With the story of LeBron’s “inevitable” journey to New Jersey in 2010 being such a popular story in major media outlets and blogs alike these days, we take a grim look into the eye of the beast and examine the ramifications of a LeBron James exile to Jersey. This is Part I of the “Sky Is Falling” series out of however many articles is necessary between now and D-Day.
There’s this Great Lie that permeates NBA media and blogging circles. It’s everywhere you turn. It’s suffocating. It’s pollution. It’s founded solely in rhetoric and innuendo. And it’s demeaning to a city, a state, a player, and a collection of fans who follow all 3 (city, state, and player). The Great Lie is that LeBron James is leaving Cleveland in 2010. The Great Lie tells the city of Cleveland that it’s not worthy of a person like LeBron James. The Great Lie tells the state of Ohio that it’s too backwards to qualify for housing a star of LeBron’s caliber. The Great Lie tells LeBron James that he’s an idiot if he isn’t scheming his escape from Ohio’s backwoods wilderness now already. The Great Lie tells us Cavaliers fans that we shouldn’t bother. The NBA isn’t for us. We aren’t good enough to watch our own homegrown hero succeed. The Great Lie is evil. The Great Lie is counterproductive. The Great Lie needs to stop.
The basis for all of this is simple. The Nets traded Richard Jefferson, thus freeing the $15 million dollars he’s due in 2010 from their roster. As of right now, the only money the Nets have locked in for 2010 is the $17 million due to Vince Carter. So, according to the popular sentiment, this means the Nets are lined up to bring LeBron James aboard in 2010. Ok, so the Nets also have team options for Yi Jianlian and Sean Williams, and they will have qualifying options for Marcus Williams, Josh Boone, and Maurice Ager. So there you have it. Your 2010 Nets. Perhaps Devin Harris will still be there. Harris, Vince, LeBron, Yi, Boone, a pair of Williams’, and an Ager.
What the great lie doesn’t tell you is that the Cavaliers have $0 tied up for 2010. It’s possible that Delonte West and Daniel Gibson could both still be there. J.J. Hickson and Darnell Jackson will likely still be there. Who knows who else the Cavs may sign or trade for between now and then. The biggest thing the Great Lie overlooks, though, is the fact that LeBron will be a Qualifying Veteran Free Agent. You might know these better as players who hold their Bird Rights. Tonight I went through and read the Collective Bargaining Agreement line by line in an attempt to better understand the Cavaliers’ unique advantage in keeping LeBron. You know what I found out? I could barely understand one single paragraph of that thing. Legalese is like a foreign language to me. Thankfully, I found this nice little tool to assist me in understanding how Bird Rights work.
Basically, once a player has played three consecutive seasons for the same team without being waived, he becomes what is called a Qualifying Veteran Free Agent. This is meant to give teams a distinct advantage in keeping their own players. Under the CBA, there are maximum contracts for players, but through various exemptions, teams can get around certain loopholes when trying to sign a player. The CBA’s max contract is dependent on the number of years of service. For a player who has played 7 years, which is what LeBron will be in 2010, the max contract is the greater of a) 105% of the final year on his previous contract, b) 30% of the salary cap, or c) $11,000,000. In LeBron’s case, his final season will pay him $15,779,912. 105% of that number is $16,568,907. We can’t say with any certainty where the salary cap will be at in 2010, but if you use the existing rate of growth of the cap, we can project that salary cap is expected to be in the neighborhood of $57.309 million. 30% of that number is $17,192,830.
Again, these are all estimated numbers, and everything is based on an admittedly loose understanding of the finer of points of the CBA, but we can estimate that the max contract for LeBron in 2010 will start at $17.193 million. Here’s where things get tricky. Because the Cavaliers hold LeBron’s “Bird Rights”, they will be able to offer him more years and a larger yearly raise than anyone else. If anyone else signs LeBron, the most they can offer him is 5 years and an 8% annual increase over the base year on his salary. That shapes up to $17.193 million, $18.568 million, $20.054 million, $21.658 million, and $23.391 million for a total of $100.863 million over the 5 years. That averages out to $20.173 million per year. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, can sign LeBron for 6 years with a 10.5% annual increase over the base year. That works out to $17.193 million, $18.998 million, $20.993 million, $23.197 million, $25.633 million, and $28.324 million for a total of $134.338 million over the 6 years. That averages out to $22.390 million per season.
