Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James: The most powerful free agent in sports


When LeBron James hit free agency in 2010, he wasted little time deciding on his fate. James spent his first four days on the open market meeting with teams and announced on July 8 — via his ESPN special, The Decision – his plans to join Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and the Miami Heat.

Fast forward four years and LeBron is again a free agent. But this time around, perhaps learning from 2010, LeBron is keeping quiet early in the process. The only meetings he’s granted teams have been with his agent, not with him.

As he’s stayed silent, free agency has hit a standstill. His suitors have been and will continue to be mostly dormant until LeBron makes his decision. Even teams like the Timberwolves — the sellers, not buyers, of this offseason — are waiting to shop players (in the T’Wolves case, Kevin Love) to the teams that fail to lure LeBron. This summer, everything starts with LeBron and everything ends with LeBron.

Why?

Start with this: LeBron was paid $19.1 million by the Heat in 2014, making him perhaps the most underpaid player in sports. Darren Rovell of ESPN.com estimates — based on ticket sales, sponsorship dollars, merchandise sales, television ratings and brand value — James is worth nearly $54 million per year to the Heat, just $10 million less than he made in the past four years combined.

The explanation for LeBron’s sky-high worth is an easy one: He’s the most valuable asset — that includes all players, coaches, and executives — that any NBA team could have, and there really isn’t a close runner-up. (Sorry, Kevin Durant.)

It’s a superstar-driven league and LeBron James is the biggest superstar of them all.

Proof: the 2013-14 Heat. The case can be made that the 2013-14 Miami Heat were even worse than LeBron’s Cleveland teams. According to Deadspin, the Heat’s top seven players (not including LeBron) had a combined Game Score — a statistic created by John Hollinger — of 36.6 in the Finals, worse than the combined Game Score (42.2) of Cleveland’s seven best players (again, not including LeBron) during the ‘07 Finals. That’s how bad LeBron’s supporting cast — if you can call it that — was in 2014. Still, he had the Heat within three wins of a three-peat.

Proof: the Cavaliers. Cleveland went from best to worst in the East — from 61 wins in 2010 to 19 wins in 2011 — when James left. (Some perspective: When Michael Jordan retired from the NBA in 1993, the Bulls went from 57 wins to 55 wins in ‘94. That’s not meant as a declaration that LeBron is better than Jordan, but still. It’s pretty incredible.)

Mar 18, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) reacts after a 100-96 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Mar 18, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) reacts after a 100-96 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Proof: Oddmakers at CarbonSports.ag projected the 2014 title odds for all 30 teams if they were to sign James. 28 teams — all but the Spurs and the Heat — would see their odds improve immensely. Even the Sixers, currently with 600-to-1 odds to win the championship, would see their odds jump to 20-to-1!

You get the idea. This is LeBron’s league, and right now, he has it in a stranglehold. It really all comes down to one thing: power. Not only does LeBron have it, but he’s using free agency to flex his muscle.

Whatever LeBron wants out of this summer, he will get.

If he chooses to stay in Miami, there’s no doubting that the Robins to his Batman –Bosh and Wade — would also re-sign with the Heat in an instant.

If he wants to return to Cleveland and play for his hometown Cavaliers, he can and will be playing ball in northeast Ohio next season. (Sidenote: I don’t have inside information, but my gut tells me LeBron will be a Cavalier at the start of next season. The LeBron-to-Cleveland rumors have picked up legitimate steam over the past 24 hours, with ESPN’s Chris Broussard tweeting that he believes the Cavs have surpassed the Heat as frontrunners to land James and Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeting that the Cavs are looking to deal Jarrett Jack to create cap space for ‘Bron.)

If he wants to leave Miami for Houston and create a new Big Three with James Harden and Dwight Howard, you can rest assured that the Rockets and general manager Daryl Morey will find a way to give him a max contract.

Perhaps LeBron wants to go elsewhere — maybe to the Suns, maybe to the Mavericks, or maybe even to the Lakers. All three of those teams are fully prepared to offer James the max.

Again: if LeBron wants it, he will receive it.

It brings me to this conclusion: LeBron James is the most powerful man (non-commissioner, non-owner, non-Mark Emmert) in sports.

Neither the MLB nor the NFL value the individual quite like the NBA does, so even the best baseball players and the best football players — the Mike Trouts and Tom Bradys of the world — can’t quite measure up to LeBron, at least not in the power department.

Head college football coaches at top programs have serious control at their universities, but there’s too much competition and parity among the top coaches for any one coach to be significantly more powerful than the rest.

If LeBron wants it, he will receive it.

Tiger Woods is worth as much to golf as LeBron is to the NBA, but Woods is well past his peak as a competitor and golf isn’t close to the NBA on the popularity scale.

Even Floyd Mayweather Jr. — who brings more far more money to boxing than does any other boxer and who can get any fight he wants — doesn’t have quite the same power that LeBron has, mostly because he and boxing aren’t in the constant national spotlight that LeBron and the NBA are.

LeBron can’t be touched. And make no mistake: this isn’t temporary. Even after his decision is made and even after the remainder of free agency comes and goes, James won’t relinquish his power. This is his NBA, both now and for the foreseeable future.

“King James” will reign supreme.

 

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