How LeBron James Can Prove 2014 Free Agency Won't Be a Repeat of 2010
LeBron James didn't want to talk about it then and doesn't want to talk about it now.
Free agency, that is.
James can opt out of the final two years of his current contract with the Miami Heat after the 2013-14 NBA season comes to a close, if he so chooses. There's already been rampant speculation about where LeBron might wind up, with the Los Angeles Lakers, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls already having been tossed around as potential destinations.
LeBron, to his credit, isn't taking the bait—not yet, anyway. He drew the line on questions about his future during the Heat's recent media day (via ESPN's Michael Wallace):
"You guys have to ask the questions. But I'm not going to address it. Once we get to that point [in June], then I'll address it. But I don't think it's appropriate right now."
"My concern is putting our team in a position to win another championship. That's my only goal, that's my only mind frame right now."
"For me, being a leader of this team, I owe it to this organization, I owe it to my teammates to really not get involved and not talk about it."
Clearly, the issue's been put to bed. From now until next summer, there won't be any chatter from James' camp about the sunny weather in LA, the comforts of home in Cleveland or what it might be like to play alongside Derrick Rose in the Windy City...right?
Maybe, maybe not. James took a similarly "hard-line" stance toward discussing his free agency the last time it was the topic of discussion.
Four years ago, James strolled into Cleveland Cavaliers media day—one that was aflutter over the arrival of a then-37-year-old soundbite machine by the name of Shaquille O'Neal—and told the attendant scrum (per Brian Windhorst, then of The Cleveland Plain Dealer), "Next summer is next summer and I'll deal with it then."
He was referring, of course, to the maiden voyage into the seas of free agency that awaited him in July of 2010.
Trouble is, James didn't wait until "then" to "deal with it." He dropped tidbits and teasers throughout the 2009-10 season as his Cavs, now with Shaq on board, pushed back toward title contention.
The noise surrounding LeBron reached a crescendo in early November of 2009, during Cleveland's only visit to Madison Square Garden that season. It was no secret that the New York Knicks, due to be flush with cap space for the first time in ages, were "lusting" after LeBron. Nor was it any mystery that James enjoyed playing at MSG and feeding off the energy of the city's faithful basketball fans.
He showed as much on that fall night. James poured in 33 points, eight rebounds, nine assists and three steals to propel the Cavs to a nine-point win. He seemed to soak up the hopeful adulation of the attendant Knicks fans and certainly didn't shy away from the attention after the game.
James was bombarded with questions about his impending free agency. But rather than swatting them away, as he'd previously suggested he would, LeBron entertained queries about timetables and decisions, albeit without any certainty attached (via The Associated Press):
"I don't know because it's the first time I'll be in this position, being an unrestricted free agent. I haven't been there yet, so I don't know. There's no timetable. I'm not going to rush it, I'm definitely going to stay in shape and stay in the gym next summer like I've always done and we'll see what happens."
He also addressed what his priorities would be in choosing a team:
"I think at the end of the day, a max deal or anything like that doesn't really matter to me. It's all about winning for me, so I'm going to put myself in a position when that day comes next summer.
"I want to win, and if I feel like the team is capable of winning, then I make my decision like that."
He even threw a bone to Knicks fans by wondering aloud why the NBA had only booked one trip to MSG for his Cavs:
"I don't know who made the schedule for the Cleveland Cavaliers to only be here once, I'm kind of disappointed in that."
LeBron enacted a moratorium of sorts on free agency talk later that season but not before taunting, tantalizing and (in the case of Cavs fans) torturing scores more with winks and nods, subtle or otherwise.
None of this helped his image once "The Decision" came down. LeBron would be taking his talents to South Beach but only after he'd needlessly dragged multiple franchises through the mud. He'd be joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, all the while leaving so many others high and dry after a year of turning road games into test drives.
We've seen, then, how quickly and how regrettably "I'm not going to talk about it" can turn into "Sure, let's talk about it" for LeBron. But that doesn't mean that this year's edition of the LeBron free-agent frenzy must or will play out the same way. To avoid going back down that all-too-familiar path, James needs to only do one thing.
Stay true to his word. Deflect questions about his free agency. Refuse to address the situation, just as he said he would at Miami's media day.
At this point, LeBron's circumstances indicate that he's not going to loosen his lips this time around, lest he risk sinking what remains a promising ship.
Four years ago, James wasn't a two-time champion gunning for a third. Rather, he was a supremely gifted player, a reigning MVP on the way to another, who'd yet to translate his regular-season success into championship glory.
By refusing to commit to a future in Cleveland from the outset, LeBron was not only keeping his own options open but also putting more pressure on the Cavs to improve the roster around him. General manager Danny Ferry's previous attempts to do so—with Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall in 2005, with Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West in February of 2008 and with Mo Williams the following August—had largely fallen flat.
That's why the Cavs acquired an aging Shaq from the Phoenix Suns prior to the 2009-10 season. That's why they angled for Antawn Jamison at the trade deadline in February of 2010. They were hoping to appease James, to massage his concerns about a subpar supporting cast, by surrounding him with flashy acquisitions, however last-ditch the efforts seemed.
The Heat should have no such problems placating James, or any reason to, for that matter. They don't have to convince LeBron that he can win just by staying put. Their front office doesn't have to prove that it can construct a squad that perfectly complements and takes advantage of LeBron's unique skill set at a championship level.
He's won two titles in three trips to the NBA Finals with the Heat. He's been to the top of the mountain twice, with wunderkind coach Erik Spoelstra orchestrating a team built around the league's best "Big Three."
He's seen Pat Riley retool the roster and fill out the fringes with role players. He knows that Riles will keep those that fit and cycle out those that don't, all the while vigilantly seeking out fresh options.
Where do you think LeBron will be after this season?
Where the Cavs once brought in the Big Diesel in a desperate attempt to complete their championship puzzle, the Heat have added Greg Oden, not to "save" a two-time defending champion, but rather to boost its already-vaulted ceiling with little risk attached. Where once Ferry sought out an over-the-hill Jamison to provide some much-needed scoring on the wing, Riley has now enlisted a familiar face in Michael Beasley, whose youth and ability still portend untapped potential under the right circumstances.
Where once New Yorkers wondered how LeBron would ever be able to resist the temptation of MSG, folks in Miami can only scoff at the notion of James willfully forgoing the sun, sand, surf and on-court success of which he's soaked up so much on South Beach.
This isn't to say, though, that LeBron isn't a flight risk whatsoever. It's possible that James would seriously consider a dance with deja vu should Miami fall short of a three-peat come spring of 2014. The Heat have inched dangerously close to the edge during each of their last two title runs, with three Game 7s and a miraculous Game 6 against the San Antonio Spurs among the many heart-attack-worthy wins.
Last week, Chris Bosh insinuated that a slip-up on the way to Title No. 3 could change the way he and his superstar teammates approach their respective futures. As he told Shandel Richardson of The South Florida Sun Sentinel:
“Everybody wants to know what we’re going to do (after the season),” Bosh said. “Yeah, I get it. Everything depends on this season. If we win, cool. If we lose, that’s when it’s like `What if?’"
That "What if," as dangerous as it could be for Miami, is still months away from becoming a reality, assuming it does at all. For now, the Heat can happily avoid collapsing into controversy over who's staying and who's going, so long as they stay focused on the difficult task at hand.
And so long as LeBron doesn't talk about it.
Keep up to date on LeBron's potential return to free agency with yours truly on Twitter!
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