The people of Cleveland burned LeBron James’ jersey when he jilted the Cavaliers four years ago. They cursed his name and swore he was no son of theirs any longer. They cheered his defeats on South Beach with more enthusiasm than they cheered his victories on the shores of Lake Erie.
And now they’d do anything to get him back.
Such is the conflict facing teams across the league with free agency opening at midnight Eastern on Tuesday.
Even after the San Antonio Spurs dethroned James and the two-time defending champion Mimi Heat with a max contract-shunning, throwback brand of selfless play, the allure of splurging on one big star will be too intoxicating for most teams to resist.
James is back on the market this year, along with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade — the same trio that turned the NBA on its head when they united in 2010 to form a team that advanced for four straight NBA Finals.
Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce bring added gravitas to this year’s free agent class, joined by up-and-comers like Eric Bledsoe, Lance Stephenson, Kyle Lowry and Gordon Hayward.
The Spurs have mastered the art of team building, with their three foundational pieces taking less money, playing in a system that limits their personal statistics and living in a market far from Broadway. But that’s far easier to aspire to than to actually achieve. In a game where one star can have such a big impact on the fortunes of a franchise, most teams with any cap space will be chasing them like mad.
It’s no secret that the Cavs would love to bring James back home, but the Heat are hoping to not only reunite their Big 3 but bolster the supporting cast around them to make another title run. Pat Riley is believed to be selling them on a Spurs-like model of taking less than they could make individually elsewhere to keep the core together.
“Being able to have flexibility as a professional, anyone, that’s what we all would like,” James said shortly after the finals.
The Houston Rockets have landed big-time players each of the last two summers, but even James Harden and Dwight Howard aren’t enough. General manager Daryl Morey wants more star power to put the Rockets over the top in the mighty Western Conference, and he’s willing to pay a hefty price to do it.
The Chicago Bulls should have Derrick Rose returning after two seasons derailed by knee injuries and Joakim Noah prowling the paint. But they’re expected to jump into the market for the biggest names available in hopes of adding some scoring punch. The Indiana Pacers have been clear that they want Stephenson back.
The Phoenix Suns were one of the feel-good stories last year, a young team that rode chemistry, cohesion and exuberance to 48 wins. But GM Ryan McDonough knows the best way to expedite the resurgence in the desert is to add a marquee player to make things easier on Goran Dragic, Bledsoe (a restricted free agent) and the rest of a promising nucleus.
And, of course, there are the Los Angeles Lakers, a franchise that prides itself on bringing in big names to play in the bright lights. The last time they went big — trading for Dwight Howard two years ago — it didn’t work out. Now they are armed with millions in cap space and GM Mitch Kupchak has made it clear that the Lakers aren’t interested in rebuilding.
“As long as Kobe is on this team,” Kupchak said, “we have to believe we can contend for a championship.”
No contracts will be official until the moratorium ends on July 10. But there will be plenty of meetings, sales pitches and conference calls in the interim, desperate teams chasing after elusive stars and pinning the hopes of thousands on the decision of one.
The stage is set.
James, Wade and Bosh are expected to re-up in Miami. Nowitzki is expected to take less money to stay in Dallas and give the Mavericks a chance to retool around him and the Suns have made it clear that Bledsoe isn’t going anywhere.
Of course, until the ink dries on a contract when the moratorium ends, anything can happen. For now, any team with plenty of money and a vision for a prosperous future have the only thing in the league as powerful as James himself: Hope.