Which contract LeBron chooses to accept will affect his max contract moving forward, as well. Because a player’s max contract can never be less than 105% of his last year’s value, the next contract LeBron signs will start at $24,560,187 if he signs with New Jersey. If he signs with Cleveland, though, his initial year on his proceeding contract would start at $29,740,485. That’s almost a $5 million difference. So not only would LeBron be leaving $33.5 million on the table by signing outside of Cleveland in 2010, he would also be leaving $5 million off the base year on his next contract he could sign after the 2010 deal. We’re getting close to $40 million in lost money already.
The common belief amongst many people is that LeBron would just use the escalators in his Nike contract if he goes to New York to make up the difference. That’s fair. The clause exists, and we can’t ignore it. But you know what? The Nike contract was a 7 year deal worth $90 million and is set to expire the same time his Cavaliers contract does. Some people will say that this gives the New York market an advantage because Nike can steer LeBron towards the “big market”. The thing is, LeBron James holds all the cards. Lets not fool ourselves here. Nike isn’t going to let LeBron James sign with another shoe company. Not after they already invested the largest initial contract they’ve ever given to an athlete (Tiger Woods’ first Nike deal was 5 years, $40 million). If LeBron wants Nike to give him “New York” money in Cleveland, they will. Nike ripped up Tiger’s initial deal and gave him a $100 million deal. They’ll have no problem doing the same for LeBron. Tiger Woods didn’t have to move to New York to get his new deal. LeBron won’t have to either.
Everything LeBron has accomplished in his already remarkable life, he has been able to accomplish in Cleveland. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior in high school…..in Ohio. He has appeared on the cover of Fortune Magazine……in Ohio. He has been on the cover of Vogue Magazine…..in Ohio. He has been on the cover of ESPN the Magazine….in Ohio. He has hosted the ESPY’s…..while playing in Ohio. He has hosted Saturday Night Live…..while playing in Ohio. He has assembled an astonishing marketing team and built his image and self into a multi-multi-million dollar enterprise….in Ohio. He managed to get the NBA to send his team to play in China…..from Ohio. He became the highest paid player in the NBA in endorsement and salary…..while playing in Ohio. He has played in the NBA Finals….in Ohio. He has become the image of the NBA…..while playing in Ohio.
Which leads us to the biggest thing the Great Lie doesn’t want you to know, and that is that New York/New Jersey needs LeBron James a heck of a lot more than LeBron James needs New York. The Nets haven’t made the playoffs each of the past 3 years….the Cavaliers have. The Knicks weren’t on the brink of an NBA title just 2 years ago. The Cavaliers were. The point is, LeBron James is doing just fine from his global headquarters in Bath, Ohio, just outside of Akron. Sure, LeBron is friends with rapper Jay-Z, who also happens to own a small part of the New Jersey Nets. But playing in Cleveland isn’t stopping LeBron from hanging out with Jay-Z now, and it won’t in the future. LeBron is a savvy businessman and he’s not going to leave millions of dollars on the table just to play for a team his good friend part owns.
We’re not being naive here. We know there’s a chance LeBron could leave Cleveland. We know there’s always a pull to the bright lights of the New York market. But for LeBron James to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to go to New York, I think two things have to happen. One, either the Nets or the Knicks need to prove that they are on the brink of winning a Championship. LeBron is a strong competitor and he’s not going to walk into another rebuilding project. The team needs to be NBA Championship ready when LeBron walks through the door. As of right now, I don’t see either the Nets or the Knicks being in that position. The other thing that needs to happen is Danny Ferry needs to fail in putting a Championship caliber team around LeBron. Some of us would say the Cavs aren’t there yet, and despite the fact the Cavs fought the Celtics harder than anyone else in the playoffs this year, I would agree. Ferry has some work to do. But with a plethora of contracts set to expire in the next two years, Ferry is about to have the means to finally do something to improve this roster. If Ferry can get just one more marquee player on this roster, you’d have to like the Cavs chances. And if that happens, it’s hard to see LeBron leaving the city he was born in, the city he was raised in, the city he was drafted by, the city that caters to his every wish, and the city that adores him unlike any other.
Take a deep breath. Sit back and relax. Let the Great Lie consume the other markets who are so desperate for LeBron’s star-shine that they will write anything they can to create the illusion of inevitability. But don’t be fooled by it. We know better. The Cavaliers aren’t where we need them to be in order to keep LeBron just yet, but I like their chances. And I, for one, will continue to refuse to let ESPN, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, or anyone else tell me any different. I’ll reserve judgment for 2010 when any of this actually matters. For now, I’ll continue to just enjoy watching LeBron and the wonderful places he has taken our beloved Cleveland Cavaliers.