NBA stands at LeBron’s beck and call

World Wide Wes has been telling everyone that he believes LeBron James(notes) is leaning hard toward signing with the Chicago Bulls. No one can be certain if basketball’s most famous middleman has been whispering honest insights to friends or amping the anxiety of Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert. Just know this: It wasn’t until Tom Thibodeau – who swore he never again wanted an agent – signed with William Wesley’s CAA that the Chicago Bulls grew serious about the coach’s candidacy.

LeBron James is already influencing coaching and front-office decisions a month before he officially becomes a free agent. (Click photo for more images)
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

Something pushed Bulls officials to get on a plane, fly to Los Angeles on the eve of the NBA Finals and meet with the Boston Celtics assistant coach. Within 48 hours, the Bulls had a deal for Thibodeau to become their head coach. For several weeks, the Bulls had chances to interview him. They never did. Just a year ago, Thibodeau couldn’t get offers from the Sacramento Kings, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia Sixers and Minnesota Timberwolves. The Celtics see him as a career assistant and wouldn’t even consider him as a candidate to replace Doc Rivers.

Only now, Tom Thibodeau has a three-year contract to coach the Chicago Bulls.

As one front-office executive with a franchise that has significant salary-cap space this summer said, “I think all the big free-agent deals will be done by July 1, if not the draft. The NBA would have a cow if [it] knew what’s going on now.”

Some league executives don’t even believe Bulls general manager Gar Forman was sold on Thibodeau, but it doesn’t matter. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf was. Everything is happening on the ownership level now, and that’s the reason Gilbert wants to become Jerry Jones and Danny Ferry wanted out of a Cleveland future whether it included LeBron James or not. The hiring of Thibodeau doesn’t assure the Bulls of James, but consider it something of a down payment.

Dwyane Wade(notes) isn’t coming to the Bulls, and they know it. He’s recruiting free agents for the Miami Heat now, and his public disparaging of the Bulls’ lack of loyalty to their former great players was mostly directed toward the ears of his free-agent peers. Wade is selling the organizational stability of the Heat, the possibility of playing for the best available championship coach on the market, Pat Riley.

Riley promises to sell James and Chris Bosh(notes) on taking a little less money for a chance to be champions. He plans to tell them all about how the Showtime Lakers did it in the pre-salary cap ’80’s and how they can do it, too. It’s an improbable scenario, and a source with knowledge of his plans says Riley clearly prefers Chris Bosh over Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) with the second max contract slot the Heat have available. In fact, Riley is believed to still be torn about whether he would take Stoudemire over Utah’s Carlos Boozer(notes). Riley is also intrigued with signing Boston’s Ray Allen(notes) to get a shooter on the floor with Wade.

What’s been lost for the Cavaliers is the strong, steady leadership they had with Ferry and coach Mike Brown. Gilbert was honest with Ferry: He wanted to take back control and involve himself with everything again. Before Ferry was hired as GM, it wasn’t uncommon for Gilbert to pass notes to the bench for substitutions he wanted Paul Silas to make. Ferry had come out of San Antonio, and believed an orderly structure made for successful, winning organizations.

“LeBron never had to come out and say that he wanted Brown and Ferry gone,” one front-office executive familiar with the Cavs’ dynamic said. “But the anti-Brown and anti-Ferry sentiment from LeBron’s crowd was loud and clear to Dan Gilbert. He knew where LeBron stood.”

Ferry convinced Gilbert to step back, let him do his job. But more and more, the owner’s impulsive need to inject himself into everything took over the franchise. Most of all, Gilbert had become the biggest enabler of LeBron James and his inner circle, and that only promises to get worse. Ferry never loved the players’ pregame skits, the hiring of James’ buddies, the associates’ riding on the team plane, but Gilbert seldom said no to anything. He behaved like the permissive parent who believed his kid would love him more if he spoiled him rotten. And it got the Cavs a superstar, James, who never respected anyone and a cast of associates who had the run of the place. Had James wanted Ferry to still be the GM, Gilbert would’ve backed down and Ferry would have a new contract.

“Danny’s been miserable for the past two years,” a friend of his told Yahoo! Sports. “Even if they kept LeBron, do you still lose for winning there anyway?”

Ferry fought to retain Brown, but Gilbert, a staunch Michigan State man, is determined to hire away Tom Izzo. Unless James tells him he wants John Calipari, and then they’ll hire John Calipari. As much as anything, the Cavaliers are giving the franchise completely over to James and his inner circle now. Whatever he wants to stay, he’ll get. Now, Ferry isn’t there to play the wet blanket anymore. He never feared fighting Gilbert on issues because he had stature, money and, truth be told, he didn’t need the job.

All this changes with the promotion of new GM Chris Grant, a capable and respected young executive who won’t have nearly the muscle with Gilbert that his old boss did. Grant isn’t in the job to challenge the owner, but to carry out his vision. The message to James and his people is unmistakable: Whatever you want here, you’ll have. Your way is our way now. That isn’t how it works with winning organizations, and the tragic part is that James may well recognize that and bail on Cleveland anyway.

All the pieces stay fluid and evolving now. World Wide Wes whispers the Bulls for those listening, and all hell has broken loose with a free-agent chase for LeBron James that’s well under way long before July 1.

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Jun 5, 2010