Life is better with options and it couldn’t be much better for LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. They wrested control and leverage from management in an industry where labor typically has little.
Pro athletes in major team sports have no say in choosing their first employer, as 60 young men will experience firsthand Thursday night in the NBA Draft. They often play no role in deciding if and where they’re traded. They’re expected to treat loyalty as a two-way street, though teams can erect “Do Not Enter” signs at any point, especially in the twilight of a career.
Don’t get me wrong; I’d sign up for that deal in a heartbeat. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Americans with bachelor’s degrees can expect $2.1 million in earnings during their working life.
So, yes, being a pro athlete for even a few years would be awesome.
Being in James’ or Anthony’s position would be even sweeter.
By exercising the early-out option in their contracts with Miami and New York, respectively, James and Anthony essentially become assistant general managers any for interested teams. They will ask questions and their opinions will carry weight with teams that are anxious to sign them.
Which other free agents are you pursuing? Which veterans are you retaining? Which players are you dangling as trade bait?
Special bonus question for the Lakers: Who’s going to be the coach?
Some observers grumble about players having that much influence. But it’s called “star power” for a reason. Keeping them happy – whether it’s James and Anthony, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout or Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III – can go a long way toward keeping them in your uniform.
While I love the fact that James and Anthony took charge of their own destiny, another aspect of their decision is equally appealing.
The NBA offseason became a lot more interesting, filled with drama, suspense and intrigue that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Imagine how dull it would be if James and Anthony turned down their shot at free agency.
Pat Riley would have limited ability to significantly improve Miami’s roster. The mess that Phil Jackson inherited in New York couldn’t get worse either way, but at least now we have the thrill of the unknown.
Meanwhile, the Bulls, Rockets, Clippers, Lakers and Cavaliers can fantasize about landing James or Anthony, giving everyone else plenty to talk about.
(Personally, I hope Cleveland gets psyched up to believe that James’ return is imminent, only to see the dream dashed at the last instant. Based on fans’ vile reaction and the owner’s infantile rant when James left in 2010, the Cavs aren’t worthy of consideration. James can forgive them, sure, but he shouldn’t forget. Besides, firing Mike Brown one season into his second stint as coach indicates the team is infected with a special strain of dysfunction.)
James might lack the killer instinct of a certain cold-blooded, 10-time NBA scoring champ and six-time Finals MVP, but he’s absolutely as cutthroat at business. He reportedly made more than $30 million when Apple purchased Beat Electronics. If Micky Arison wants to keep James in South Florida, the Heat owner needs to break out his checkbook and spend for a better supporting cast.
Still, odds are that James stays in Miami with Dwyane Wade and/or Chris Bosh. James is Numero Uno of the Big Three, but it’s perceivable that upgrades can be secured for the other two – who also opted out. Everything could depend on how much James values the trio as family.
Anthony seems more likely to leave the Knicks. Their best shot is persuading him to suffer through a dismal season and then anchor a rebuild in 2015, when they’ll have plenty of money for desirable free agents such as Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo and Marc Gasol.
Wherever James and Anthony land, watching the process play out will be a blast. The fate of Wade and Bosh makes a nice subplot. So does Minnesota’s contemplations of trading Love before he walks away for nothing (the scenario that brought Anthony to New York from Denver).
How much less money will these star players accept? How much can they dictate other personnel decisions? How much maneuvering can desperate suitors pull off?
Special bonus question for the Lakers: How much is the brand and Hollywood worth?
Thanks to James and Anthony, we’re about to learn answers for those questions and more. That’s much juicier – and much more impactful – than debates on how far Joel Embiid should fall in the draft.
Most of us don’t have the same career options as James and Anthony. At least we can enjoy them vicariously, on and off the court.