For the second time in four years, the NBA's best player is also its most powerful. As we enter the second week of free agency—better known as the window in which things actually get done—the world is once again bowing at the throne of King James.
There are some differences this time around. LeBron has not been holding court in meetings, gallivanting across the contiguous United States in an effort to get league executives to throw themselves at him. Team meetings with James' agent, Rich Paul, have gone on behind the scenes—some taking place when the four-time league MVP was out of the country entirely.
There will be no television show this time around. LeBron has long admitted The Decision was among the gravest mistakes of his NBA career. When we get actual, concrete information on James' future, it will likely happen via a #WojBomb the same way it does with other free agents. The whole thing has been so low-key that most assumed for the first few days of July that it was a foregone conclusion he'd return to the Miami Heat.
Now that we know James is at least willing to entertain other overtures, the entire script has been flipped. For the myriad differences between the process of 2010 and 2014, one fact remains the same: LeBron James holds the entire weight of the NBA world in his hands.
People don't crazily track planes for scrubs. Fans aren't so desperate for positive information that they will endlessly retweet and believe someone who fashions himself a "street wear model" over sourced reporters for other players. NBA teams do not leave a scathing letter besmirching a man's name up on their website for four years accidentally, nor does the timing of its removal seem at all coincidental.
Dan Gilbert has a plane. It's here. pic.twitter.com/G7WUeUcV87— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) July 6, 2014
Even when James goes out of his way to avoid the frenzy, we will create it on our own. This is a circus all of our doing, of fans' ridiculously deep ties to their franchises and media members need to get every piece of information out for the insatiable public.
This is also evidence of how much James' decision stands to reshape the NBA hierarchy.
A return to the Heat remains significantly more likely than any other outcome. Miami has given James four straight NBA Finals appearances, his first two rings and a familial atmosphere. In Cleveland, James was the spoiled son surrounded by helicopter parents who wanted nothing more than for him to raise his family in the parental basement. In Miami, James became the grown man who finally found himself after leaving the nest for college.
James staying with the Heat results in a status quo. Chris Bosh is patiently waiting for his MVP-winning teammate to make his decision. Bosh has long stated his desire to remain in Miami, and Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN and others have reported that he's rebuffing other overtures for now.
Dwyane Wade is such a lock to stay with the Heat that I'm not even sure other teams have called him. The only "rumors" about Wade floating in the ether are about his uncertainty about James—and how much of a pay cut he's willing to take to appease James. I've become worried that his phone has been broken for the last week and he doesn't realize it yet.
LeBron staying—even if it's at a maximum salary—allows Miami's plans and the rest of free agency to take shape. The Heat will immediately begin targeting mid-tier veterans they hope will take a pay cut to compete for championships. They've already been linked to multiple players, but adding pieces will be easier once the Big Three are back in the fold.
This also means the Rockets, who Stein and Shelburne say have targeted Bosh, are likely to strike out on big names this summer. Houston has all but been ruled out of the Carmelo Anthony chase. There is a growing sense around the league that his decision will come down to New York and Los Angeles, per Stein, and Chicago is the more likely destination among teams that cannot offer a max contract.
With Bosh back in Miami, the Rockets would have to act quickly if they want to add pieces. Every passing day is another one in which Chandler Parsons could sign an offer sheet that puts Houston's feet to the fire. Daryl Morey's plan has long been to sign a third star-level player and then go over the salary cap to re-sign Parsons.
In a scenario in which the Big Three return, where does Morey turn? Does he hop into the Lance Stephenson fray? What about a maximum offer sheet to Gordon Hayward? Does Luol Deng become an option?
The same types of questions can be asked about the Bulls, assuming they miss out on Anthony. These are secondary contingencies that no one is really considering at the moment.
On the other hand, those questions pale in comparison to the utter havoc LeBron returning to Cleveland would create. LeBron would be exalted as such a hero in Cleveland that they might throw a damn parade in his honor. Harrowing columns about lessons learned over these four years and quotes about mentoring young players will fall from the sky like an April rain.
The prodigal son will have returned—and all hell will have broken out elsewhere.
Bosh comes back into play for Houston, Dallas and possibly Chicago. Wade, still waiting for his phone to ring, realizes that a recruiting pitch from the 32-year-old version of himself does sound as enticing as the 28-year-old version. Pat Riley scrambles to cobble together a cogent roster. Or perhaps he doesn't, realizing the empire has fallen and allowing it to crumble.
The Pacers suddenly realize their championship window is RIGHT DAMN NOW. Indiana probably revamps its push to retain Stephenson at whatever cost is necessary and talks of "quietly" shopping Roy Hibbert, as reported by Sean Deveney of Sporting News, vanish. Indiana without a Big Three in place knows it's the best team in the East; perhaps Larry Bird even pushes into the luxury tax to acquire better surrounding talent.
The Bulls would sense a similar opportunity. Are they not a more attractive destination to Anthony, who'd make Chicago the Eastern Conference favorite? If not, isn't it incumbent on Gar Forman to make an instant splash anyway? Forman still has Carlos Boozer's contract to deal with, but the Bulls have enough assets for a team to pull the trigger on his $16.8 million salary for 2014-15.
LeBron leaving might wind up creating an unexpected boom in secondary salaries. Stephenson, Deng, Trevor Ariza, Pau Gasol and the heaping pile of restricted guys on the market suddenly become more attractive when teams think they can alter the championship picture. The Cavs with LeBron are among the favorites in this fictional Eastern Conference, but they are by zero means a juggernaut. When teams sense blood in the championship water, history says they strike.
Where will LeBron James sign?
That's what makes James' free agency so captivating. Paragraphs upon paragraphs of speculation can be written about just two possible destinations. If LeBron pulls the rug out from under everyone and joins Carmelo with the Lakers, I'm quitting and spending the next four years in an underground shelter. The NBA might as well eliminate the Eastern Conference entirely at that point.
But Cleveland, Miami? Seemingly half of the NBA's franchises and two dozen or so players are going to be affected by where LeBron's talents are headed. The power rests entirely in his hands.
Just one question remains: Which will it be?
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