NBA superstar LeBron James convened a six-team pitch summit over the long weekend and could soon choose his next club. Thanks to the magic of video games, we can see what all potential outcomes look like.
While James' choice will assuredly remake the NBA landscape, its effect on games is not so profound. Of course his inclusion on any roster instantly makes it a winner, but the reality is, in the hands of a player of any skill, any video game team can go all the way in singleplayer.
In multiplayer, should James go to the Chicago Bulls, with a loaded roster, you'll likely see them turning up a hell of a lot more in your quickmatches, coast-to-coast. He'd probably drive up the frequency you see New York in multiplayer, too, as he gives Knicks fans reason to believe they can win online with their own team instead of always playing with the Lakers or Magic.
So let's take a look at James' potential new threads, and handicap the chances we'll see him wearing them in real life.
Pros: Pretty much everything is in place. The Bulls not only have money to spend, they have a fantastic nucleus in place with Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson - and the Bulls could go get another prize signing such as Chris Bosh or, conceivably, Dwyane Wade. Wade's most recent reply to the Bulls was noncommittal; he may be waiting to see what James does. James' signing would probably, at minimum, attract Bosh.
Cons: If things like legacy, expectations, and who's-team-is-it play any role in James' decision-making, they offer a pretty toxic mix here. No one would question that the Bulls are LeBron's team even with Derrick Rose on the floor, but Rose is by far that team's dominant star on the ball. Both guys take about 20 percent of their team's shots, LeBron slightly more. So something's gotta give. Finally, this is Michael Jordan's town. LeBron has to wear a new number; he's worn 23 as an homage to Jordan ever since high school. (Above, I picked 45, Jordan's other, nonretired digits, forgetting that LeBron has already put in for a jersey switch to No. 6, regardless of where he's headed). Most importantly, he'll be in the shadow of six NBA trophies, with none to his name.
Survey says: Vegas likes Chicago more than any other option, Cleveland included. In one tout's sample of leading sports books offering prop bets on LeBron's free agency, the house is calling it a 55 percent chance he goes to the Bulls. I think any problems with Rose can be worked out, though the Bulls will have a rookie head coach trying to balance some major talent, even if LeBron is their only pickup.
As for the video game outcome, LeBron on the Bulls in the same year that Michael Jordan is the cover athlete, regardless of how MJ is playable in the game, makes this a one-of-a-kind item. 2K Sports has to be rooting for Chicago in this.
New York Knicks
Pros: The Knicks have probably planned the longest for this free agency class and as such have loads of room under the league salary cap to completely remake their roster - they can do two maximum deals. Mike D'Antoni is a player's coach who runs an enjoyable offense. Of course, salary is only part of it; playing in New York, the Knicks told LeBron they ran 50,000 computer simulations and say there's a 50 percent chance he ends up a billionaire down the line. For someone who gets his identity as a brand and as a business, and who wants to build both, that's gotta count. Finally, he doesn't have to win six titles here. One will do, and that city would love him forever.
Cons: There is very little talent in place; the Knicks only had two second-round draft picks this year. It'd definitely be LeBron's team, but if he thought winning under pressure in Cleveland was tough, doing it in New York with a decidedly weaker roster is worse.
Survey says: Vegas gives New York just a six percent shot. Unless James has had his eye on playing in the Big Apple all these years, the Knicks don't have much to offer beyond a max deal, which he can get anywhere else and beat in Cleveland.
Pros: Rumors had Wade, Bosh and James coordinating plans to team up, and if so, Miami, probably the leader to re-sign Wade, would be the most likely city to land all three. They've got Pat Riley in the front office and that kind of prestige counts with LeBron. It's not as big a city as Chicago or New York, but it's got a major lifestyle upside, no question. "I never got any rest in Miami," Shaquille O'Neal told Sports Illustrated. "I still don't know how we won that championship. Fuckin' partied every night in Miami."
Cons: If LeBron's going to do the Superfriends thing and share a team with other stars, Miami has less of a supporting cast than the Bulls. The potential is there to win one title, but the reality of the NBA is that the bigger cities are annually in the mix, with strivers rotating in and out year-to-year. See Dallas and Denver. San Antonio's won three titles, sure, but practically in completely different organizational eras.
