Summer of silence: LeBron free of drama

LeBron James(notes) has scripted the most inconspicuous of summers: Asian sneaker tours, backpack giveaways and corporate unveilings of murals in South Florida. This could’ve been the most hellacious of offseasons, but James has drifted largely unnoticed, unscathed, becoming the biggest winner of the NBA’s loser of a lockout.

LeBron loves Las Vegas, but there was no chance the world would witness him modeling a “Stand” T-shirt shoulder to shoulder with Billy Hunter’s makeshift cast of faceless rank-and-file players. The work stoppage has ground the grief upon James to modest levels, ending a suffocating 24 months of self-induced and self-inspired storms.

A lockout-shortened season could help LeBron James and the Heat in their title quest.
(NBAE/Getty Images)

For James, this summer’s clown show of NBA suits has been a gift. Here comes a fresh rotation of bad guys, a chance for him to come inside out of the rain and wind. Hard-line owners, an ineffective commissioner and Players Association executive committee members who can’t figure out the difference between texting and tweeting.

After his disastrous departure from Cleveland and an NBA Finals no-show, circumstances and a careful choreography have steered James clear of controversy, sparing him what still could’ve been a disastrous summer.

Washington Wizards guard John Wall(notes) called for the superstars to speak up, to be heard and seen. “I think we’re going to have to have guys like Kobe [Bryant], LeBron [James], the face of the NBA, to step up and say something,” Wall told the Washington’s Post Michael Lee.

Whatever noble comes out of the cause, public activism in the union is a losing proposition on the endorsement field, a visual that doesn’t push product. Never mind that the owners locked out the players, never mind that James and Bryant are the two most underpaid athletes since Michael Jordan for the revenue they generate. It doesn’t matter. They know that truth, and so do the owners, the union, everyone. There should be max contracts, and an additional team revenue sharing pot that James, Bryant and a handful of superstars get paid. That would be fair, honest, and yet those salaries will get cut, too.

Most of the league’s players are overpaid, interchangeable parts. They don’t sell tickets, don’t drive ratings. Yet, this is a one-man, one-vote union. Players Association executive board member Roger Mason(notes) is one of the most visible, quoted players of the summer, and yet you have to wonder: Does he even a job in the NBA next season?

[Photo gallery: How LeBron James has spent his summer]

The Vegas meeting was an embarrassment, 35 players that most NBA fans couldn’t pick out of a layup line. In the end, though, it’s important for these players to be privately supporting the cause. James and Bryant have done that in private, and that’s mostly what matters here. Yes, James will lose in the wallet on his next free-agent contract, but it’s hard to imagine that he hasn’t benefitted from this breather.

There’s someone else to absorb scorn, resentment, the arrows. Even if that Finals performance hadn’t earned him a break, he’s probably gotten one. What’s more, this could be a huge benefit for him and the Miami Heat next season. Just the chance to clear his head, get his bearings back, is important.

And the longer this lockout goes, the more it benefits James’ team. The shortened season is set up perfectly for them. People sometimes mistake shortened seasons with less wear and tear, and it’s just the opposite. The Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder will benefit far more than the older Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. Once the lockout’s lifted, the free-agent frenzy, the trades, the shortened training camp and sprint to the playoffs will still give James even more cover. Eventually, he has to win a title. For him, it needs to be this season. He doesn’t want to go to the Olympics with that hanging over him in July, with Kobe and Dwyane Wade(notes) winning him another gold medal.

Once James win an NBA title, everything washes away. He’ll be judged differently, his deeds and words parsed with far less suspicion, derision.

As this week starts, Kobe had been overseas. Kevin Durant(notes) was filming on a movie set. And James was honoring the wish of Justin Bieber, re-tweeting his genius to the world. James has been on the losing end of public relations, the NBA Finals, and so it is little surprise that there are no fighting words out of his mouth this summer, no scowling photo ops with Billy Hunter and the faceless rank-and-file.

[Video: Thunder star Durant wears hat of rival team]

Everything’s going to work out, James has been saying. Lots of optimism, lots of smiles. No more doom and gloom out of him, no more Armageddon. He’s had his share. It’s hard to blame him when a new cast of basketball villains are popping up on the landscape, stealing his stage. Let them take their hits, because he’s standing safely on the sidelines, passing out backpacks to kids. This labor fight has always been a losing battle for the players, a guaranteed giveback of hundreds of millions of dollars that will ultimately hit James the hardest of all. Everyone owes him more, not less. He wouldn’t be lying to come out and say such a thing – just the owner of a death wish. He’s been too smart for that lately, anyway.

So knock yourself out, guys, and just let LeBron James know when training camp starts. For the first time, he’s figured something out: Less is more.

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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 Monday, Sep 19, 2011