Memos of the Heavenly Kind
If Nike steals this shit, I want you all to testify on my behalf in court. . .
Some people cling to the draft as the last gasp of the NBA season, the thread by which they hang onto the business of clapping and booing. Me, I see it as a bridge into the perilous desert of the off-season, where mirages are all you've got, Satan tempts you to overpay, and those recently landed Draft-lets threaten to make a Roswell out of the whole thing.
It's only natural that, in this climate of starvation, pent-up emotion, and no shelter but drowning alive in dust, fans would get religion. In asking for a sign, any sign, and expecting to make nothing less than a week's worth of courage from it, you also open every cell of your body up to the possibility of absolute doom.
If that sounds stupid and excitable, don't blame me. Blame the hosts of journalists, bloggers, GMs, dog walkers, and CSI extras who now bear the mark of 2010. In that great summer, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh can all become free agents, due to their diabolical (and totally D.I.Y.) maneuvering that did an end-around on the usual max contract ball and chain.
Just as much as teams can screw themselve with an extended, guaranteed commitment to a superstar, so a player can mortgage some of his best years by an incompetent organization, bad luck, or a combination of the two. It's true, trade demands have become more and more acceptable. However, these still limit options, and only in T-Mac's case did a team let go of a franchise talent just entering his prime. And he was hurt all the time.
However, me and my crack team of basketball experts, whose expertise is like the pillars of Olympus, decided to look a little closer at this 2010 phenomenon. Because you can't deny it, every consideration of free agent outlook, or long-term front office strategy, makes at least one reference to 2010.
What exactly is at stake? Dwyane Wade badly needs to not only prove he's healthy, but remind us how he ended up elite in the first place. That mean win, win, win, not just be a dominant combo guard. Those aren't exactly in vogue these days. Chris Bosh could make some team very happy, but does anyone really get an epochal sensation when they think about him becoming available?
But where there's supernatural, vaguely religious, sentiment in the NBA, there is only one good explanation: King Chosen One James, Who Lets His People Go and Maketh Witnesses of Them (word to metaphors too mixed even for spiritual adventure). Everything the Nets, and to some degree, the Knicks, do now is interpreted as a play for James's services.
Let's first get the obvious out there: While LeBron and Jay-Z together would be the Rosetta Stone of 21st century marketing, if James exits Cleveland it'll have a lot to do with basketball. So of course, in his quest for a ring, of course he'd rush to join forces with Lawrence Frank, a 33 year-old Vince Carter, Devin Harris, Yi Jianlian, Brook Lopez, and Chris Douglas-Roberts, whom the Cavs should've taken this year. D'Antoni offers a more enticing proposition, but Walsh has some magic to work before there's anything functional there.
Still, it's not about the Nets or Knicks becoming a realistic destination for LeBron. It's about the fact that James, who this past season averaged 30/7/7 on a bare-bones team at age 23, could hit the open market. Fine, Kobe won't be the greatest player ever until he wins another three rings. James could never even make the Finals again, and if he keeps up like this, any rational person would stick him in that conversation.
Talk about a cosmic event—with that summer in sight, cap space isn't just a number. It's currency that, however indirectly or improbably, links an organization to a truly Association-altering possibility. Without any definite sense of where James would go, or how he might fare there, we're left with the mere symbolism of it: A basketball player whose abilities strike fear and awe into all, and who has only just begun to define himself, will suddenly hover over us mortals and make a decision. A decision that, coming from him, has all the weight of passing judgment upon the earth.
On the court, LeBron is already the worker of miracles, the angry god of the Old Testament, the mortal with divinity in him. Symbolically, he's the Messiah for this sport, the Chosen who has made a special pact with the basketball gods. The increasingly vague and fiery allusions to 2010 paint him in another role: The Apocalyse itself. Take it from someone who has watched all of Left Behind at least three times, and read a few scholarly studies of the End of Days.
The way in which all teams seem trained on this future, where the liberation of LeBron looms like a Bibical prophecy that predicts great upheaval and uncertainty, merely reinforces his larger-than-everything standing in the league. Kobe, for all his mastery of the game, remains just the league's best player; when he appeared to be on the move, all you heard about was how fucking good he was. LeBron is something bigger, possibly unknowable, and truly awesome in the minds of all but the dumbest, deafest, and blindest basketball observers.
If you think I'm overreacting, or mischaracterizing, tell me: Why does everyone want to get under the cap for 2010, even if they don't have a prayer of landing LeBron? It's because, even if they're not Cleveland getting its sports life set back 2,000 years, or a major market team with a real hope of luring him away, all teams can feel it in the air. It's their duty, their fate, to get their affairs in order and stand in line, so great are his powers on and off the court, so potentiall transformative of all they survey.
Most likely, nothing will come of it. But the shiver that "LeBron: Free Agent" sends through the league works on a far deeper, more primordial level than the reality in which they typically operate. 2010 is The Reckoning, when for a month or so one man will be bigger than any team, franchise, or even the entire league. That's something only MJ can claim to have done, and he never had this kind of leverage or limitless at his disposal.