2010 NBA Free Agency: Why LeBron James Should Sign A Three-Year Contract

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistJune 29, 2010

BOSTON - MAY 13:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers stands by in the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics during Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2010 NBA playoffs at TD Garden on May 13, 2010 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeated the Cavaliers 94-85.  NOTE TO USER: User Expressly Acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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On multiple occasions, LeBron James has alluded to his desire to become the world's first billionaire athlete. 

Okay, Tiger Woods may have beaten him in the footrace to $1 billion, but I doubt that means LeBron doesn't want to join that VIP club.  Then again, if Tiger's about to pay out $750 million to his soon-to-be ex-wife, LeBron may get the jump on Tiger.

LeBron has also declared that championships matter more to him than anything—even money.

This summer, LeBron has the opportunity to put his money where his mouth is, literally.

The smart money says LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh (among others) sign five- or six-year max contracts this summer to avoid any potential changes that arise whenever next year's collective bargaining agreement finally gets agreed upon. According to rumors, NBA owners hope to decrease the maximum length of max contracts and shrink the maximum amount of money a player can receive in a year.

The smarter money says if the players really valued championships over all else, they'd sign three-year deals and not think twice about it.

Now, I'm not as bold as Sports Illustrated 's Chris Ballard—I'm not going to suggest LeBron should sign for the league minimum.

I won't go with the tried-and-true, "the man's got a family to feed!" argument as a counter to Ballard, though.   I'll just say that a guy like LeBron, who's theoretically outworking 99 percent of his fellow NBA peers off the court, deserves a little more compensation than $10,000/game. 

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In fact, I'm not suggesting that teams this summer shouldn't readily hand out the max to King James.  Quite the contrary—if teams have the cap space, it's tough to argue against awarding a max contract to the league's back-to-back MVP, a guy who averaged 29.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 8.6 assists per game this past season.

But the uncertainty surrounding the new CBA should be enough to give even the most freewheeling owners pause this summer.

In the owners' first proposal back in February, they suggested implementing a hard salary cap, reducing the length and value of maximum contracts, and most importantly, grandfathering current deals into the new agreement.  In other words, all the projections of sign-and-trade max contracts being worth $130 million this summer could hold true for all of one year, before adapting to the new CBA.

The players' union will submit a counter proposal to the league soon, but at this point, both sides have mentioned a 2011 lockout as a realistic option.

If both sides are stubborn enough to cause a lockout, neither will emerge from negotiations without making significant concessions. 

For instance—What if the owners agree not to grandfather current contracts into the new CBA, allowing LeBron and company their $25 million/year deals in 2015, but they reduce the value and length of max contracts in the new CBA?  What happens to the team who's paying LeBron $25 million/year in 2015, when no other player can make more than $12 million? 

The point is, no one knows what will happen by the time the players' union and the owners actually hammer out a new agreement. 

Signing LeBron to a three-year deal provides his future team the financial flexibility to withstand any drastic changes to the NBA's salary structure.  A three-year deal guarantees that a team can't get locked into a restrictive contract for the next half-decade.

It's not like LeBron won't make enough money to feed his family.  Let's be honest, if he retired today and took even remotely decent care of his money, he'd have enough money to feed his family for the rest of his life. 

Whatever money LeBron forgoes by passing up a longer-term deal, he can make up with in endorsements by winning an NBA championship.  And until LeBron can win a championship, the LBJ brand may have already reached its peak.

Admittedly, this move will be a calculated gamble for LeBron.  There's always the chance his career arc follows Grant Hill's.  LeBron could dominate the league for the first few years of his career, suffer a career-altering injury after changing teams, and never fully regain his abilities again. 

Then again, if this New York Times-reported LeBron and Bosh to Chicago is "a done deal" as suggested, the Bulls can win two or three titles in the next three years.  If that happens, LeBron begins to be even more hotly pursued in the summer of 2013, if that's even possible.

Considering LeBron's Larry King interview during the NBA finals this year, it's presumably safe to say LeBron wouldn't mind the attention and adoration in 2013. 

James may end up costing himself millions contractually by forgoing the final three years of a six-year sign-and-trade deal, but would the financial flexibility he afforded his team outweigh those millions? 

If he's truly committed to winning a championship—more than fame, money, power, anything—then the only answer should be "yes."

In the coming days, we'll get a chance to see if LeBron truly puts his money where his mouth has gone before. 

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