Survey says: Vegas likes the Heat more than the Knicks, but only pegs it at a 14 percent shot. My gut feeling is it's unlikely Wade and LeBron team up.
New Jersey Soon-to-Be Brooklyn Nets
Pros: They've got that zillionaire Russian owner and they're headed to Brooklyn, which dragged Jay-Z into the pitch meeting, and LeBron no doubt loved that.
Cons: They were the NBA's worst team, with a skunk, last year, although most everyone expects that won't continue with an owner willing to spend. Their future in Brooklyn is actually not certain; the arena may not be finished in time for the 2012-13 season opener, so LeBron would have to factor in the possibility of living in Newark for two years.
Survey says: Vegas has the Nets and the Knicks at a dead heat. I think the Nets offer a better best-case scenario if they can get to Brooklyn and get their shit straight in the front office. But they're still a distant fourth in a contest with only one winner.
Los Angeles Clippers
Pros: Well, it's L.A.
Cons: Just about everything imaginable, on top of getting punched in the ding-dong by Eric Gordon (above). The Clippers are, hands down, the shittiest franchise not just in the NBA, but in all of sports. I'm pretty sure that image is the first time LeBron has ever been in a Clippers uniform in a video game, because not even NBA video game fans play as the Clippers. Free agents who sign with that team are never heard from again, for a reason: They have zero coherence in management and a contemptible skinflint for an owner. (Read this, you'll be furious.) Not only are they the worst franchise in North America, they play the same sport in the same city as the league's most glamorous team. The Clippers should have been contracted out of existence or moved to another city long ago. It would be a travesty for LeBron to reward that organization by signing there.
Survey says: I'm not going to dignify this joke with a response. I'm amazed LeBron invited them to make a pitch. He was probably doing Donald Sterling a favor, letting him entertain delusions of relevance without having to pay. The Clippers will do a max deal with someone - someone who likely doesn't deserve a max deal, given their propensity to overpay for last year's talent and then do nothing elsewhere in the payroll. The idea that Sterling would spend to build or maintain a winner around James is just laughable.
And finally ...
Pros: It's home. They can offer a higher salary than any other team (although it's not automatic that translates to $30 million more.) The owner, Dan Gilbert, is unafraid to push the luxury tax to sign players and build a winner. If James re-signs, the catharsis and adulation in northeastern Ohio would overwhelm anything ever shown for any superstar in recent memory. The fact that's where he grew up probably counts for something. The Cavs gave a hard hometown sell in a pitch that even included a custom Family Guy cartoon. It really had to be emotional in that room.
Cons: Past attempts to get LeBron some help have not panned out, and the guy who did them - Danny Ferry - is gone, with first-year GM Chris Grant replacing him. They just signed Byron Scott, a well respected coach who's been to the NBA Finals twice. But LeBron will get no honeymoon period; staying with the Cavs keeps the same win-now expectation in place, and they're not going to sign another major free agent the way Chicago or Miami will. And Cleveland, as a small market, faces the same difficulty in building and sustaining a winner as the Heat, if not more.
Survey says: I'm rooting for James to stay in Cleveland. Vegas has the Cavaliers as a distant No. 2 to the Bulls, but still a possibility. But next to the Bulls, Knicks and Heat, they offer the least certainty of being a winner and a ring, not being loved for the rest of his career by these fans, is what will cement James' legacy among the greatest.
So where are we? My gut call, I think he leaves for Chicago. I'm admittedly the furthest thing from even a casual observer of contracts or free agency in any sport, least of all the NBA. But it's not hard to look at who's in play here and see that the Bulls objectively have the most to offer someone in James' position.
One thing's for certain, this process and its outcome will become the gold standard of ambition for the next young NBA superstar, wherever he is now. You will see it repeated somewhere down the line, and at least one guy is going to completely overrate himself and have a pitch summit invitation embarrassingly declined by one or more teams. It had to be hard for these executives to go to Cleveland to kiss LeBron's ring, but he clearly's worth it. Everyone younger than James will want to be that free agent when it's their time, so, this recruitment spectacle opens a new door in free agency.