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Whatever happened to Baby James?

Thoughts on LeBron before his 9 PM announcement … please read the Phil G interview a post below. I assure you, it has more staying power than this.

LeBron James, this past day, has been excoriated for “building his brand,” for potentially leaving Cleveland, for possibly staying in Cleveland, for asking for front-line help, for upsetting the time-honored tradition of the sleepy press conference. LeBron, you see, has been implicating himself in a sideshow instead of leaving the confetti-throwing to removed professionals. And worse, he’s not a winner. It’s hard to say if this outsized rage is deserved or merely misplaced.

It’s no secret LeBron has always been keen on building his “brand,” and efforts have kicked up a notch this past month. He joined Twitter — when every NBA athlete from Adonal Foyle to Zaza Pachulia has an account — and launched a website this week. His strongarming a primetime TV slot belies how strong of a brand James actually has. This is a kid who signed a $90 million endorsement contract in high school. Before playing a minute of professional basketball, before anyone outside the small confines of high school basketball aficionados1 knew who he was, he was promised eight figures and crack Nike promotion. That is brand building. Pre-empting Baseball Tonight, or NASCAR Live, or whatever it is that ESPN airs at 9 PM on a weeknight might be brand building too, but it’s slightly smaller beans, and should not be immediately offensive to anyone except overworked ESPN producers.

It’s also worth mentioning that wherever LeBron goes to, brand or otherwise, he will be incredibly underpaid. CNBC’s Darren Rovell estimates that James will be worth millions more than his salary in 2011 to every team in the hunt except the Cavaliers. (Rovell also notes that he’d make more money in Miami than in Cleveland over the first five years of his contract, because of Florida’s lack of state taxes.) And it should also be mentioned that no matter his destination, James will draw a salary smaller than Joe Johnson and equal to Chris Bosh. LeBron’s mere presence would turn around a franchise and send season-ticket lines into a tizzy. Johnson and Bosh — not so much. It’s not patently unfair — he’ll be paid — but he’s certainly going to make more money than he earns. Why not strengthen the brand to puff the second paycheck?

While he’s the subject of significant criticism now, it seems to me the real moment of judgment would come in late June 2011. Looking at it in strictly basketball terms, LeBron lacks for tantalizing options. His Miami signing could spur the club to improve on the 2008 Celtics’ formula, sure, but it may also resemble the Galacticos, or, as Roland Lazenby noted, the ’68 Lakers. Amar’e Stoudemire and Danilo Gallinari form a talented Knicks core, but neither play interior defense, and I can’t see the club effectively guarding Dwight Howard or Bosh in the playoffs, to say nothing of Pau Gasol. If James goes to the Nets, Brook Lopez and cap space aside, he will have joined the worst club in the NBA. The Bulls are a good option, but could use another shooter, and even then still won’t sniff the Lakers. The Clippers, he’s got some help, but they’re rebuilding, and will doubtlessly not pass the Lakers. If he stays with Cleveland, people will be happy, but in June? They’ll boo him again – and why not. It’s just not a very good team, and they won’t beat the Lakers, to say nothing of the Eastern Conference competition.2

LeBron’s a free agent, sure, the biggest ever. But his choice is extremely limited, between a handful of teams, none of which carry deep rosters. The sad fact of the matter just might be that, like Kobe without an all-NBA big man, LeBron can’t win. How can we expect him to? There are, after all, 31 other teams, each employing grown men playing for money, lots of it, some millions more than him, standing in his way. Would any team he joins be so deep as to be prohibitive favorites to beat the field? This is free agency, and barring a 2008-style collusionary trade, I’m just not so sure.


  1. Ohio natives excluded.
  2. One might wonder how much deeper the club would have gone had they swapped for Amar'e and not Antawn Jamison

One Comment

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  1. sports illustrated on Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 2:55 am


    Chris recommended I visit this blog as part of my research…

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