Not so subtly all of a sudden, LeBron James is turning up the heat — no pun, not now — on Pat Riley to deliver.
James’ camp has maintained military-like silence on his intentions and plans for free agency for a year, with the three-time MVP deflecting questions all season and during the playoffs about how he’d decide what to do. And then, suddenly, there was a story on ESPN Thursday night that James’s agent, Rich Paul, had held meetings this week with teams that are not the Miami Heat — Cleveland, Dallas, Houston and Phoenix, a list confirmed by sources. (Those are in alphabetical order, not in any order of preference. You have to spell everything out these days, when NBA Nation is so on edge.)
Then, ESPN reported late Thursday that the Lakers would meet with Paul in Cleveland over the 4th of July Weekend.
Where the information came from is not the issue. The message is. And it is clear to anyone who’s been paying attention: Riles, you’re really on the clock.
For weeks, the operating principle throughout the league was that James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were acting in concert. Perhaps not literally, but certainly, each had an idea of what the other was planning to do. Why would Wade walk away from a guaranteed $41.5 million over the next couple of years if he didn’t know James was returning to Miami? Why would Bosh indicate a willingness to take a pay cut if he wasn’t certain he’d be playing with the other SuperFriends for the next few seasons?
Now, suddenly, we are told that Wade and Bosh have no idea what James is going to do, and that Paul is lining up alternatives for his client. Yahoo! Sports reported Thursday that three finalists could be brought back to Cleveland, where Paul met in person with the Cavs, Mavericks and Suns this week, early next week. Nowhere, now, is there reassuring talk that James will return to the Heat.
That will surely get Riles’s attention.
Even as those teams aren’t at all sure James would actually walk from his team for a second time — “I don’t think we’re high on their list,” an official with knowledge of the discussions said Thursday — they, like everyone else in the league, has to at least entertain the possibility of the idea now. And that will further delay a league already in limbo waiting for Carmelo Anthony to make his own, individual decision.
Anthony finished his tour on Thursday in Los Angeles, meeting with the Lakers and Knicks, after starting the week in Chicago and then going to Texas for meetings with the Rockets and Mavericks. While Houston is still centered and all in on its pursuit of Anthony, Dallas indicated what it thought of its chances for ‘Melo by quickly wrapping up a deal with franchise icon Dirk Nowitzki for three years and $30 million. The Mavs are, if not officially, out of the ‘Melo Stakes in reality.
Indirectly, Anthony’s decision impacts another significant free agent — Pau Gasol, who was scheduled to meet with Riley in Los Angeles. The Lakers’ hopes of keeping Gasol are centered on first getting Anthony, who would then, hopefully, entice Gasol to stay in L.A. rather than follow Riley back to South Beach, or to San Antonio or Oklahoma City, both of which harbor strong and real hopes they can get Gasol to take a huge pay cut to play for a contender.
Oklahoma City, according to a source, hopes that a three-year deal with its mid-level exception can do the trick with Gasol, even as it understands his agent, Arn Tellem, will surely be able to shake out bigger offers elsewhere.
Miami’s hopes of adding a centerpiece “Big Fourth” free agent were always iffy, but as free agency has begun this week, the Heat have had to watch the likes of Marcin Gortat and Kyle Lowry go elsewhere, in part, because Miami just couldn’t commit enough money to guys looking for their big career payday.
With Miami locked in below $10 million in cap room, it couldn’t make a realistic pitch to Gortat, who took $12 million a year from Washington to stay with the Wizards, or to Lowry, who took the same $12 million a year to stay in Toronto with the Raptors. And with other free agents that could help like Trevor Ariza also looking for big raises, the Heat will continue to be strapped to find an accomplished veteran to take their offers, whatever they may be.
So Miami is concentrating on getting commitments from shooters like Anthony Morrow and Marvin Williams. But they’re not going to come cheap, either, no matter their desire to play for a contender (assuming the Big Three re-sign there). And Riles has to find players as he cocks an ear to the Midwest, and a city he thought his superstar player had left in mind and body, but which is still there, likely a stalking horse, to be sure, but one that must be taken seriously, its revenge/reunion fantasies still intact and getting oxygen as we speak. Or, write.