Are LeBron, Cavs just playing teenage games?

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers may be playing the ultimate game of 'free agent chicken'.
Jason Miller/Getty Images

By Bart Doan.

We all knew a few of them growing up. Odds are, you know a few of them now too. They’re the folks that crave some sort of drama, controversy, and say things like, “I try to avoid it, but it finds me.” It’s a mildly rough way to live, it’d seem like.

Which brings us very quickly to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Lebron James. Whatever love fest existed is not really over, but the Cavs are at least sleeping on the couch. Or maybe Lebron is. But either way, they could both do themselves a favor and drop it.

Now, all of this stems from the ambiguous “reports” about James not talking contract extension to the Cavs until they hook up Tristan Thompson … his friend and since they operate under the same agency … business partner in a sense … with a blank check for Thompson to write a bunch of 0’s on until it hits $80 million. Reportedly.

It’s a unique pissing match though, because neither has really any leverage unless they’re icy cold and then either can have all the leverage. But it’s a dicey game maybe not worth playing if you’re both sides.

Let’s just say Cleveland doesn’t think Thompson is worth a max deal. Hell, let’s say maybe they think so, but they understand that sinking $80 million into a guy that might operate primarily as a backup isn’t the best allocation of finances since they have Kevin Love in the fold (reportedly). But if Lebron sits down and says, “look, y’all said you’d spend whatever when I came here and now my buddy needs hooked up or I’m going to make y’all squirm publicly a bit,” the Cavs are in no position to play hard ball and flex beer muscles.

And then you’ve got Lebron’s side of it. Really, Lebron is being risky with this on and off again contract deal as it is. He’s the best player in the world, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 now, and yeah, cashing in on that television money over the next few years is the smart thing to do, but you’re one horrific injury or accident from putting some of that in peril.

You can see his point though. James has magically found a way to plug decision-making power by not committing to the Cavs long term, and they would be the unenviable fall guys if they ever, ever saw Lebron walk. Lebron, though, is and always has been acutely aware of his legacy.

He hasn’t always been acutely aware of the best way to handle it, but he’s not one of those guys that doesn’t think about his long-term impact on the game and how he’s viewed. Those are a dying breed, taken out to pasture by a public thirst for immediate gratification society and social media.

James has all of this down pat, acting as though he’s not part of the process but if you think some of these free agent moves are being made with his opinion totally banal as if he was Matthew Dellavedova, think again. James and his team have been calculating enough to not make it seem like they’re not involved, but if you think it’s not at least a text message from the Cavs front office to James such as, “what do you think of Joe Johnson” for example, you’re crazy.

James won’t ever face the fallout of these moves not working though, the same way when guys don’t hit free throws to end games, the general manager isn’t taken to the guillotine.

Without knowing the specifics … or even if this is what’s going on, though someone’s leaking that James-Thompson info for a specific reason … it’s tough to tell who’s in the wrong. Dan Gilbert is just printing money straight to the league at this point, and at what point over the luxury tax he goes, we still don’t know. If Gilbert sat down with Lebron and said, “blank checks all around. I’ll go get whoever, just come back” then it seems really petulant to hold some of it back to risk any acrimony when you’re going to pay up in the end anyway.

If Lebron really said, “do what you’ve got to do, I want to be here,” then it’s a little more on him to trust the management team like David Griffin, who did a magnificent job in 2014-15 on the fly. It’s doubtful Lebron walked into his office and said, “that Varejao stuff sucks. Go get Timofey Mozgov. I’ve always wanted to play with him,” when Anderson Varejao went down with a season-ending injury.

And yet, that was a pivotal get, as were J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. Griffin also swung the deal for Love and was able to at least in part, convince him to stay. In the short-term, Griffin has enough of a track record that Lebron should think the guy knows enough about what he’s doing to put a competent team around him.

Still, this stalemate, if true, is just silly. Cleveland has no leverage here, because there’s no way they’re letting $10 million or so off the board from a guy named Tristan Thompson who … yeah … is going to get overpaid … to risk losing Lebron.

And Lebron lacks leverage this time around too, what with the heartfelt letter back to Cleveland and his professed desire to finish what he started back Home. Nothing is given, everything is earned, and what not.

Tristan Thompson probably didn’t earn $80 million worth of contract. He’s living off a post season run that made him a little more of a household name, but you’re looking at something that reminds you of deals guys get when they have magical post-season runs. We’ll call them “Croshere’s,” and hey, more power to them. Still, he’s a good player, and if he’s Lebron’s buddy, he’s getting his loot.

And maybe he’s even more worth it if you don’t have Kevin Love back, but you do have Kevin Love back.

If the info was leaked to the media by Cleveland, they’re throwing gas on fire. Lebron wouldn’t appreciate being thrown in a, “hook up my friends or I’m going to make you sweat” deal. If it was leaked by Lebron’s side, it was to test the waters to see how Cleveland could respond to a strong arming.

In the end, it’s silly on both sides and neither come out looking good. Lebron isn’t looking elsewhere, so if Cleveland drop dead says, “we’re not paying him that much money,” what’s he going to do? Really leave? And if Lebron walks in and says, “I’ll take the hit on my legacy (and probably around the league, with guys lining up to come back to or play for Cleveland) and bolt if you don’t pay my guy,” is Cleveland really going to test him on it?

There’s a song by a pretty good artist by the name of Logan Mize called, “Can’t Get Away From a Good Time.” Seems like a little less arduous of a proposition than doing the drama thing annually. There’s no point in seeking it out when it can be avoided fairly easily (if you have a giant check book).

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