Coasting Global Icon

We're running two extended e-mails about the Global Icon (aka LeBron James) as the second half of this post ... but first, I had to respond to the Bulls fans who argued after Friday's trade deadline column that John Paxson did the right thing not overpaying for Pau Gasol. Here's an e-mail that sums everything up (the person didn't include his/her name):

"While I agree that Paxson should have made SOME deal for an interior scorer, you absolutely should not blame him for refusing to include Luol Deng in any deal. Have you watched the kid this year? 19 ppg, 7 rpg, 52 percent FG, great defense. ... And did I mention that he is 21 years old and has an incredible work ethic? Why would you ever give up a player destined to be among the best in the league for a soft player like Gasol? Do the Bulls need the inside scoring? Yes. But they shouldn't mortgage the future of the franchise for it. And you know the old adage that you never trade big for small? Disagree completely ... you NEVER, EVER trade a two-way player for a one-way player.

"A better deal would have been a straight up deal of Tyrus Thomas to the Bobcats for Sean May. Bulls give up the player with a much higher ceiling and more athleticism for a guy who perfectly suits their needs as an inside scorer. Thomas is slightly redundant as a combo forward, of which the Bulls already (sort of) have two with Andreas Nocioni and Deng. May is similarly redundant on the Cats as a low-block PF, when they already have Okafor. This trade would've been mutually beneficial and helped balance the rosters of both teams. Plus, MJ and Pax are tight and could've made this happen pretty easily. Why didn't it? Either they weren't smart enough to think of a trade so simple, or Pax was gun-shy about getting another overweight PF (since we all know how successful the Michael Fatney experiment has been). Anyway, Pax deserved at least a C just for being smart enough NOT to trade Deng. You will realize this one day."

We agree on two things: The Thomas-May trade would have made sense, and Luol Deng is going to be really, really good. Still, you're missing the big picture on a Gasol trade.

We know that ...

1. The Bulls overpaid Ben Wallace and acquired P.J. Brown's expiring deal specifically to make a bigger move this season ... and then they did nothing. Well, why not just keep Tyson Chandler then? Have you seen his numbers in New Orleans the past few weeks? He's averaging 17 rebounds a game this month. How can anyone claim the Bulls didn't botch this scenario to smithereens? Chandler makes two-thirds as much money as Wallace AND he's 10 years younger AND he's getting better (and not worse). Am I missing anything?

2. Wallace isn't the same rebounding/defensive presence that he was 3-4 years ago. For all we know, this could be his last good season. Didn't they HAVE to compete for a title this season? What's the point of getting Wallace, then? Why not keep Chandler if you're planning on stockpiling assets and young players for some nebulous Trade To Be Made?

3. Gasol would be perfect for Chicago because he commands double teams (opening the perimeter up for Kirk Hinrich, Nocioni and Ben Gordon) and could have been hidden defensively (he's not a terrible defender, just mediocre). Before you start downing his credentials, just remember that, in the past three seasons, the Grizzlies won 50, 45 and 47 games in a superior Western Conference with Gasol giving them 20-22 points a night. We know for a fact that you can build an entire offense around him and his beard.

4. Chicago's deepest position is small forward, where they have Deng, Nocioni (one of the best Glue Guys in the league) and Thabo Sefolosha (an athletic rookie with real promise). They could have replaced 80-85 percent of Deng's numbers with Nocioni/Sefolosha ... but Gasol would have quadrupled P.J. Brown's scoring numbers and surpassed his rebounding numbers as well. Statistically, that's a no-brainer upgrade.

5. Jerry West wasn't giving Gasol away, which meant Paxson had to pay full value (or even overpay a little) to pry him away. That's the only way he was getting him.

So here's my question: Regardless of the sport, the ultimate goal for any team is a championship, right? As currently constructed, the Bulls can't make the Finals without low-post scoring, a reality that can't be fixed this summer (when Brown's contract expires and kills that avenue for a trade) and can't be fixed in the 2007 draft (where they're probably picking in the 10-to-16 range with the Knicks' pick). For any Bulls fan who says, "fine, we'll keep stockpiling assets and make a move this summer or before next February's deadline" ...

Um ...

For who? Who are you getting?

Here's the complete list of effective low-post scorers in the NBA, in no particular order: Chris Bosh (untouchable); Al Jefferson (probably untouchable); Nenad Krstic (out for the season); Eddy Curry (not happening); Zydrunas Ilgauskas (plodding and overpaid); Jermaine O'Neal (semi-touchable because of his contract); Shaq (not going anywhere); Dwight Howard (untouchable); Emeka Okafor (probably untouchable); Carlos Boozer (untouchable with the Jazz playing so well); Kevin Garnett (possibly touchable down the road); Zach Randolph (semi-available and semi-crazy); Amare Stoudemire (untouchable); Elton Brand (untouchable); Chris Kaman (available and wildly overpaid); Andris Biedrins (untouchable); Tim Duncan (untouchable); Yao Ming (untouchable); Pau Gasol (available).

