While Lebron James gives the Cavaliers good reason to believe they can build a championship team, those dreams would be shattered if the 20-year-old prodigy leaves as a free agent in 2007 or '08. And therein lies the challenge for new Cavs owner Dan Gilbert--to quickly turn a team that is scratching just to make the playoffs into a title contender or risk losing his most valuable asset.
Three factors could lead LeBron to leave Cleveland. For starters, league sources believe that Nike (which signed James to a $90 million endorsement contract in 2003) is obligated to pay him more if he plays in a bigger market. "He may be willing to sign for nothing more than the mid-level exception [$5 million] with the understanding that Nike will make up the difference," says an executive for a Western Conference club. More important is the fact that James won't realize his iconic potential unless he wins championships. Neither he nor agent Aaron Goodwin will say so, but it's a no-brainer that James would leave for a promising contender rather than take a chance of becoming Cleveland's version of the Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett--an MVP with little chance of winning a ring.
Then there's factor number 3: the growing impression around the league that Gilbert may ruin what looks to be a good thing in Cleveland. The Cavs were 31--23 when Gilbert was approved by his fellow owners and took control on Feb. 28; since then they'd gone 7--11 at week's end, and on March 21, in the midst of an 11-game road losing streak, Gilbert replaced coach Paul Silas with assistant Brendan Malone. The firing may have been a blessing in disguise for Silas, who has said that he'd wanted out ever since a 45-minute introductory meeting with Gilbert. "For this team to not make the playoffs this year would have been a catastrophe," says Gilbert, a 42-year-old Internet entrepreneur from Detroit, "and the way it was going with Paul Silas, there was a good chance of that happening." Gilbert is expected to shake up the franchise even more by firing general manager Jim Paxson after the season.
Stirring up so much turmoil is a risky strategy for Gilbert because the Cavaliers aren't that far from their goal. All they need to do is re-sign 7'3" center Zydrunas Ilgauskas at a reasonable price, add a shot-blocking power forward and bring in a perimeter shooter such as looming free agent Michael Redd, who may be disinclined to re-sign with Milwaukee in the wake of rumors last week that the franchise was for sale. Here's more good news for Cleveland fans: Word around the league is that commissioner David Stern has been negotiating a higher salary cap in exchange for shortened contracts. Under the current $43.9 million cap the Cavaliers were counting on spending at least $8 million on free agents this summer; that figure will increase significantly should the cap rise to $48 million or more next season, as three league sources are confident will happen.
During a lengthy interview last week Gilbert was soft-spoken and humble while shooting down rumors that he would hire Bill Laimbeer as coach and Sam Vincent as general manager. He also said his goal is to replace the traditional NBA chain of command with a "no boundaries" approach in which the G.M. or the coach would be open to suggestions from any employee. "We're going to create such a great environment and culture for LeBron that he wouldn't even think about going anywhere else," says Gilbert. "This should be a fun, exciting place."
He is taking his eye off the ball, though, if he thinks that will be enough to hold on to James; wins--not fun--are what will keep LeBron in Cleveland. If Gilbert sets back the Cavaliers by trying to reinvent a winning organization, he risks making the biggest mistake in the NBA since the Magic let Shaquille O'Neal walk. ?