Forever Changes: NBA Free Agency After LeBron

With his return to Cleveland, LBJ kicked the league's 'offseason' into overdrive

LeBron James
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
LeBron James
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Madeline Island is the largest of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior and a short ferry ride is all it takes to get away, in David Foster Wallace's parlance, from already pretty much being away from it all in tiny Bayfield, Wisconsin. You can rent bikes and – with your wife and, say, your 2-year-old daughter – ride the seven or so miles out to Big Bay Town Park and spend a quiet afternoon throwing rocks into the world's third-largest freshwater lake. You can bike back into the tiny town of LaPointe (population 246), walk into the Beach Club for locally caught fried whitefish and see, plastered across a plasma TV screen the size of a refrigerator, the news that LeBron James is returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This is how I spent my summer vacation.

LeBron James: The King of Wishful Thinking

People who complain about the lack of parity in the NBA, people who bemoan how long the playoffs drag on, people who prefer the sudden reversals and upsets of the NFL playoffs or March Madness: I give you NBA free agency. With the cultivation of the NBA-Draft-as-marquee-event, the undeniably-amateurish-yet-strangely-compelling Summer Leagues in Orlando and Las Vegas and – most significantly – the subterfuge and gamesmanship of the free agency period, we've entered the age of the year-round NBA. It's relentless. It reaches its cold, iron-grip tentacles into my damn vacation. But I can't look away.

Now that the dust is beginning to settle, let's take this thing apart.

LeBron James and the Decision 2.0

This was the domino everyone was waiting on. Sure: there were some pearls clutched over deals like Avery Bradley's four years and $32 million from the Boston Celtics, or the Charlotte Hornets offering the solid but seemingly not max-contract-deserving Gordon Hayward a max contract of four years and $63 million (which the Utah Jazz ended up matching). But that was strictly opening-band stuff. Die-hards might be watching with rapt attention, but most people are trying to elbow their way to the bar before the headliner hits.

And James did not disappoint with his Lollapalooza of a bombshell on Friday. After rampant speculation about James joining every team from the Rockets to the Suns – and with an understanding that two championships and four Finals trips in as many years is no mean feat – James made it look like a return to Cleveland had been in the cards the whole time with a first-person missive as told to Lee Jenkins that was posted on Sports Illustrated's website.

You can read the entrails, tea leaves (or whatever other signs you wish) to determine what this means, but the only thing James' decision definitely confirms is that he's only interested in forging a path that makes sense to him. Yes, stars like Magic and Bird and Jordan won all their rings with the franchise that drafted them. And stars like Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler left their first teams to pursue titles and some even won them. But no major star has left the team that drafted him (much less his hometown team), won a championship and then returned on a mission like this.

As a player, James has constantly challenged our understanding of what a superstar is, from the idea of the alpha dog to what efficiency – as opposed to jacking up shots – can mean. But with his return to Cleveland, his legacy has gone completely off the grid. If rookie Andrew Wiggins isn't moved in some kind of deal for Kevin Love (more on him later), he provides a chance for James to mentor a player with tremendous physical gifts, but a less-than-total killer instinct...something for which James was often criticized early in his career. With a two-year contract for $42.2 million that includes an opt-out after the first year, he's positioning himself for another big payday once the league's new TV deal kicks in, but it also just plain gives him maximum flexibility and power going forward. This is genuine upheaval, and it's tantalizing in its possibilities.

The black lining to this silver cloud is that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert – whose bitter, inflammatory screed against James following "The Decision" was only finally scrubbed from the Cavs' website last week – comes out smelling like a rose. In the four years since James' departure, the Cavs have come away from the draft lottery with the #1 pick three times, picking Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins. Although Bennett was awful last season, he still has the potential to be a valuable player, making that a haul any team would be happy to luck into. To bring LeBron James back when you already have an All-Star in Irving and (possibly) a once-in-a-generation talent in Wiggins is making the Cavaliers look ever more like the Homer Simpson to every other struggling team's Frank Grimes.

The Rest of the Heatles

So does LeBron's departure leave the Miami Heat in a Van Halen-type situation, where they continue to enjoy tangible success with a little less flash? Or are we talking about a post-Steve Perry Journey kind of thing, just a very good photocopy of what came before?

Although the Houston Rockets were close to bringing Chris Bosh back to his home state on a max contract (more on their offseason in a moment), Bosh ended up signing a five-year, $118 million contract with the Miami Heat and the team will return Chris Andersen and, likely, Dwyane Wade. They also signed Josh McRoberts (4 years, $23 million), Danny Granger (2 years, $4.2 million) and Luol Deng (2 years, $20 million). That doesn't exactly spell juggernaut, but in a middling Eastern Conference, that's still a playoff team. And if you thought LeBron's first game against the Cavs in a Heat uniform was appointment viewing, just wait for the first Miami-Cleveland game this season.