Look at that list again. By not doing anything last week, the Bulls announced to the entire league, "We're giving up any realistic chance of winning the East this season, biding our time for the next 6-12 months and praying that either KG or Jermaine O'Neal become available ... And if they don't, we'll have to roll the dice with Zach Randolph and hope he and Scott Skiles don't fight to the death."

If that was their ultimate objective -- KG or O'Neal -- then that's an even better reason to acquire Gasol (on the hook for $13.7 million in 2008), because they could have rented him for one season, then repackaged him somewhere else this summer. In Friday's column, I knocked the Bulls for failing to overpay for Gasol with Deng, Ty Thomas and the Knicks No. 1 pick in 2007 (throwing in expiring deals of Mike Sweetney and Malik Allen to make the numbers work). Admittedly, that's about 115 cents on the dollar -- although I'm not as high on Thomas as others (by all accounts, he's a surly dude), and the Knicks could sneak into the playoffs thanks to Wade's injury and Orlando's collapse (which puts the pick in the 15-16 range). Since Deng/Thomas for Gasol is a fair swap (you have to give up something to get something, right?), the Bulls would have sacrificed the Knicks' pick (as a trading tax) for a legitimate chance to make the 2007 Finals with Wallace, Gasol, Nocioni, Duhon and Hinrich starting and P.J. Brown, Ben Gordon, Sefolosha and Adrian Griffin coming off the bench. That's the best nine-man rotation in the East. Hands down.

Instead, they did nothing.

So let's say they're planning on making a move this summer for KG (on the books for $22 million in 2008) or O'Neal ($19.7 million). KG would cost Deng, Thomas and either Gordon or Hinrich. O'Neal would cost Thomas, the Knicks' pick and either Gordon or Deng. In other words, they'd be giving up everything they could have traded for Gasol (as well as any chance to win the title in 2007). If they acquired Gasol last week, they could have eventually made him the centerpiece of a KG/O'Neal deal this summer OR they could have gone the other way and moved him to the Celtics for Al Jefferson, a future No. 1 pick and Theo Ratliff's expiring contract (then used the Ratliff deal to acquire another blue-chipper during the season). Either way, they could have competed for the 2007 title, given Gasol a four-month test drive and had more flexibility to maneuver this summer.

And that's why I'll always believe the Bulls should have overpaid for Gasol with the Deng-Thomas-Knicks' pick package. Sometimes in sports, you have to push your chips to the middle of the table. This seemed like one of those times. Call me crazy.


Time for two e-mails about the Global Icon from longtime readers -- Matt in Long Beach and L.A.'s Brian Spaeth, who runs the Yay Sports basketball blog. Just to be clear, Matt's e-mail arrived before Wade injured his shoulder last week. But these e-mails represent both ends of the LeBron Dilemma pretty nicely:

MATT IN LONG BEACH
I am writing to you with the aid of beer and Xanax, and which makes writing a coherent e-mail both challenging and ill-advised. But I'm from Cleveland, I've watched LeBron since he was a sophomore in high school, and I think I have some non-scout, non-Tim Legler based perspectives.

First off, there is NO doubt LeBron is taking the season off. And as one of the four optimistic Cleveland sports fans alive, I present this to you:

1. Last year, they were one rebound away from taking down the Pistons in six and moving on to the Heat (a very good matchup for them), but thanks to Ilgauskas, Varejao and Flip Murray, they missed three straight rebounds off Detroit free throws which would have given LeBron (virtually unstoppable at that point) one of three chances to score ONE hoop.

2. LeBron was coming off a season in which he NO doubt deserved the MVP, and put on a truly effort-based performance in the playoffs. (Remember, no one mentioned his killer instinct when he shot three consecutive daggers into Washington's hopes, and then literally bruised his way to three wins against Detroit.)

3. His team's two biggest signings in his tenure have been Larry Hughes (a complete bust) and Ilgauskas, who signed a five-year deal and realized that no matter where he is in five years, he will still be a viable big man on any team. Z's been playing with less heart and effort than you would think BECAUSE he's a 7-foot-3 slow white man with bad feet, but trust me he's still a liability on both ends of the floor, and has been starting in a "showcasing" role for two years and sitting during crunch time during the last two seasons.

4. He just watched his friend and rival D-Wade take advantage of having Shaq, Payton, Walker, Mourning, Haslem and Jason Williams (all better than their current counterparts on the Cavs), as well as silly officiating almost explicitly aimed at making a new star after Kobe's near-trial.

