Commentary

The 'Big O' key in courting the King

Ownership, organizations to play big role in LeBron James' decision in free agency

Updated: June 28, 2010, 10:30 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

It's the reason the New Jersey Nets, fresh off a 12-win season, are getting the first opportunity to sit down with the most coveted free agent in the history of American sport.

It's the reason the Miami Heat, for all the questions about LeBron James and Dwyane Wade successfully sharing one ball if they ever end up on the same team, have been mentioned all season as a top contender in the LeBron Sweepstakes.

It's the reason the Dallas Mavericks, without even a hint of salary-cap space, seem certain to make the short list of teams that get an invite to James' northeast Ohio base to make their recruiting pitch.

It's also a big reason you've gradually heard less and less about the New York Knicks stealing James away from his hometown team … and it's why the Los Angeles Clippers' pitch is ultimately doomed no matter how many surprisingly good things they can say about the setup in Clipperland … and why the Chicago Bulls can't yet allow themselves to believe all the chatter circulating leaguewide about a LeBron-and-Chris Bosh "done deal."

It's the "O" variable in James' decision of a lifetime.

Ownership.

Or in the broader sense: Organizations.

As lifelong LeBron-watcher Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer expertly conveyed in the latest edition of the Free Agency Dime, James' choice to either re-sign with the Cavaliers or leave the Cavs after seven ringless seasons will essentially be made by a committee of one. History says James will weigh all the input from his various advisers, including William "Worldwide Wes" Wesley and best friend/business manager Maverick Carter, and then head in the direction he's picked out.

[+] EnlargeJay-Z and LeBron James
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesJay-Z's ties to LeBron helped the 12-win Nets land the first meeting with King James on July 1.

And then let all of us know that he was in total control.

But what is LeBron looking for?

That's where the O factor comes in.

History also says that LeBron, from his years studying uber-successful mentors Warren Buffett and Jay-Z, is big on the word "partnership." Sources with a pipeline to his inner circle say that James has been schooled to approach his long-awaited foray into free agency as a search for a business partner who can help cement the legacy of the LeBron brand as opposed to a strict hunt for the on-the-court sidekicks who can help him win the multiple championships he needs to get anywhere near Global Icon status.

Trite as this stuff might sound, those who know James best say that it's not just marketing blather he splashes on the company website. Not to him, anyway. LeBron truly believes in his business mantra. He's known for frequently saying that he wants to be partner, not a mere vendor.

Example: LeBron was offered more money from Reebok and lavish promises from adidas back when he was a sneaker free agent, which might be the closest applicable comparison to the situation he's in now. Yet he wound up signing with Nike largely because of Nike's proven closeness with star endorser Michael Jordan and the vibe he got from Nike basketball chief Lynn Merritt.

So …

Should he apply the same logic to his NBA future, as you'd expect, owners and/or organizations rank as an oft-overlooked but undeniably huge factor in James' thinking.

If history is a trusty guide, James won't be fixated on the Nets' glamourless image or the two looming seasons in Newark before the team finally moves to Brooklyn during Thursday's opening face-to-face. The appeal of New Jersey, beyond going to a team that has quality building blocks at point guard (Devin Harris) and center (Brook Lopez), is the allure of teaming up with mysterious, new billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who happens to count the aforementioned Jay-Z as a handy/legendary minority owner.

Miami's big hook to supplement the enticing prospect of making James' Team USA partnership with Wade full-time also starts in the ownership suite, but for different reasons. Heat majority owner Micky Arison's willingness to consistently provide the resources to contend while staying in the background gives title-tested (and famously persuasive) team president Pat Riley uncommon freedom to run the show.

The Mavericks, meanwhile, were always going to get on LeBron's radar -- with or without cap space -- because of Mark Cuban. Sources close to the situation say that the Mavs' player-friendly owner is well-respected by James' gang. It also doesn't hurt that Jerry Jones, owner of LeBron's favorite football team, is an unofficial Mavs partner.

James relishes interaction with the likes of Jones and is known to have made it a point to get to know several owners from around the NBA in recent years. Two more examples: LeBron has a long-standing friendship with the Maloof brothers in Sacramento and met a handful of owners in 2009 at a major media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.

