Commentary

Pick one: LeBron James or NBA playoffs

Free-agency saga has more drama, human interest than postseason games so far

Updated: May 18, 2010, 2:55 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

The Cleveland Cavaliers haven't finished a week of their offseason and we've already advanced to the package deal/conspiracy level of speculation in the LeBron James free-agency saga. The Bulls might end up getting John Calipari, which would get them LeBron, all because of the behind-the-scenes machinations of the great deal-maker and people-broker, William Wesley, from here on destined to be known as Worldwide Wes.

John Calipari
Jonathan Daniel /Allsport John Calipari has been in Chicago as an NBA coach before (visiting with the Nets).

Or the Calipari-James connection could be complete fiction, which is what we've been told from the authoritative source of Calipari's Twitter account.

When it starts out with something as juicy as Calipari drafting in LeBron's wake to take the Bulls' job after only one year at Kentucky, where could it possibly go from here?

Or, to put it another way, if it got this good this fast, we can't wait for what's coming.

What a weird world. What a weird 6-8 weeks it figures to be. It's the perfect combination of time, place and circumstance -- LeBron's free agency has been a story for two whole years now, so we'd probably feel a little bit cheated if the final buildup didn't include wild speculation and a surprising cast of characters.

And this is good. Now that the Cavs' collapse is over, we want more Worldwide Weses and more colorful tales of the guys in the inner circle -- the "family," as LeBron describes them. We want and maybe need Calipari to be part of this, if only so we can joke about whether Coach Cal can find a way to get LeBron to Kentucky for a year, perhaps solving everybody's problems.

It would be fantastic if we could toss a famous rapper and a Russian billionaire into the mix -- and hey, here come the Nets with Jay-Z and Mikhail Prokhorov. (Two years in Newark, though? Unlikely place for a guy who calls himself "King.") There are rumblings that Mark Cuban and the Mavericks "can't be discounted" -- we can almost see the sideways, knowing glance of the unnamed source -- which opens the possibility of great quotes and massive fines. And in the background are the other two premier free agents, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, perhaps waiting their turn on the carousel of LeBron rumors.

[+] EnlargeSteve Nash & Jack Nicholson
Noel Vasquez/Getty ImagesYou want drama? This is about as much as the NBA conference finals have offered so far.

Plus, there's the looming specter of Cleveland to remain in the running. There's the distinct possibility that owner Dan Gilbert will do whatever it takes -- fire Mike Brown, sign Bosh, hire Worldwide Wes as GM -- to keep LeBron. After all, if James is truly chasing a title, he's closer to one in Cleveland than any of the other most popular suitors. Plus, he just built a $30 million ode to himself there. Whatever happened to the idea of unfinished business?

The LeBronfest is the culmination of a sports world that has become obsessed with prognostication, rumor and anticipation. This is manna from heaven for the chat shows and the televised roundtables. The best athlete in the sport possibly leaving title-deprived Cleveland for New York or Chicago or Dallas or your team here? There's no end to the possibilities.

And here's another thing: It couldn't come at a better time. Sure, LeBronmania is destined to become even more rabid and overblown -- hey, we'll do our best -- but it beats this season's playoffs. Whether it's the pace -- game, two days off, game, three days off, game -- or the matchups, this season's games make us pine for the days of the tape-delayed 11:30 p.m. Friday night telecasts, when it seemed like Calvin Murphy was always at the free throw line and Dick Stockton was at the mike. At least some things haven't changed.

In a word, this season's playoffs have been brutal. Of the first 12 series, just one went the full seven, and that one -- Hawks-Bucks -- was probably the most forgettable seven-game series ever. The average margin of victory through the first two rounds (63 games) was 12.5 points, a figure that was admittedly skewed somewhat by the Magic-Hawks abomination.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Brian Babineau/Getty ImagesEven though he's no longer in uniform, LeBron and his future loom over the Cavs and the league.

The final four holds some promise, or at least we can still hope. Jeff Van Gundy's words on the grim spectacle of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals rang true -- that's going to be a long, hard slog. And Game 1 of Suns-Lakers, a matchup that should work, didn't start well. The refs didn't even have to call carrying on Steve Nash for the Lakers to assert their dominance. Seven minutes of garbage time is a tough sell.

Here's an idea: Split the screen and show the games on one side, without sound, while the other half is taken up by talk of LeBron. Call in various guest speakers -- the traditional screaming heads, sociology professors, influential people from Worldwide Wes' past pixelated with voice distortion to prevent identification. I'm convinced we're one or two more blowouts from someone making this a reality.

Oh, and a special guest appearance by John Calipari, via Twitter.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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