NEW YORK – As a Western Conference contender disassembled out of frugality and panic on Wednesday, Miami Heat star LeBron James should've been recalibrating the realities of the free-agent frenzy awaiting him in 2014. For him, the economics of the sport keep reaffirming that three's a crowd now, that James will have to choose a partnership with one superstar teammate.
The Super Friends scenarios are gone, replaced with the NBA's vision of talent spreading out to the have-nots. James Harden leaves Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for Houston. And months before it was necessary to do so, before the Memphis Grizzlies could make a run in the Western Conference playoffs, they moved Rudy Gay to Toronto and out of Zach Randolph's and Marc Gasol's lives.
James has helped to make it so profitable to be an NBA owner that Robert Pera bought the Grizzlies, hired a front office of novices, ran out a successful scouting staff and began to unload genuine assets for pennies on the dollar. Just recently, James tweeted, "What the hell we have lockout for?" upon learning of the $525 million selling price of the Sacramento Kings.
Why? Simple: The NBA's owners wanted to break up the super teams and create a system that'll assure Pera can mismanage the Grizzlies into oblivion and still make money on the enterprise. The max contract system makes James the most underpaid athlete on the planet, and soon it will do something else, too: It makes most precarious his future with the Miami Heat.
[Related: Grizzlies trade Rudy Gay to Raptors in three-team deal]
LeBron James could become a free agent in the summer of 2014. (USA Today Sports)
James' agent and childhood friend, Rich Paul, born and raised and still living in Cleveland, has been privately telling people for two years of his intrigue with bringing the prodigal son back as the conquering hero in Cleveland. James will ultimately make the call to return – just like he made it to leave – rest assured that the most important voices in his ear will be partial to Cleveland again.
Klutch Sports – Paul's new agency – calls Cleveland home. And its client, Tristian Thompson, would assuredly benefit with an eventual rich contract extension should Paul deliver James back to the Cavaliers.
"Riley has never given them the run of the place in Miami," one high-level associate of James' inner-circle said, "and they could all be back in business together in Cleveland. For Rich and [business manager] Maverick [Carter], they all see the benefits of getting the credit for bringing LeBron home again."
As significant as sentiment could play into the possibility of James returning to the Cavaliers, there's an understanding that as Dwyane Wade pushes into his 30s, past his prime, Cleveland's Kyrie Irving will emerge as the planet's preeminent point guard in two years.
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets' Reggie Evans disputed the legitimacy of the Heat's shortened lockout-season championship on Wednesday morning, declaring James a comparable talent to the Nets' Joe Johnson. That didn't turn out too well for Brooklyn on Wednesday night. James marched into the Barclays Center and dismantled the Nets with 24 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in a 105-85 victory.
"No one knows what it takes until you've done it," James said. "He hasn't done it."
[Related: Toronto pays steep price for Rudy Gay]
Indeed, James is a champion, and he could win two more titles before he has to make a choice on his opt-out in the summer of 2014.
Before trading Gay, Memphis had already moved under the tax threshold with a trade last week. It could've waited until the summer to move its star and made one more run in the Western Conference. But winning isn't a priority for Pera. Owners are virtually guaranteed profit in this changing economic setup, and small-market owners can play the NBA's corporate welfare game off the profits that the LeBron Jameses, Kobe Bryants and Chris Pauls produce for the sport.
These Grizzlies aren't the Lakers, and they don't get a lot of chances at making a deep playoff run. They could've hung in there for this season, but instead bailed on it. Across the NBA, front offices were incredulous with the way that Memphis unloaded Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington and Josh Selby, along with a future first-round pick, in a salary dump to Cleveland last week.
Several league executives insisted Memphis could've waited until closer to the deadline, traded the parts individually and, minimally, received returns on Speights and Ellington.
"Beyond a panic move," one Eastern Conference GM said. "Cleveland would always be there with that deal."
To return to the Cavaliers, James has to believe that general manager Chris Grant can construct a champion around him. Irving is fabulous, but that wouldn't be enough. As much as anything, that's the biggest thing that Heat will have going for them. In the end, Riley and Miami owner Micky Arison will make it hard to walk away, because there will forever be a commitment, a competency, in South Beach. How long Riley will stay on the job is a different matter, and that uncertainty will play a part, too.
James has been thinking about a return to Cleveland for most of his time with the Heat, including the night of his cable TV special. He had second-guessed himself that night, but once Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert released that vitriolic letter, James understood: There was no turning back.
Rich Paul has stayed back in Cleveland to run his business and now represents Thompson, the Cavaliers' young forward. As Yahoo! Sports reported last February, James' associates had been feeling out members of the Cavaliers organization on a possible return in 2014.
The Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay to the Raptors in a three-team deal. (USA Today Sports)
For now, though, James understands that he'll get two more chances at a championship with Wade and Bosh, and that's precious in this evolving NBA landscape. These Heat aren't perfect, but they're well-constructed, well-coached, and there are never mixed messages from their ownership and management. It's all about winning, all the time.
Whatever James does in 2014, he'll make a decision with the highest of basketball IQs on what will work and what won't. Once again, the breaking down of this Grizzlies roster is a reminder that every NBA star had better make sure he understands the track records of the owners and executives with whom he's turning over his future.
The Grizzlies issued a statement on the trade late Wednesday, and embarrassingly had "general manager Chris Wallace" throw out the obligatory organizational quotes on the deal. Only, Wallace had nothing to do with the trade. Nothing. He isn't making calls to teams. He isn't consulted by the new regime. He's waiting until they agree on the terms of his inevitable parting. So, Pera and new CEO Jason Levien take an unpopular trade and assign it to Wallace in the news release.
Levien is making these deals based largely on the recommendations of John Hollinger, a statistician who worked for a cable sports company. The San Antonio Spurs once used him as a consultant and regretfully took his advice to sign a free agent named Jackie Butler. It was such a disaster, the Spurs had to attach Luis Scola to a trade to get Butler out of town.
[Also: Heat's Chris Bosh a Hall of Famer? He thinks so]
This wasn't the '86 Celtics broken up in Memphis today, but, still, a contender became something far less over the past week. All of this didn't need to happen so fast. Between an owner guaranteed to make a profit and a front office guaranteed to believe it's smarter than everyone else, the Western Conference has one less contender to come chasing the defending champion Heat in the NBA Finals.
The Super Friends NBA is going, going and will soon be gone, and James will be left to choose one partner in 2014. Three's a crowd in the new NBA, and that'll be an immense part of James' decision about returning home and making everything right again.
Pera bought into a great time in the NBA, where the genius talents of the sport's biggest stars can fund his revenue-sharing checks in Memphis. Why did they have a lockout? Well, LeBron, this is why: Two stars per team and guaranteed profits for the owners. Make no mistake, James has everything to do with those transformations of the modern NBA.
For now, it won't be long until James makes a choice in 2014 that will leave him with far fewer assurances on his future than arriving in Miami did in 2010. Whatever LeBron James does, wherever he goes, just understand he makes it easy for the freeloading Robert Peras of the NBA.
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