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LeBron and Soccer (7/7/10)

By Paul Bessire

Wednesday, July 7 at 11:20 PM ET
The NBA revels in the off-season attention it is getting right now with free agency. And it will see huge ratings in early weeks as fans tune into see the new teams. But, no matter what he decides tomorrow night, free agency is about the worst thing that could ever happen to LeBron.

Salary-wise, the options are a wash. Please ignore those reports out there that a player can make $30 million more by re-signing with his current team. Since most of the added worth of that deal is in the extra season, that would only be true if this is the last contract the player ever signs. For most of these players, they will probably ultimately be capable of getting more money a season after five seasons. Agents will make you think that they are scared of CBA issues costing future contracts. That has more to do with the agents' inherent need to get max value now so they themselves don't are not left out of future deals.

So what's left? Winning. Endorsements. Loyalty. (In that order.)

He can only satisfy loyalty one way - by staying in Cleveland. But that is at a significant detriment to his likelihood of winning. I like Anderson Varejao, but that's about it. Antawn Jamison clearly regressed over time last year and no one else really impressed.

As of right now, Orlando and Miami would be on par in the East with the Cavs. The Celtics may have a few years left to contend as well. And the Knicks, Nets, Bulls and Hawks could also field teams capable of challenging LeBron and the Cavs of the next few seasons as well. And that's just in the East.

Based on rosters going into the off-season, the best possible destination to secure ten years of legitimate championship contention was Oklahoma City. Matching LeBron with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would trump just about anything else that could happen. But the Thunder didn't have the money, nor the desire to do what it took to pursue James - and James would probably never play in Oklahoma City. More on OKC in a bit.

Of the serious options, the Bulls (Rose, LeBron, Boozer, Noah), the Heat (Wade, LeBron, Bosh) and, to a lesser extent, the Knicks (LeBron, Stoudemire, Carmelo next year) and the Nets (LeBron, Lopez, maybe Chris Paul) could all look like championship favorites. That's the problem. As much fun as this is to think about, winning isn't really winning in this case.

No matter where he goes, LeBron James will have exponentially more pressure to win championships. If he does, he was supposed to. If he doesn't, he's a failure. In fact, if any of those teams was actually constructed, James would be a failure if his super team does not set the all-time wins record and sweep through the playoffs.

This free agency bonanza and hype machine that LeBron has so specifically orchestrated is all for naught. Winning is ho-hum; it's concocted and will get stale. Losing is a disaster.

That goes for his legacy as well his endorsements. He is probably at his peak now. The world loves an icon who wins, but we all prefer if the wins seem well-earned and organic. Even on a free-agent-laden team like the Yankees, there is a reason Derek Jeter is the Yankee who gets the commercials and media love.

Think about the Dream Team. They may have been one of the world's most popular teams, but they had to win and they had to win by 30 points a game. Plus, globally, everyone already knew most of the team's stars and there really wasn't another option to root for. Future iterations of the "Dream Team" were all but ignored globally - even the ones that still won. It was a novelty that got boring pretty quick.

No matter where LeBron ends up, the pressure will be similar, yet he will probably be more villain than hero among the league's fans and the novelty may not even last the season.

Speaking of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Sam Presti is still the smartest GM in the league. When the rest of the world wants to know what's going on with LeBron, OKC locks up Kevin Durant to another five years. I understand that all teams are allowed to extend players at this point, but the timing and the approach are brilliant. He's not even the hometown guy and the market is tiny, yet I bet Durant stays with the team for the duration of his career. He's not only that valuable to the Thunder, the value of staying with and contending for championships with one team for 15-20 years seems evident to the level-headed Durant (as compared to the intelligent, but ego-maniacal James).

And quickly, while LeBron's decision will likely have negative long-term repercussions for him and the league, the upcoming World Cup Final reminds me of how Vlade Divac and Manu Ginobili ruined the NBA product.

It's my job to pay attention to the League, but it is extremely difficult to watch the game. The embarrassing nature of flopping is not the only reason for that - to me, Jordan's carrying the ball, fading away and pushing off game has had a similar negative impact as the long-ball hitters in the late '80s/early '90s in baseball and Charles Barkley is obnoxious - yet flopping is the most painful element of the game to see live.

Competition should be about who is better at defeating the opponent, not who is better at tricking officials. And being in the business that I am in, officials having such powerful and inconsistent impacts on the game is very disconcerting.

That's why we don't watch the game. The world loves it because it's so cheap to learn and play anywhere and easy to bet on. It also has completely arbitrary rules that players are constantly trying to manipulate. Maybe soccer in the world is our equivalent to the Twilight series. Either way, the acting is horrible and I still don't know who is winning.

Thankfully, at least until this free agency period, rivalries, stars and evenly matched playoff series have come back to make basketball interesting. And I genuinely think that David Stern has helped to keep international players with soccer influences out of the game in the last decade. It's still tough to watch and I hope it never comes close to what we are seeing in the World Cup.

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