What LeBron James’ new Cleveland Cavaliers contract means
LeBron James was never going to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, but on Thursday, he made that truth official.
James announced Thursday that he will sign a reported three-year deal with the Cavaliers in the coming days or weeks. The deal, which will almost certainly be structured as a two-year deal with a third-year player option, is worth a reported $100 million.
Despite the air of inevitability around the deal, there is a good deal to unpack with this contract. Here are the three big takeaways:
LeBron will be paid $30.9 million in 2016-17, which will make him the highest-paid player in the league — shockingly, for the first time in his career. James’ $33 million salary in 2017-2018 will be the largest single-season deal in NBA history.
Before James, only two players made $30 million or more in a season — Michael Jordan (1997, 1998) and Kobe Bryant (2014). Mike Conley, who signed a record contract with the Grizzlies earlier this summer, will join that club starting in 2018.
James is the first vice president of the NBA Players’ Association — putting him on the front lines of the negations between it and the league as the two parties enter the final season of their collective bargaining agreement.
Given the massive increase in league revenue, thanks to new TV deals, and the battle between owners and players over how to handle that money this year and in the future, there are serious concerns that the owners will lock out the players next summer. James, who signed one-year deals with the Cavs in his first two years back in Cleveland, will not have to worry about being a free agent during the possible lockout — he’ll be under contract for 2017-18, whenever that season actually starts.
This is a safe move — it’s not as if James won’t be making record money that season — but it could also be a benevolent one: James’ financial security will allow him to engage in negotiations about topics like star player contracts without having an immediate personal stake. Should star players’ contract values be lowered in the new CBA, James can opt into his third year for $35.6 million. Should the values go up — perhaps to 40 percent or an unlimited amount of the salary cap — James will be poised to cash in on that, albeit on a year delay. He’s protected either way.
James signed one-year deals with the Cavs upon his return in part to maintain control over owner Dan Gilbert. James had more than one reason not to sign a one-year deal this time around (technically speaking, they’re two-year deals with a player opt-out after a year, but for all intents and purposes…) but he decided to give Gilbert a chance to take a step back from the fire. Had James really wanted to press Gilbert this summer, he would have remained mum until J.R. Smith was re-signed by the Cavs — the only holdup there is Gilbert’s stinginess — but he opted to announce he was returning Thursday, with Smith’s contract status still in flux. A championship can heal a lot of wounds, and while James and Gilbert will never be close, it’s fair to believe that the timing of the announcement and the terms of the deal show some thawing in the icy relationship between owner and superstar.