If anonymous sources are to be believed, LeBron James is going to sign with every team that can offer him a contract. Over the weekend, the New York Times brought news from an unnamed “executive” that James would team up with Chris Bosh in Chicago, calling the move a “done deal.” The Cleveland Plain-Dealer (perhaps wishfully) reported that “a source close to James” believed the Cavaliers were still his favorite. The New York Post’s mole —a “person with ties to James”—declared that the Nets are LeBron’s top choice. (On Wednesday, the Post got someone to go on the record: “[B]ig-league broker Dolly Lenz” told the tabloid that LeBron “seems to be set” on living in the West Village, meaning he’ll surely play for the New York Knicks next season.) ESPN.com’s Deep Throat, meanwhile, announced that Miami is “the new frontrunner” to acquire James, who would then play alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
To summarize: After months of speculation, all we’ve learned is that someone in the LeBrontourage loves to screw with sports reporters. OK, I suppose we might also have gleaned—if there’s an iota of truth to any of these rumors—that James appears inclined to form a demi-Dream Team with one or two of his Olympic teammates. While such a group would surely become the favorite to win a string of titles, LeBron needs to understand that there’s an exception to the maxim that everyone loves a winner: If you win without having to overcome anything, everybody will hate you. That’s why, at least from a reputation-management perspective, James should know better than to terraform a franchise that’s essentially a trophy-winning contrivance. What would a team stacked with, say, James, Wade, and Bosh have to overcome except a bunch of loser franchises larded with pitiable free-agent leftovers?
The NBA’s salary cap makes it nearly impossible to have a team of superstars in their primes. While there’s precedent for assembling an all-star roster when you’re gambling against old age—see the Barkley-Olajuwon-Drexler and Barkley-Olajuwon-Pippen Rockets, the Bryant-O’Neal-Malone-Payton Lakers, and the Garnett-Allen-Pierce Celtics—there’s a narrow set of conditions under which it’s doable to bring together the league’s best when they’re at their best. First, there need to be loads of top-notch free agents. Second, a bunch of teams need to sell off everyone on their rosters who has the ability to play basketball and thus collect a salary. Third, a subgroup of the free-agent stars must agree to populate such a talent-free wasteland, ensuring that a torrent of secondary and tertiary talent will come rushing in to fill the available roster spots. If all of this stuff somehow falls into place, it’s hard to imagine that it will all happen again anytime soon. Here come the guaranteed championships.
If it’s not advisable, it’s at least understandable that James would push for the creation of an indestructible mega-team. So far in his NBA career, he has been hounded by the most treacherous obstacle any basketball player can face: crappy teammates. Some of this is James’ own fault. While Danny Ferry was officially Cleveland’s GM, the Cavaliers never would have done anything without their superstar’s approval. The sorry result: quick-fix trades for Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison, creaky old-timers who made the Cavs worse.
Especially considering his own complicity in Cleveland’s woes, a franchise change won’t win James many fans outside of wherever he decides to hang his shingle. Sports tradition holds that a title grabber only wins broad support if he’s late in his career. When Ray Bourque won the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche after 21 years with the Boston Bruins, hockey fans in New England and everywhere else rejoiced. And after Kevin Garnett bashed his bald head against a wall for 12 seasons in Minnesota, no one could begrudge him jumping to join the Celtics.
As a mere 25-year-old, LeBron hasn’t yet endured Garnett-ian levels of toil. Changing cities would be a public concession that he couldn’t make it happen in Cleveland. Joining Wade and Bosh would be even worse, a tacit admission that he doubts he can make it anywhere. Maybe it’s telling that LeBron is a big Yankees fan: The best comparison here is Alex Rodriguez, a guy who gave up trying to be the world’s best player and settled on being a member of the world’s best roster. After moving to New York, A-Rod finally won his elusive World Series. Everybody still hates him.
LeBron’s place in the NBA food chain is already a bit perilous: After this year’s NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant was universally reanointed as the game’s greatest player. Kobe sits astride the league, because he is basketball’s biggest egomaniac. In 2004, Bryant presided over the destruction of the thrice-champion Los Angeles Lakers, transforming a franchise built around himself and Shaquille O’Neal into a one-man show. Having just secured his fifth title—and his second since L.A. traded its stalwart center—Kobe has met his goal: winning “one more [championship] than Shaq.”
Of course, the Lakers aren’t truly a one-man show—Kobe’s team started its current run of titles after expropriating Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies. LeBron James’ legacy, then, will rest on the perception among fans that he’s won titles on his own, no matter who his teammates happen to be. A large part of Michael Jordan’s legend stems from the fact that he won six titles with Scottie Pippen and a bunch of role players. Magic Johnson, by contrast, is probably underrated because he won all of his titles with loaded Lakers teams.
That’s why James’ best option is the middle way, something between title-less, sidekick-free isolationism and FDR-esque court packing. Jumping to Chicago or New York is a relatively palatable option—a chance to escape the Bad News Cavs and start over with a better supporting cast. If James and Wade and Bosh decide to build their own insta-champion, they will take home the emptiest titles in NBA history. As they might soon learn, winning a championship is not the same thing as earning one.