The same principle, then, is likely to work in reverse with the owners who don't have good reputations.

Which is why the steady stream of LeBron-to-New York rumblings we've heard since the arrival of Donnie Walsh as team president and Mike D'Antoni as the Knicks' LeBron-endorsed coach have been drowned out by more persistent rumblings that James -- on top of concerns about the Knicks' thin roster and unwelcome smothering from the New York tabloid media -- does not want to attach himself to habitually unsmooth Knicks owner James Dolan. No matter how much cash Dolan has splashed around in his tenure.

The Clippers? Doesn't matter how good they might look on paper to James, with a foursome of quality teammates (Chris Kaman, Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon and Baron Davis) ready to surround him. Proximity to off-the-court business opportunities only Hollywood can provide, as sexy as that sounds, just isn't going to persuade James to put his legacy in the hands of bumbling Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who has presided over two winning seasons in a 26-season run in Los Angeles. Not unless Sterling, as detailed here a few weeks back, violates his own decades-old vow to never sell anything and cedes majority control of the franchise to entertainment mogul David Geffen.

[+] EnlargeMark Cuban
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireEven without cap space, the Mavs are in play for LeBron's services thanks to owner Mark Cuban.

The O factor is also what the Bulls presumably can blame if the impressive complementary core they've assembled (Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah) and all the cap space they've cleared (to go after Bosh or Joe Johnson in addition to James) ultimately fail -- amid all this "done deal" talk -- to lure James to the Cavs' most hated rival.

The Bulls were routinely bashed from an organizational standpoint even when they were winning championships, thanks to Jordan's openly dim view of then-GM Jerry Krause. This season, though, criticism of Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and his front-office tag team of John Paxson and Gar Forman reached new levels, prompted by Chicago's mistreatment of since-fired coach Vinny Del Negro and most recently disseminated in a well-publicized critique from Wade about how Chicago treats ex-Bulls.

Even if Wade's criticism was a thinly veiled attempt to enhance the Heat's case in free agency, Chicago knows it has some image issues. Reinsdorf's reputation as a reluctant spender? Another issue.

Maybe none of that will matter in the end, because the Bulls are otherwise set up so well. It's also true that Wesley has maintained a good working relationship with Reinsdorf for years and is believed to be lobbying hardest for the Bulls, which is where much of the LeBron-and-Bosh-to-Chicago chatter originates. Yet you still hear well-connected folks around the league asking -- louder than the many questions Jordan's longtime agent David Falk has raised about James going to the Bulls in recent interviews with Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports -- whether LeBron is indeed prepared to commit to Reinsdorf.

Ditto for Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and the increasingly nerve-shredding campaign to persuade James to stay right where he is. LeBron associates continue to say that for all the grandiose visions of what might be in Chicago and Miami, turning his back on his sports-tortured home state will be tougher for a proud Ohioan than outsiders will ever realize. The humbling manner of Cleveland's second-round exit only made it tougher, too, because leaving the Cavs now is the one outcome that will keep that surreal playoff unraveling on James' résumé forever.

But staying with the Cavs -- when they lack the cap flexibility or the trade assets to significantly remake a roster badly in need of upgrades -- would be the ultimate show of faith in Cavs ownership. Although it's true that Gilbert has shown an unmatched willingness to take on extra payroll in today's cost-conscious NBA and cater to LeBron's every whim from a nonroster standpoint, there's also no escaping what Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told The New York Times earlier this month: "I think you do have to have two players that have extraordinary abilities at this stage of the season -- I really do."

Does LeBron have faith that Gilbert can quickly manufacture an extraordinary No. 2 when so many LeBron suitors can do that so easily this summer? Or has he lost faith in Gilbert, as was routinely whispered during Cleveland's unsuccessful bid to pry Tom Izzo away from Michigan State?

The reality is that he's not going to win anything that gets him to the Global Icon zip code unless he's flanked by the right teammates, so all of the above is only one clue to help us forecast the outcome of this Summer of LeBron. But know this: It's a biggie.

The prediction here is that ownership will be cited as one of the major reasons James cites when he has that historic news conference to explain why he chose what he chose.

The O factor.

The Big O, if you will.


Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics