While the rest of the NBA has been busy digesting the Celtics’ historical championship run and gearing up for the Olympics this off-season, the Nets and Knicks have been looking farther ahead — to 2010, when Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James can opt out of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent. The two New York teams are widely acknowledged as the leading suitors for LeBron’s hand. The Knicks’ new GM, Donnie Walsh, made the first big splash of the Isiah-clean-up era by hiring Mike D’Antoni, the player-friendly former Suns coach whose high-paced style will, one assumes, be an asset in luring James. Meanwhile, the Nets took care of some housecleaning, shipping out forward Richard Jefferson for Bucks center Yi Jianlian and acquiring the necessary cap space to offer James a max contract in the process.
Now an odd third party is threatening to crash the race: According to a source close to the player, ESPN is reporting, James would consider playing in Europe for an offer approaching $50 million a year. The ridiculous sum is within the realm of possibility because European clubs don’t operate under a salary cap. Theoretically, a premier squad like Russia’s CSKA Moscow or Greece’s Olympiacos — who have apparently already contacted James, without discussing financial details — would slap together an offer just for the prestige of having a player of his caliber without considerations to turning a profit on the deal. Similar things have happened in other sports. Remember when the internationally meaningless Los Angeles Galaxy hired David Beckham away from Real Madrid?
The NBA-players-to-Europe story line has been the league’s most intriguing recent subplot. A cavalcade of international players has returned to foreign teams this off-season, encouraged by the strong euro and the fact that European clubs pay all their players’ taxes and housing costs. But it’s promising American guys like Josh Childress, who spurned an offer from the Atlanta Hawks to sign with Olympiacos, and Brandon Jennings, a top NBA prospect forgoing his college eligibility for a year with Virtus Roma in the Italian league, who have really opened up the conversation.
Would LeBron really abandon the league he grew up dreaming of dominating? Even for $50 million? Probably not, which is great for New York, but ultimately too bad for LeBron. Then the following scenario could never play out: LeBron agrees to go to Europe for $45 million a year provided the payment come in giant-check form. Then he could leave the giant check in the bathroom for people to come over and ask, “Oh, man, where’d you get that sweet novelty check, Spencer Gifts?” At which point LeBron James would calmly explain, in his newfound fluent Greek or Russian, that the check was very much real. —Amos Barshad