Now LeBron is tired and frustrated. He's waiting for Z to get a rebound. He's waiting for Marshall to make a layup. ... If LeBron had competent teammates (not good ones, competent ones), there is NO DOUBT he would be averaging eight assists per game. Watch tapes from last season, he had guys legitimately blowing 5-7 great looks a game (bunnies, dunks, layups). He has NO confidence in his teammates, so naturally his passing and shot selection dwindled. He's now in Year 4 and the best shooter he's ever played with is Damon Jones who's one trade away from setting the record for most teams played for in a career. Think about what he's had: J.R. Bremer, Eric Williams, Lucious Harris, Ricky Davis, David Wesley, Eric Snow. ... These are guys that started!!

I think he's frustrated AND exhausted. Outside of Iverson, NO ONE gets beat up like him. No one. Wade jumps aimlessly with his back to the basket into traffic, throws the ball over his head and gets a whistle five times a game. Dwyane Wade is Reggie Wayne: Fast, agile and you better not touch him. LeBron is LaDainian. Can you imagine how good LeBron would be with Lorenzo Neal setting picks at the free throw line for him? He took the WBC's off because they were the World Basketball Championships. Remember? He was regrouping. He started the season as a MORTAL lock to enter the playoffs as a top-four seed, knows he could put up 29-7-7 every night and STILL not win the MVP ... so screw it, he coasted a little (and keeps coasting).

The real issue: We crowned him the next Jordan before he played a game, forgetting that Chicago didn't give MJ a supporting cast for six years. LeBron outperformed expectations in his first three seasons; in his fourth season, even though he's been a "disappointment," the Cavs are within 2.5 games of the No. 1 seed and sitting in a better position than Kobe's Lakers and Wade's Heat. (By the way, he's 3-1 this season against Wade and Kobe.) The next two months are completely and utterly irrelevant -- LeBron is saving himself for the playoffs and a true push against a wide-open Eastern Conference.

So before we start talking about Wade passing LeBron, let's see if Wade and Miami can climb above .500, and let's see what happens in May. Assuming Wade gets that far.

BRIAN SPAETH IN LOS ANGELES
When Bill e-mailed to solicit my thoughts on LeBron, I was torn. On one hand, despite RoundieGate, I like ESPN.com.

On the other hand, I don't want LeBron to hate me.

Alas, I thought back to the 2006 playoffs, when I cried after LeBron hit that second game-winner against Washington. Cried? Yes ... because it wasn't the win. It was the whole paradigm shift that LeBron James was forcing on me. And yes, it was forced. It sounds melodramatic, but this whole scenario wasn't possible to the Clevelander in me.

It now turns out I may have been right -- the 2006 playoffs were perhaps just a moment, and not the beginning of an era.

Rehashing is bourgeois, but LeBron did everything we'd all been waiting for, and the lessons about defense, intensity and giving 100 percent were learned. 2007 was the year -- 58 wins, the one seed, and an inevitable LBJ MVP. So the Cavs started 2-0, including a legitimate road win in San Antonio. The next two games were total WTF losses to Charlotte and Atlanta, and LeBron was completely absent in both. Oh, he put up his numbers, but he just ... wasn't there. And this continued, albeit under the radar, especially since the team was in first place. LeBron was putting up 25-6-6 effortlessly, so the national media would check the box score, then rip on the lack of support for a Bobcats loss.

Everyone I talked to was like "They're in first place!" and "Stop complaining!" My response: "Do you even watch the games? This team doesn't try. They're unwatchable."

By late November, I vowed not to watch anymore, except in certain situations. (For example, I loopholed the deal by saying I'm watching "the TNT game" instead of "Cavs-Heat." Another trick I used -- lie and watch all the games anyway.) I was angry at my team, but I wasn't angry at LeBron ... yet. I blamed Coach Mike Brown. His lack of a viable offensive scheme and inability to correctly use players was/is astounding.

Here's the thing with Coach Mike, though. When LeBron plays hard, everyone follows, and the liabilities in the game plan are overcome. The schemes could be (much) better, but they are there. And so, I've come to my current stance -- the problem is LeBron. I wish it weren't, but it is. Coach as motivator is one thing, but that should only be necessary to a point, and not to one who alleges to be an all-time great. There's also no way Coach Mike is telling LeBron "drift around for awhile, then jack a jumper."

So what's going on? That's simple -- he's either exhausted/distracted from all the ancillary stuff, or ... he plain old doesn't want it.

The former choice is correctable. The latter is the unfixable/tragic one, and in a Cleveland tradition, I hereby dub this theory "The Malaise." The mere idea of it is pumped full of so much potential for emotional disaster, "The Shot" and "The Drive" could be completely forgotten in its wake.

Makes one want to cry.