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The presentation of New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has been designed to reach LeBron James(notes) on his deepest and most superficial of levels. The self-made mogul has carefully crafted a detailed and daring plan to make James a billionaire. The Nets will show him the map of the world, where the mogul has gone in China and India and Russia to make his billions and convince James that there's a blueprint here for him too.
LeBron James wants the world, and the 6-foot-9 owner capable of staring him in the eye will walk into his first free-agent meeting on Thursday and offer it. The Nets will offer him the borough of Brooklyn and pledge to overtake the New York Knicks and Madison Square Garden. They’ll promise him a vision of turning the franchise into a global basketball destination. Two self-made global moguls, Prokhorov and minority owner Jay-Z, will come calling to convince James to join up and make it a threesome.
The top contenders for James are jockeying, and those on the inside issued a warning on the eve of the summer free agency: The Nets are serious contenders for James – far outdistancing the neighboring New York Knicks who awoke to a 225-by-95-foot mural of Prokhorov and Jay-Z outside Jim Dolan’s office window at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks have already called the league office, grumbling about its arrival.
The Chicago Bulls are still the team to beat, with Cleveland a close second and New Jersey the looming wild card. Several people in the process remain dubious about the idea of the Dwyane Wade(notes), Chris Bosh(notes) and James scenario with the Miami Heat. No one believes it fits James’ DNA, nor his agenda.
“LeBron is an independent contractor,” an executive in the chase said.
No one should minimize how difficult it is going to be to extract James out of Cleveland, no matter how shaky these past two months have been for the franchise. The Cavs are completely against a sign-and-trade and will dare James to walk away and leave $30 million on the table. This is why the Nets are so intriguing, because the ability of New Jersey to sell James rests largely on the believability of the plan hatched with Prokhorov and his people.
So much of the talk about how James can make up the difference in money through marketing endorsements elsewhere is a fairly flawed argument. Those are differences of millions, at best, and ultimately the chance James has to become the kind of mogul – and maybe even champion – that he wants comes with the ability of a Russian billionaire to sell what’s always been James’ wildest fantasy: a true international tycoon.
For that, James still needs to win championships and there’s no escaping that truth. The Nets cleared $3 million more in salary cap space on Tuesday with the unloading of Yi Jianlian(notes) to move $30 million under the salary cap. New Jersey is pursuing Chris Bosh, too, but multiple league sources insist James isn’t wedded to Bosh as his power forward partner as some have been made to believe. They insist he’s fine with Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) and Carlos Boozer(notes), too.
Who truly has James’ ear is a mystery unfolding by the day, and his business manager Maverick Carter made a clumsy stab on Tuesday to insist that it’s still him. Carter has become so flustered with the public perception – and perhaps the reality – that power broker William Wesley is driving this process that Carter called the New York Times and declared that Wesley won’t be in the room for the team presentations and will have nothing to do with selecting James’ new team. That’s pure folly. Regardless of whether Wesley is present, Leon Rose, James’ agent, will be in those meetings, and he’s merely an extension of Wes, who delivers him clients.
Wes doesn’t do formal presentations. He works the back rooms and back channels.
“Maverick is swimming in the deep water now,” one source in the process said.
The irony is thick, too. After all, Carter had been the driving force to push former agent Aaron Goodwin out of James’ life five years ago and give Wes a greater role in James’ inner circle. The best way for Carter and the rest of James’ buddies to keep their power base is for James to stay with the Cavaliers. World Wide Wes can’t get the credit, nor the cache, for a deal that has LeBron re-signing with Cleveland.
Wesley used to run in Chicago with Michael Jordan in the Bulls heydays, a 45-minute flight from his suburban Detroit home. That’s a good play for him. One Chicago source even remembers how close he was with the Miami Hurricanes football program in its run of championships and how he would end up with national championship rings. And never mind how intriguing the possibility of conquering the world with Prokhorov and his arsenal of private jets and exotic vacation locales.
Everyone has an agenda here, and yet ultimately LeBron James has to reach that moment of truth about leaving Cleveland, leaving his home and accepting what will always come with the decision: sheer derision and disdain in his backyard. He’s never leaving Akron as his home, never moving out and you wonder if James has the stomach to live out his days as a pariah there.
For all the sexy selling jobs of the Russian billionaire and South Beach and Michael Jordan’s backyard, the pull of home remains the toughest competitor in the battle for LeBron James’ heart and mind. Free agency starts at midnight ET, and the first order of business will be a billionaire’s presentation promising LeBron James nothing short of what he’s always wanted: the world.