ORLANDO, Fla. – After LeBron James(notes) clumsily stumbled into saying his most beloved subject was now a forbidden topic, he punctuated his vow of no more free-agency talk with a most disingenuous disclaimer.
For the good of the team, James suggested.
For the good of the Cleveland Cavaliers' championship chase.
"I think I owe it to my teammates," James said. " … I don't want to have any more distractions to my organization. It's getting old and I think tonight will probably be the last time I answer any more free-agent questions until the offseason."
Rest assured, King James had undergone no crises of conscience. If this was an epiphany, it was of pure self-interest. For most of the past two years, James hasn't just indulged the discussion of his free agency, he's courted and craved it. He flirts with Madison Square Garden. He calls Brooklyn his favorite borough. He wants the public to parse his words, to find meaning intended and unintended. He's a little too late shutting down the issue, a little too far down the road to July 1, 2010, to pretend like he's a victim of a voracious 24-hour news cycle.
So, the questions of a union with Dwyane Wade(notes) that could never, ever happen kept coming on Wednesday night until James finally lost his patience. Why do the questions persist? Because he allowed them, that's why. There's never been a scenario – not D-Wade taking the mid-level exception in Cleveland, not LeBron taking the max in Minnesota – that he wouldn't carefully consider for a public consumption. This has been a game to James, an exercise in self-love that finally transformed into sheer loathe at Amway Arena.
"He can't feed the monster, and then get pissed when the monster wants more," a Western Conference executive said Wednesday night.
As much as anything, the return to the scene of the Cavs' Eastern Conference finals embarrassment had James on edge. In June, he had sulked out of a Game 6 loss without acknowledging the Magic players with a congratulatory word – never mind a handshake. His pristine image paid a steep public-relations price. He could've survived that lapse in good judgment with an apology the next day, but his stubborn small-mindedness on the issue made it worse.
All these months later, James had a modest measure of redemption for the Cavs – 36 points in a 102-93 victory over the Magic. A November game with starters missing on both sides hardly constituted a closing of the gap with Orlando, a validation of the Cavaliers' summer changes. Nevertheless, this had been sold as a night to measure the importance of Shaquille O'Neal's(notes) arrival in Cleveland. Dwight Howard(notes) had destroyed the Cavs in the playoffs, and the trade for Shaq was a direct response. Yes, this promised to be all about Shaq, until James usurped the storyline for himself.
Around the league, rival executives, coaches and players have considered James' willingness to enthusiastically play out his free-agency scenarios in public as disrespectful, if not a distraction, to his Cavaliers. Around the Cavs, they mostly considered it the price of doing business with the game's greatest young star.
Now, the Cavs have bigger issues, and perhaps that's a part of James' motivation to cease and desist on the free-agency dialogue. Troubled guard Delonte West(notes) was placed on the inactive list again on Wednesday, his latest transgression missing the team's charter flight, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported. West wandered around the Cavs' locker room in the pregame, and spoke incomprehensible gibberish to a Fanhouse reporter at the morning shootaround.
West has a major weapons case pending in Maryland, and a bipolar disorder that clearly has its grips on him. The organization has reconciled that West is ultimately a lost cause for the Cavs, sources say. West's teammates, long supportive and sympathetic to his plight, are rapidly realizing that he can't be counted upon anymore.
In a lot of ways, James has been a good steward for West, a team captain empathetic to his teammate's troubles. Still, this is a business, and the Cavs are here to win – not save wayward lives. They'd move West in a heartbeat. Cleveland is still intrigued with Golden State's Stephen Jackson(notes), and sources say general manager Danny Ferry is monitoring the availability of some outside-shooting power forwards – stretch 4-men – to complement Shaq. For now, Cleveland is still trying to get a sense of who it is, and what it can be come the playoffs. Whatever it takes in payroll and luxury tax, give Cavs owner Dan Gilbert this much: To please James, he'll spend it.
Whatever his sincerity, however long this lasts, James is right: He owes his organization, his teammates, a muzzle on free agency. James' balancing act between his coy and downright overt suggestions on a future elsewhere has been both a public and private embarrassment to the organization. But the Cavs never dared to tell James to stop with the 2010 talk. They don't tell him anything.
This isn't the front office's and coach's fault, as much as it is the owner's. Gilbert always indulged the wishes of James and the high school buddies on his payroll. Whatever they want, they get. On one level, you can understand it. On another, you wonder if James would respect them more if the organization stood up to him now and again.
"The front office can never say no, because LeBron and his guys knew that they could go directly to the owner and get what they want," one league source said.
So, the Cavs obliterated the struggling Magic, James was genius and his resolve to end the 2010 hypotheticals wasn't four hours old when tested outside his locker on Wednesday night. No, his directive on ending free-agency answers hadn't sounded well thought out, but more a fit of frustration on a night he desperately wanted some vengeance to that springtime playoff embarrassment.
When I tried to ask him whether he had planned to make his 2010 proclamation, or had merely spit it out spur of the moment, James cut off the question and ultimately ended his postgame interview session. For his own good, he better have thought this one out a little, because there seems to have been so little else that he loved as much as discussing the NBA's obsession with his future. He never did get to go through a college recruitment, and it sure felt like he was using 2010 as a chance to relive that lost time in a lost childhood.
No more flirting, no more indulging future teams and teammates and cities. No more talk about Madison Square Garden, no more about the Russian owner and Jay-Z headed for Brooklyn. Maybe it is all about the Cavs, all the time now. Only James can decide that.
For now, James says his teammates and organization inspired him to take the hard line on free-agency answers, but that's doubtful. James had created such a monster, and he suddenly became exacerbated trying to feed it.
In his bare feet, LeBron James turned away and soon started singing the lyrics to a rap song in the visiting locker room. Somewhere in his locker were a new pair of game shoes Nike had made for him. "New York" was printed on the toe of one shoe. "27" was printed on the other.
Ah, it's just the Yankees, just his baseball team. Don't read anything into it. Really, it's nothing. Nothing at all.