LeBron James' free-agent decision appears to have the rest of the NBA on hold. (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)
It’s LeBron James’ world. The NBA is just living in it.
Groveling in it, too, in some corners. And no doubt reveling in it, in others.
Four years after “The Decision” held the league captive, King James is at it again, weighing his options and mulling his free-agent future while everyone else waits and wonders and shrieks and speculates and tweets and tracks flights in a vacuum created by his majesty’s virtual silence.
Tuesday was the anniversary of James rocking Cleveland and taking his talents to South Beach back in 2010. And at the rate the rumors were flying early this week, would it surprise anyone if ESPN — or maybe Oprah — was busy behind the scenes plotting the sequel?
LeBron’s latest hesitation move has turned this NBA offseason into a head-scratching, headline-grabbing “Game of Thrones” spinoff. And whether he decides to stay in King’s Landing (Miami), return to Winterfell (Cleveland) or perhaps invade some new territory, the fate of many innocents rests in his hands.
Start with the championship-starved fans in northeast Ohio. Once spurned, they’ve been led to believe a redemptive homecoming is at hand. But fool me once, as the saying goes. And as cruelly as Cleveland was treated the first time — and as poorly as Cavs owner Dan Gilbert handled the disappointment — one can only wonder what the reaction would be this time.
Then again, maybe the greatest player of his generation really is on the move again, having won a pair of championship rings while taking Miami to four consecutive NBA Finals.
Point is, nobody really seems to know. Nobody willing to go on the record, at least.
The last words we heard from James on the subject came after the San Antonio Spurs had finished off the Heat in Game 5 of this year’s Finals. James swatted away a couple of questions about his future, before eventually — after an uncomfortable pause — answering, “Me and my team will sit down and deal with it.”
Now then, his “team” — and James wasn’t talking about the Heat there — has been pushing the idea of LeBron’s triumphant return to Cleveland for some time now. And as far back as February 2012, James himself left open the possibility, acknowledging his own “mistakes” and extending an olive branch of sorts to Gilbert, who had followed up “The Decision” with “The Letter” in which he ripped Cleveland’s “former hero” for his “cowardly betrayal.”
All of this may mean nothing, of course, though it was interesting to hear Miami Heat president Pat Riley angrily responding to reports of unrest even before James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh opted out of their respective contracts.
“You’ve got to stay together if you got the guts,” Riley said. “And you don’t find the first door and run out of it.”
Riley, James meet Wednesday
James’ agent, Rich Paul, has since held formal discussions with Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Dallas and the Los Angeles Lakers. But it’ll be Riley who gets the first closed-door meeting with the four-time league MVP on Wednesday in Las Vegas, where James, who also dined and worked out with Wade on Tuesday, is attending a Nike-sponsored basketball camp.
What happens in Vegas almost assuredly will not stay there in this case, and a decision — if not another Decision — should come before James heads to Brazil for the World Cup final this weekend.
But whenever it does, and whether he stays or goes, the domino effect will be felt not just in Miami and Cleveland, but also in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago and Houston and all throughout the league. Even here in Detroit, where the Pistons’ biggest offseason decision — what to do with restricted free agent Greg Monroe? — likely won’t be made until the post-LeBron marketplace takes shape. (The Atlanta Hawks are one of a handful of teams that might extend an offer sheet.)
Going for the max
Stan Van Gundy made it clear the Pistons won’t be slugging for the fences this summer, instead saying they’ll “be OK” with a couple of singles and a double. (At nearly $20 million over three years, Jodie Meeks better be an extra-base hit, by the way.)
But plenty of other teams are going all-in in pursuit of max-contract players like James and Carmelo Anthony and, yes, even Bosh. That leaves second-tier options like Pau Gasol and Lance Stephenson in a holding pattern, along with the rest of us.
That is good for business, even if it’s giving general managers around the league a collectively bargained headache.
Sure, the NHL’s salary-capped shuffling may be easier for fans to understand. And Gary Bettmann’s league still offers an annual few-day frenzy of mad money spent with good intentions. (Hello, Brooks Orpik!)
But it’s hard to beat the star power the NBA cultivates — or the astrology. And though the players union got rolled in the last labor deal — the owners lining their pockets under the guise of leaguewide parity — the players still get guaranteed contracts and shorter terms.
That, in turn, gives the league something else it craved: offseason drama that’s as compelling as the playoffs. Off the court, and on to the courtship.