I have lost the wherewithal to beat back the tide of "LeBron James Sucks" or "The King Hath Become Una Bum" writing, tweeting and general spur-of-the-second web buzz. Luckily, it doesn't matter. We tore down LeBron after Game 5 so he could be built back up, but last night, that wasn't supposed to happen. Today, you'd expect that the air would be filled with something like this:
Except that news cycle was over before it started, lingering a while in towns with no shot at landing LeBron or any other major free agent, or with people who just like to complain. Perhaps we now know that James is indeed mortal -- fine with me, since I'd been reconciled to some version of that for a minute now. It makes him less boring, more mysterious, and yes, an even more frightening basketball weapon. He's an unstable isotope that can't entirely control or trigger himself.Ding-dong, LeBron James is dead. Michael Jordan wouldn't have gone out like that. Nelson Mandela, Hank Aaron, Bobby Kennedy and Mother Theresa. They wouldn't have wilted like that, two key games in a row. LeBron James will have to wait a while before he can rejoin this distinguished company. After tonight, who knows -- he may never make it back.
Full stop on that, folks. Suddenly, violently, unexpectedly, in a massive plot twist no one expected this soon, LeBron James has been thrown out into the flux of free agent speculation. We thought this would be later in the postseason, perhaps even after he got his ring. But no. Things are unsettled, James is, if not in question, at least imbued with a new urgency because of the last two duds.
Some of you may be bracing for fatigue, or endless speculation that goes nowhere. I see nothing less than the greatest NBA upheaval since the NBA-ABA merger, and that was a last-ditch survival effort. This summer could realign the entire league's balance of power. And it's here. Way before delivery date. With more at stake than before.
Just think: LeBron James slinks away as something less than the greatest player ever, but immediately comes roaring back, in the abstract, as a figure bigger than basketball.
So maybe the King can't turn his game on and off at will, and is subject to some human limitations. Try telling that to the millions lining up to pretty much treat him, more than ever, like a figure set to transform their hometowns. I have the phone calls from last night to prove. Frankly, it scares me. It feels like the Doomsday Clock, the End of Days, and I fully expect someone to do a Photoshop job of the main FAs as the Four Horseman. Insert uneasy Dr. Manhattan reference here and tremble.
Things will never be the same, not because the internet hates LeBron, but because the time is upon us. The Great Free Agent Derby of 2010 is here and we are now living in its awful, exalted midst. Sooner, and with higher levels of entropy, than we had ever expected.
If you can't tell, I am deeply troubled by all of this. It's not just that I don't want to spend the next two months quivering over this storyline, however worthy it may be; I've already dealt with them for the better part of two years, albeit not under such heightened circumstances. I'm sick of it already, except now it makes my hair stand on end. What I need is a coping guide on how to get through the plague-like panic and darkness. Therefore, I have constructed for myself a Handy Guide for Getting Through the Free Agency Firestorm.
The first rule of Free Agency 2010 is, naturally, don't talk about free agency. Whenever possible, at least. It's important we stay informed about the possible scenarios -- learn your cap figures, I'm still getting mine mixed up -- and monitor how smaller moves affect these parameters. But endless speculation, or phone tips from anonymous GMs, simply can't be the stuff of our business between now and July. Hopefully, there will be no staking out of athlete homes, or stealing people's garbage.
That's easier said than done, of course. When the world is coming to an end, how can you concern yourself solely with reality shows unless it's some concerted attempt to block out reality? I seek not to hide from the real. Mostly, I want to understand the limits of our inquiry, and pray that even in the face of this impossible, pregnant future, we stick to what we're capable of.
For one, there's a lottery on Tuesday, and a draft not far after that. Let's not go and forget about these annual rituals, which have tremendous implications for 2010, as I like to call it. Learn to speak in bold if you really want to follow suit. Immersing yourself in the finer points of this big man-heavy draft should be good fun; it's nearly the mirror image of 2009's guard-intensive rundown.
But hark, in John Wall, we have perhaps the most eagerly anticipated draftee since LeBron. Wall is everything a point guard could be, past, present and future. Wall has a very good chance (at least insofar as the lottery favors any form of chance) of ending up with New Jersey. Past business ties to LeBron James notwithstanding, you've got to figure that this makes the Nets that much more appealing to free agents. Let's also not forget about Evan Turner, the putative No. 2 pick and an equally intriguing pick for a Nets team looking to boost its portfolio.
(Sidebar: We're hearing a lot about Jay-Z role in all of this, but what about Corey Booker? Can't the man who was Obama before Obama raise the profile of this team a little, since he'll be hosting them in Newark next season?)
Anyway, that didn't exactly get off the topic of free agency, and anyone disposed to worry about the late first-rounders doesn't need me to tell them to do so. Nor can I create converts to that life with a single column. However, if it's suspense and resolution you want, and potential clues about what the future holds, Tuesday's Draft Lottery is pretty darn important.
It also offers an intriguing pathway out of the darkness, as there's a direct correlation between lesser draft picks and free agents who won't alter the universe. Not only do lesser free agents and less glamorous draft picks compete for space. There's also the time-honored tradition of appreciating the draft as a grand sweep.
Maybe learning to do so with this free agent class -- deeper than anyone cares to discuss -- can relieve some of the pressure exerted by the giants up top.
But that still lands us right back in "who signs where" tea-leaves matrix. There is still much basketball left to be played -- namely, two rounds of basketball that draw us ever closer to the Larry O'Brien trophy. Most of the Class of 2010 may have now vanished, but Amar'e Stoudemire is still around and kicking. So there's at least some FA-related activity that doesn't depend on kidnapping cousins and begging them for a tip. No, I don't count Paul Pierce or Ray Allen as marquee market forces.
More importantly, though, if this summer will shape the next decade of the NBA like none history can recall, these playoffs are a good send-off for the generation that came before. Sure, Rajon Rondo leads the Celtics now, but his old friends -- especially a revitalized Kevin Garnett -- are making a serious run here. The same goes for Steve Nash, who can't keep himself going indefinitely. And the Lakers, mighty as they appear, see the age in Kobe Bryant's eyes.
Only Orlando doesn't appear to be part of this curtain call -- one that, while it won't come overnight, certainly lends these playoffs something of a "one more for the road" feel.
Who would have ever though that rooting for Kobe Bryant could be all that keeps us from being swept up into oblivion? I'm not even sure I believe that. Still, given the choice between KB24 making what might be the last great run of his career, and the dark, creeping forces of Chris Bosh's Twitter talking about LeBron's favorite swimming holes, I'll chose the former.