NEW YORK – This was the way LeBron James(notes) fantasized the free-agent frenzy playing out, the hijacking of a sport unfolding over the NBA Finals and draft. Now the arms race for basketball’s biggest soap star has transformed into the most fascinating free-for-all this sport’s ever witnessed. Tampering is out of control, side deals promised everywhere, and James and his inner circle have the NBA where they’ve always wanted it: on its knees, bowing down to the King.
Despite the extravagant dinner party to entertain LeBron and his extended list of enablers that the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports the Knicks are planning for July 1, an executive with a team in pursuit of James believes it could be Broiled Walsh and D’Antoni served to empty seats. “LeBron’s taking appointments with teams in Ohio that day,” the official said.
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In this twisted, bizarre and broken culture of Stern’s NBA, the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat overshadowed the draft with what passes as accomplishment now: Gutting good players off rosters, clearing cap space and praying World Wide Wes is lying to everyone else, not you. Ernie Grunfeld was the most unpopular man in the sport for letting the Chicago Bulls use the Washington Wizards as a repository for Kirk Hinrich’s(notes) $9 million contract, the 17th pick in the draft and $3 million.
To listen to World Wide Wes, LeBron will never look back on Cleveland. “He’s up out of there,” is the way he tells it to people, but LeBron’s Akron crew has to tsk-tsk such public talk because they all live in Northeast Ohio, and maybe always will. “We’re going to Chicago,” William Wesley tells people, “and Chris Bosh(notes) is coming, too.”
Free agency started months ago, and there isn’t a day that passes that the biggest stars, agents and teams aren’t negotiating in violation of the NBA’s make-believe rules. Just make sure Phoenix Suns GM Steve Kerr sends his five-figure check for making a joke on a radio show about James. This is the biggest farce the NBA’s ever endorsed and enabled, and that’s saying a lot considering the people responsible for running this Truman Show starring LeBron, Wes and Maverick Carter.
The Bulls believe they’re going to get James, and that’s why they so confidently cleared the cap room needed to sign James and Bosh. The Bulls think they’re getting James and Toronto’s Chris Bosh, that the supporting cast of Derrick Rose(notes) and Joakim Noah(notes) make them the most attractive destination. Nevertheless, the biggest myth of free agency, some executives pursuing James say, is that recruiting Bosh is telltale to the cause. “Bosh is attaching himself more to LeBron, than LeBron is to him,” one official said.
New Jersey is trying hard to deliver Chris Paul(notes) for James, but here’s one problem: New Jersey would never offer center Brook Lopez(notes) in a package, and Hornets GM Jeff Bower wouldn’t even accept a trade that included the burgeoning 7-footer for Paul, a source said. Most of all, the Nets’ puncher’s chance is the excessive ego of James feeling lured to the possibilities of Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.
“Prokhorov is the draw,” one Eastern Conference official said. “The King thinks he can be a billion dollar guy.”
Prokhorov is expected to fly to Akron – perhaps as early as July 1 – and here’s an idea for him: He might want to sign his GM, Rod Thorn, to a contract, because some peers believe that without a contract soon the Nets top executive could walk away and retire. No one ran a smarter, shrewder draft campaign than Thorn, who turned insufferable Minnesota GM David Kahn into a basket case over the Nets threatening to draft Wesley Johnson(notes).
Even the least provocative and interesting of writers bought the bait the Nets were plotting a package deal with Johnson and free agent Carlos Boozer(notes). The Russians running the Nets want marquee free agents and Boozer doesn’t fit the sexy splash they’re angling for in July. For everything breaking loose on draft night, the Cavaliers had never looked so unappealing and distant in the James sweepstakes. The Cavs couldn’t give away a $30 million contract to Tom Izzo and they can’t get Byron Scott to take the offer of a job over the possibility of two others in Los Angeles that he’ll probably never get. Cleveland had no draft picks on Thursday and little more than sentimentality to sell LeBron James to stay home.
The most unforgettable moment of the offseason had to be the Cavs’ new GM, Chris Grant, standing there at his introductory news conference reading a list of scripted compliments about his owner that the organization laid out for him. The Cavs can script these things, but they’re losing control of the free-agency narrative. For so long, owner Dan Gilbert enabled everything with LeBron – the bigger-than-life billboards, the full-time jobs and summer league roster spots for his buddies and the endless capitulations that contributed to his obsession with creating a culture of all him, all the time in the NBA.
LeBron’s title chase is lurching closer and closer, the Ego Championship of the NBA. All hell is breaking loose, broken rules and broken promises ruling the day. Somewhere, James was smiling on Thursday night. All these kids getting a dream fulfilled, all these picks walking to the podium, and it was still all about LeBron James on draft night. On your knees, people. Bow down to the King. Bow to the chaos.