Someone called @bringontheking hit me up on Twitter a week or so back asking me – not to mention the rest of the Twitter-sphere – to show some love for a campaign to bring Lebron James to the New York Knicks. While I was happy to sign up to this, it also got me thinking about how far fans and franchises will go to secure the free agent that will revitalise their fortunes. How much should a team’s management be prepared to offer? How much influence can an organisation concede to one player and what are the consequences?
In the past month alone, Clippers fans announced they intend to stage a ‘Lebron Parade’ to attract Free Agent No 1 to the left coast, President Obama told Marv Albert that his Chicago Bulls offered LBJ a “great situation” and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined for comments he made speculating on Lebron’s intentions. Then there’s the much-vaunted “free agent summit” proposed between James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and, somewhat inexplicably given his awful playoff performances, Joe Johnson.
Let’s make a couple of things clear. No type of fan campaign, especially one organised by Clippers fans, is going to attract a big name free agenct to a city. Do you honestly think any player cares about these things? It might be flattering, but it isn’t going decide things one way or the other. Secondly, kudos to David Stern for slapping down the proposed free agency summit. Yes, it was totally overhyped by the press but any suggestion that the best players in the game are allegedly colluding to map out the next five to ten years of NBA championships is bad for the game. Not to mention the fact that, as long as Kobe keeps playing, the likes of James, Bosh and Wade are guaranteed zero rings, regardless of whatever plan they concoct between them.
But the real issue recent events in the ‘Lebron Sweepstakes’ got me thinking about is that of player power. In England, land of the Sportsbloke, player power in football rules in the English Premier League. Teams have been virtually bankrupted by the percentage of their overall earnings spent on player wages. Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez was recently relieved of his duties after losing the trust of his star players Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.
How much should an NBA franchise concede in order to secure Lebron’s services? During the playoffs, the rumour that LBJ and Kentucky coach John Calipari were being offered to teams as a package deal abounded. Now, despite his success in college ball, Calipari’s late 90s stint as an NBA coach with the Nets was not a success. Did whoever proposed this deal really expect the Heat, the Nets or, the alleged most likely candidate, the Bulls accede to this just to get Lebron? Luckily, getting a big name coach has never been the way the Bulls have done things, something borne out by their hiring of Vinny del Negro a few years ago. Hell, they got Phil Jackson from the CBA!
As for New York, a recent story on Forbes.com suggested Lebron would be offered shares in the Knicks franchise in addition to his a contract. The theory here was that the better James played, the more the Knicks’ stock would (literally) rise ensuring he made a mammoth amount of cash.
This particular option was slapped back down by the league itself. NBA spokesman Michael Bass revealed that “ownership of shares in MSG in a situation such as this would constitute salary cap circumvention.”
And it’s not just the team’s courting Lebron prepared to give him free reign. In recent weeks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have cleared the decks in their front office. GM Danny Ferry resigned just weeks after dead coach walking Mike Brown was shown the door. It now appears that, in addition to being able to pay James more than anyone else, the Cavs are also prepared to let him pick and choose his own men to run the franchise.
But what’s the point? What qualifications does Lebron have to make these decisions? None. Does keeping him on such one-sided terms put the team any nearer landing a championship? No. The recipe for NBA championship success is tried and tested and relatively simple. You get two coachable all stars, a half decent coach and a stable front office. Is it any accident the Lakers and the Celtics are in the finals again? Of course not.
I don’t think Donnie Walsh should even attempt to match what the Cavs are doing to land Lebron. And I don’t think he will. Players, even franchise players, shouldn’t dictate anything more than what happens on the court. Look at the catastrophic effect of Isiah Thomas’ indulgence of Stephon Marbury. How did that work out for us? Now Lebron is no Marbury but, if he’s more interested in making movies, taking shares and gladhanding fellow celebrities, he’s not going to be the ‘King of New York’ that all Knicks fans want him to be.
Kobe remains the best player in the game because, in addition to his prodigious talents, his head is always in the game. The man lives basketball and he has no time for anything else, even a sideline conversation with Chris Rock. Does the younger generation of NBA superstars have Kobe’s degree of focus? Absolutely not. While Kobe wins rings, Lebron talks to Larry King in a lame bid to take the spotlight away from the NBA finals and Dwight Howard, a man whose apparent arrested development is genuinely weird, would rather dress up and interview himself than win basketball games. Maybe Wade and Bosh share Bryant’s competitive drive. Carmelo Anthony certainly does, but the Knicks will have to wait until 2011 if they want to land him.
So Lebron, if it’s up to me, the Knicks can give you your max contract. You can have the keys to the city and make as many marketing dollars as you and Nike desire. You can light up Madison Square Garden with your skills and athleticism and bask in the glory of putting the Knicks among the upper echelons of the NBA. But you don’t get to pick the coach. And you don’t get to decide who the GM should be. And if you don’t like it, you’d obviously rather be a sports entertainer than a Knicks basketball legend.