What if LeBron James took less?
Elite NBA free agents could opt to take less so teams could add talent. Will they?
As the basketball world speculates about secret meetings and obsesses over the will-he-or-won't-he question (whichever "he" matters most to a particular fan), I find myself circling back to 2004, the rookie year of the man who seems to be holding all of the cards, LeBron James.
It may be hard to believe, but back then James wasn't the only story in the sports world. In February of that year, the New England Patriots won their second Super Bowl in three years and free agency threatened to lure away the heart of its vaunted defense, Tedy Bruschi.
For all of the disdain people have for the Pats and specifically The Hoodie, the franchise's talk of winning as a team has always been more than just talk, and Bruschi demonstrated that by taking less money to stay with the Pats and win. The following season New England repeated as Super Bowl champ, and that game's MVP, Tom Brady, also took less money in the following offseason so that the Patriots could keep important talent to the team's success.
From James' first game against the Sacramento Kings, it was evident that he was special. And over the years, as he continued to collect individual award after individual award, James has always been insistent that his primary objective is to win championships.
Next month we'll see if he means it.
The same way Bruschi meant it.
The same way Brady meant it.
The teams mentioned most in the hunt for James' services -- New York, New Jersey, Cleveland -- are able to sign a pair of players to max contracts. But they could probably sign more than just a high-priced sidekick for the Chosen One if he were willing to take less. Doing so would not only make it possible for a historic collection of talent on one team but would also reiterate his point that team success -- and winning championships -- is more than just a PC postgame quote.
A cheaper James does not mean ownership would be pocketing the savings. Not if winning championships truly is the goal.
For all the feel-good stories about teams with small payrolls having good seasons -- Portland, I'm talking about you -- the Lakers and Celtics have the highest- and third-highest payrolls in the NBA. Of the 16 highest-paid players, half of them were in their respective conference finals, and five are playing for a ring. Of the 20 franchises with the lowest salaries, only Phoenix and Atlanta made it past the first round in this year's playoffs.
Even in the feel-good example of the Pats, the team's payroll still went up from roughly $47 million in 2002 to $77 million in 2004 to $118 million in its undefeated regular season of 2007.
Winning big ain't cheap, even if the superstars are taking a smaller piece of the pie.
But superstars signing for a little less takes up less of the salary cap and enables a GM to go out and sign more talent. And when superstars the caliber of Wade and James decide to take less, it's gut-check time for second-tier All-Stars such as Joe Johnson or Amare Stoudemire, players who also claim they want to win championships but will be tempted to earn max money from teams a long way from doing so.
I understand that the concessions I suggest are unlikely to happen, especially for players who do not have the same lucrative endorsement deals as James and Wade to compensate for a lighter NBA paycheck. But I can't shake the fact that Michael Jordan, the game's greatest player, spent most of his career outside of the top 10 highest salaries. He was the game's highest paid only in his final two years in Chicago. Dudes who never went to the Finals were making more baller money than Jordan, who could've made a stink but didn't. He liked winning and understood that his sacrifices made it possible to collect the caliber of talent that led to six championships.
So, I wonder what it's going to be for this free-agent class. Are they going to get all they can or win all they can? Will a guy like Carlos Boozer be a vagabond veteran, taking less late in his career in hopes of piggybacking his way to a ring, or, in the prime of his career, help form the core of a team likened to the Super Friends?
Or the Legion of Doom, you know, depending on where they sign.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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