LeBron James can play the rest of his career on the equivalent of one-year contracts. It has exposed a loophole of sorts in the CBA while making him the most powerful man in the NBA.
Nobody saw this coming, but when James signed a two-year deal with Cleveland and had an opt-out included after Year One, the entire power structure of the NBA changed. If the Cavs don’t keep him happy, he’ll leave — that is the implication that goes along with having the best player in the game so uniquely empowered under the structure of his new deal.
Two years from now, when James becomes an unrestricted free agent again, he’ll be able to reap the financial rewards of signing after the NBA’s new television deals are cut. If the money paid by ESPN, Turner Sports and Fox Sports (yes, they NBA could have three TV partners instead of the current two, following the trail blazed by the NFL) is double what is being paid under the current deal, the salary cap will rise accordingly.
If, for argument’s sake, if the salary cap rises to $100 million, James would be eligible for a new contract with a maximum salary of 35 percent of the cap. With 7.5 percent annual raises, James would be eligible for a new five-year contract with salaries of $35 million in Year 1, then $37,626,000, $40,250,000, $42,875,000, $47,550,000.
That adds up to $201.5 million.
Or, he could keep doing two-year contracts with one-year opt outs. That would imperil his ability to lock up a nine-figure deal, but it would keep his empowerment structure in place.
You thought the Decision II brought some finality to James’ moving van options? Wrong. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what James can do by being empowered with a player option after Year One of his next deal … and the deal that comes after that … and the one after that. With a player option. If he declines to exercise that option, he immediately would become an unrestricted free agent. It is a heavy hammer to hold, an enormous position of power that would give James the ability to influence each and every roster decision the Cavs make for the next four years. (Under CBA rules, if James signed a five-year deal he could not have a player option or an Early Termination Option until after the fourth year. A series of two-year contracts would keep him empowered the way he is now).
The Cavs’ evolving stance on the availability of Andrew Wiggins in a potential Kevin Love trade is just the beginning.
Clearly, James is trying to influence Cleveland’s decision making.
Imaginary conversation between LeBron and Dan Gilbert:
LBJ: “I want Kevin Love.”
DG: “We can’t get him, because the Timberwolves want Andrew Wiggins.”
LBJ: “Then give them Wiggins.”
DG: “But Wiggins is 19 and could become the best player in the league down the road.”
LBJ: “When exactly?”
DG: “It might only take four or five years.”
LBJ: “You don’t have four or five years. If you don’t make this trade, I’ll walk next summer. The Knicks and Lakers will both have enough cap space for a max contract. You want me to walk?”
LBJ: “Then make the damn trade.”
What might a Wiggins-for-Love trade look like?
Love makes $15.72 million in the upcoming season, and Wiggins will eventually sign for $5.5 million. So the salaries do not come close to matching, but the Cavs and Wolves could get a third team to broker the trade so that other players would not have to be included. Philadelphia is the most logical broker because the Sixers have only $28 million in committed salaries for next season, giving them a whopping $35 million in cap room.
The Cavs could conceivably offer Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and three No. 1 draft picks in 2015 (their own, Memphis’ No. 1 and Miami’s No. 1) for Love.
Flip Saunders would be able to turn to his owner and his fan base and say he got five No. 1 picks, including the top overall picks from 2013 and 2014. Dan Gilbert could turn to his fan base and explain that he made a deal that will allow the Cavs to immediately compete for a title with a starting five of James, Love, Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and Dion Waiters.
LeBron would be placated — and a placated King is a happy King.
And one year from now, LeBron could again go to Gilbert and make whatever roster demands he wished.
Gilbert would have no choice but to comply, because Gilbert would not be the most powerful member of the Cleveland Cavaliers organization.
That title would belong to King James, who already is wielding his power.
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com.