Knicks Go Full McBain

With his decision to remain a Knick despite a strong pitch from the Chicago Bulls to team up with a (hopefully) fully-rehabilitated Derrick Rose and near-MVP Joakim Noah, Carmelo Anthony inked the offseason's biggest deal at five years and something like $122 million. If his statement was less eloquent and heartstring-tugging than LeBron's, it's too simplistic to put his decision down to greed. Anthony will return to the first full year of the Phil Jackson era, with Derek Fisher as his head coach. The Knicks already moved Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert and some more pieces. They don't have much flexibility built-in right now and were 37-45 last year, but will almost certainly improve on that this season. Anthony seems to believe in Jackson, and when people ask him how he can sleep at night, he can answer like Rainier Wolfcastle.

The Rockets' Offseason in One Video

Houston general manager Daryl Morey is a figure of no small renown among close followers of the NBA. As one of the first so-called "quants" to be given real power in the league, Morey's every move – from accumulating picks to building his team around 3-pointers and shots at the rim to luring James Harden from the Thunder and Dwight Howard from the Lakers – has been grounded in sound, if not inerrant, quantitative judgment.

But the game beyond the game is not just numbers, and the Rockets have struck out this offseason. In the mix with free agents from Melo to Bosh, the Rockets moved Omer Asik to the Pelicans and Jeremy Lin to the Lakers in order to free up the cap room to be able to make a max offer...but no one took it. And before they could even get serious with the headlining players they were hoping for, what looked at first like a sound decision – not picking up Chandler Parsons' option and forgoing a year of his solid contributions at the bargain price of $926,500 in favor of letting the market decide his worth as a restricted free agent – came back to bite them in the ass.

The Dallas Mavericks offered Parsons a deal particularly poisonous to Houston: $45 million over three years with a player option after two. This would mean Parsons making max money and then coming up for a contract again precisely when they'd need to make a decision about Howard and just a year before a new contract for Harden. The Rockets decided not to match, and Mavs owner Mark Cuban successfully jabbed Morey in the eye as cold revenge for what he perceived as a taunt: Morey sending a text inquiring about the availability of Dirk Nowitzki after Houston acquired Howard prior to last season.

So, yeah. In short, the Rockets' offseason has gone like this:

But Morey knows the process of putting all the right pieces on the floor is fraught with personal matters that go well beyond advanced stats and analytics. You're going to win some negotiations and you're going to lose some. The Rockets are going to have to settle for signing prodigal son Trevor Ariza for four years and $32 million and move on.

Veteran Leaders on the Move

After being involved in nearly every trade rumor for the last umpteen seasons, Pau Gasol finally left the Lakers, signing a contract with the Chicago Bulls for three years and more than $22 million. Although he's 34 years old, there's every reason to believe the smart-passing big man can have something of a renaissance playing in Chicago, provided coach Tom Thibodeau can resist the impulse to grind him into a nubbin with extended minutes.

Paul Pierce – who spent his first 15 years in the league with the Boston Celtics – will join his second team in as many years after signing a two-year deal with the Washington Wizards for $11 million. And Vince Carter will join his sixth NBA team after signing a three-year, $12 million deal with the Memphis Grizzlies.

Just when James' return to Cleveland holds out the promise of an Odyssean homecoming for any aging star tempest-tossed upon the seas for years, these deals outline the far more common route for any player: a long, circuitous one where trips home are just visits, often unheralded or unnoticed. None of these moves are rich with metaphor or narrative weight, they're just the kind of thing that happens in a business.

Q: When is a Free Agent Not a Free Agent?

When his name is Kevin Love. Under contract for the next year, but with a player option he has no plans of exercising, Love is the non-free agent getting the most attention during this tumultuous period, especially in the wake of James' announcement. Speculation has been rife that Love will end up in Cleveland if the Cavaliers will agree to send Wiggins back to the Wolves, but in spite of some signs of interest from Love, new Cavs head coach David Blatt has said that Wiggins isn't going anywhere.

As I'm writing this, I'm watching Minnesota's Summer League team – including rookies Zach LaVine and Glenn Robinson III – play pickup-game level basketball against the Wizards' squad. And last week I watched an open scrimmage with this team at the Target Center in Minneapolis. It was hard to escape the sense that the fanbase is ready to move on from the endless whenandifying (as in, "when and if Love leaves") and get to whatever's next. Unfortunately for them, there's little sign of a clean break to come. While there's a lot of time until the trade deadline, it's looking more and more like Love will be on the roster on opening day, and he will likely have the shit booed out of him, whether he deserves it or not. Maybe some fans have drummed up hatred in their heart for a guy who's just trying to get his career pointed in the right direction, but it's more likely they're just uncomfortable with not knowing where things are going.

And that's the essence of this long stretch from the end of the playoffs through the close of the Las Vegas Summer League and the final important signings of the free-agency period: we don't and can't know where any of this is going, not really – not when everything seems to be moving in every direction at once.

I already miss the firm feel of a perfectly weathered stone in my hand, ready to skip far out into Lake Superior.

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