So, LeBron James has opted out of his contract with the Cavaliers. The report linked to here makes a lot of noise about options vis-a-vis the salary cap and whatnot, and applying pressure on Cleveland management to not simply re-sign him, but also to improve the club around James and give him the instruments needed to win the title again. In a word, this move is about ‘leverage.’
But see, here’s the thing about that: I’m not sure any of this really gives James all that much leverage. By going “home”–remember, he’s from Akron, not Cleveland proper–and being anointed the second coming of Northern Ohio’s savior, James has painted himself into a bit of a corner. If he walks away again–especially if it’s sooner rather than later–those folks in the neighborhood won’t be burning any more jerseys; they may follow him out of town in order to set fire to a house or two. It would be an incredibly bad look, so much so that it might even start affecting James’s marketability. Villains don’t sell a lot of soda and cars; certainly not as much as heroes do.
Furthermore, what impact would another move away from Cleveland have on perception of James around the league among his peers, the other players. At this point, still, most NBA players continue to fall into lockstep when in comes to James; he’s the greatest player and all that, everybody wants to play with him, etc. But at a certain point, doesn’t the mercenary nature of LeBron’s maneuverings start to catch up to him?
We inevitably compare James to Michael Jordan, given the relatively short length of time separating their careers, the statistical evidence of greatness, and the weight of their championship achievements. But Jordan never had to become itinerant in order to win his championships, even in the face of his early career disappointments, especially against the Pistons (inventors of the “Jordan Rules”); nor did Jordan ever need to engage–at least not publicly–in leveraging management into reshaping the roster around him to make his job easier. Having Scottie Pippen and later Dennis Rodman helped, but Jordan didn’t need to collude with Pippen and Rodman to get them onto the team.
James, on the other hand, constantly massages his circumstances to get the players he wants around him. How does that go down, in the long run, with other players in the league–especially as James inevitably declines as a player himself? How easily can a player fall out of James’s good graces, and thus see himself shipped to the Timberwolves or other NBA outpost? Doesn’t that wear on people as time passes, especially if it all results in surprisingly few championships?
LeBron will certainly get all the dollars he needs from his opt-out strategy, now and down the line. And, at the moment at least, his wields substantial leverage through his contract situation. But the idea that he will perpetually be able to call his shots, including a legitimate threat to go somewhere else? James may have much fewer options than he or many observers believe he does–and those options will only dwindle as the seasons pass.