be a good thing for him.
He clearly looked uncomfortable making such a difficult announcement in so intrusive and revealing a setting, and this goes down as a mistake in judgment by a 25-year-old who hadn't made many errors -- or enemies, for that matter. There will be more of both to come now that he has moved out of comfortable Cleveland and into a new market and a new kind of public standing. He is less likely to recognize the dangers until they're upon him.
Dan Gilbert's anger. The Cavaliers' owner has suddenly repositioned himself as LeBron's angered victim. He has promised to assemble a championship team in Cleveland before James is able to lead a victory parade down South Beach. That may not come to pass, but he has created -- for the moment, at least -- a defiant sense of pride in his franchise. He has also tapped into the negativity James created by showcasing his decision as something to celebrate, when for much of the country it actually said something very sad about an athlete walking away from a native relationship with his region. The entire country was angry with owner Art Modell for moving the Browns out of Cleveland years ago, and the same kind of anger is brewing now around James. He could have lessened its impact by handling the move in a more sensitive, dignified and altogether humble way.
The Heat are reportedly attempting to negotiate a sign-and-trade with Cleveland that would enable James to earn more money while providing the Heat with the space to re-sign Udonis Haslem as well as recruit Matt Barnes from Orlando. It will be interesting to see if Gilbert is willing to work with Miami.
The Cavs' role. They were given seven years to come up with a Scottie Pippen or Manu Ginobili or Joe Dumars -- a fellow star in his prime -- to join James. They failed to acquire or develop a No. 2 player.
But the Cavs may respond by saying they might have won the championship this year had James not played a stinker Game 5 in Cleveland's pivotal home loss in the conference semifinals against Boston. Maybe the Cavs were upset in the last two postseasons because their key players hadn't played together for long enough -- in which case they'll argue they were under pressure to make major roster moves every few months by the pressure of James' upcoming free agency. In truth, the Cavs never made that terrific Kevin Garnett or Pau Gasol acquisition that sealed James to Cleveland, and James ran out of patience even though his franchise was on the verge of breaking through -- so this outcome reflects badly on both the departed player and his former franchise.
Charisma. James would not have come to Miami if not for Heat president Pat Riley. It is a certainty that only Riley -- among all of the executives who were trying to recruit James while constructing championship rotations around -- had the credibility to pull this off. The mistake is to assume that it came down to Riley moussing his hair and walking in with his championship rings. The truth is he did a lot of the behind-the-scenes work to develop relationships and earn trust that other some of the other teams didn't attempt. The only other recruiter with the charisma to potentially reel in James was Kentucky coach John Calipari, who was available to be hired at a steep price, but no NBA team was willing to take on the gamble of handing over control to Calipari.
The new geography. The three biggest free-agent coups have been pulled off by warm-weather franchises -- the Lakers' 1996 signing of Shaquille O'Neal, who remains the only big-time free agent to earn a championship for his new club; the Magic's 2000 signings of Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill, which went unfulfilled because of Hill's injuries; and now this move by James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade in Miami. My own view is that the presences of Jerry West as GM of the Lakers and Riley with Miami had more to do with those successes than the weather. But the weather doesn't hurt.
Now that the big-name free agents are off the board, which team is in the best position to win it all next season?
-- Mark, Houston
The Lakers, undoubtedly so. Don't count out Miami until we see who Riley is able to sign to veteran minimum contracts. But the Lakers have the requisite talent and next season will be their fourth together, which gives them a big advantage in team play. The Heat will have to fight through Orlando and Boston, two deep contenders that will be bracing for the challenge.
What does the future hold for the Clippers now that they failed to get any of the top free agents and have a lot of cap space?
-- Lleyton, Los Angeles
They need scoring at small forward to space the floor for rookie power forward Blake Griffin as well as center Chris Kaman in the post. Josh Childress, Richard Jefferson, Al Harrington and Matt Barnes should be among the candidates. A backup to point guard Baron Davis -- in light of his trouble with injuries -- is another necessity. But it's no big deal they've struck out in the first round of free agency, as no one expected them to have a shot at LeBron anyway. Griffin alone represents a huge upgrade for them.
There have been many instances of when All-Star-caliber players team up only to fail (see Kobe and Gary Payton, Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, Michael Jordan and Jerry Stackhouse ...). What makes everyone think Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade (and now James) will be any different?
-- Michael, Orlando
That is the issue to be determined. None of those partnerships was as dynamic or promising as the trio now assembled in Miami. The Heat are going to be an athletic and aggressive open-floor team that is built to exploit the liberating perimeter rules that will make the difficult to guard away from the basket. The best and hope for rivals is that Wade and James won't be able to play together, or that Bosh will feel left out.
Why has no one talked more about Kevin Durant and his $85 million extension with the Thunder, which he quietly announced on Twitter? He did it the right way, without a big show. And he's probably the most deserving of a lucrative deal.
-- Harry, Oklahoma City
He did it the right way, but he was also a beneficiary of circumstance. He had to take the money now before the next collective bargaining agreement could diminish his income, and he had no leverage to force his way out of Oklahoma City -- not that he has given any indication of wishing to do so. That contract was a no-brainer for Durant and his team, and together they move toward expectations of an even better season and deeper playoff run.
Here is why I wanted to talk Friday morning to Colangelo, the former owner of the Suns.
He signed the first unrestricted free agent. Tom Chambers left the Seattle Sonics in 1989 to sign with the Suns. "We were in an Italian restaurant in New York at an owners meeting when all of the rules of free agency were being explained,'' recalled Colangelo. "I remember making eye contact with the Seattle owner Barry Ackerley -- and in my mind without saying anything I said, 'This just cost you Tom Chambers.' At the stroke of midnight I had his agent, Howard Slusher, on the phone and I told him I'd be there the next morning. I went to see Tom in Los Angeles, and I said, 'What are you seeking?' They gave me a number. I said no, and then I said, 'Here's what I'm prepared to do, and I'll give you 20 minutes to say yes or no.' While I was there, four calls came through from other teams trying to get an appointment. Fifteen minutes later Tom came in and said, 'You've got yourself a forward.''
Which is to say that the process has changed in a big way since then.
He outfitted the U.S. Airways Center to help recruit players by installing a practice arena and other amenities. "The practice arena was on the drawing board in '89 and we opened the building in '92,' said Colangelo. "We had a state-of-the-art practice court with a clubhouse and training facility for the players, and at that time no one was willing to give up all that space in an arena. When we started recruiting free agents we'd have the lights dimmed, and the uniform made up for them in the locker -- we made presentations back then. That was 18 years ago.
I asked Colangelo, 70, how he came up with those ideas. "I remember when I was a kid I would go to the old Chicago Stadium, I'd go in to watch college doubleheaders and dream of going onto that court and playing. Then it came true when I was at Illinois and we were playing Notre Dame and going into the stadium. First time came down those rickety old steps and went into the filthy lockerroom with two showerheads on the wall, I said, you've got to be kidding me, this is the big time? It registered.''
The NBA owners meet Monday in Las Vegas. Three stars players came up with a plan of their own to team together in Miami, but they won't have the final say. Gatherings of the owners, who are preparing for collective-bargaining on a new agreement with the union, will ultimately have a larger impact on the league than the coup in Miami. A lockout and a more austere salary-cap structure appear on the horizon.
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