James 'wowed' by Johnson, approaches final answer
The NBA's top remaining free-agent point guard should be off the market soon.
Mike James is expected to announce his next team Tuesday after meeting face-to-face Monday in Las Vegas with Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson. James then returned to his offseason home in Houston to choose between the Mavericks, Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves, all of whom have been negotiating with James during the Vegas Summer League. It's believed that each of those teams is offering the 31-year-old a three-year deal starting at the $5 million mid-level exception.
And that's largely because of the former pass-first point guard chasing the shoot-first point guard who's coming off a breakout season in Toronto.
"The biggest 'wow' in this whole situation has been Avery Johnson," James says. "I respect him as a coach, but we have a relationship beyond the court. We've been friends for some years now. I've always respected Avery, even as a player when he had that broke jump shot. But he has a ring and he knows what it takes to win. He's been the person who has wowed me the most through this process."
James added that potential suitors must meet two requirements.
Championship contention is No. 1.
"These three teams want to win," James said. "Kevin Garnett tells me he doesn't want the playoffs, he wants to win the championship. Houston wants to get back to that point, and they've already got two superstars.
"Dallas was two games away," James continued, noting that the Mavs are closest to meeting the first prerequisite. "That's a very important factor for me."
"I want a team that wants to win, but also believes that I'm a significant piece," James said. "It's about trust. That's one of the main things I'm focused on. Do you really believe in me?
"These teams tell me they do. For them to say, 'Mike James, you're a significant piece,' that humbles me. With all the stuff I've been through -- everyone telling me I can't, can't, can't -- I'm humbled that these three teams believe in me."
While he stops short of requiring a spot in the starting lineup, James isn't shy about his belief that he should remain a starter.
"I was top 20 in every category besides rebounding, blocked shots and steals," James said. "There's over 400 players in the NBA, so I think I've proven what I'm capable of. All I can do is continue to work and erase all the critics minds."
And according to James, the critics have been hard at work, hounding him throughout his career. Following a stellar college career at Duquesne, James went undrafted before eventually singing with the Heat as a free agent in 2001. Over the next four seasons, James bounced between Boston, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Houston, respectively, before the Rockets dealt him Toronto on the first day of training camp last October.
James went on to establish new career bests in minutes per game (37.0), assists (5.8), rebounds (3.3) and points (20.3). He became just the second undrafted player in NBA history, after John Starks, to average 20 points in a season.
While some might credit the jump in production to contract-year motivation, James says it was a product of increased playing time, a lifetime of hard work and a love for the game that saved him.
"If it wasn't for the game of basketball, I know what I would have done, and it wouldn't have been nice," he said, referring to his rough childhood in Amityville, N.Y. "The only other thing I knew was the streets. Basketball was my way out, so the only thing I can do to give back to the game is play with my heart."
While James continues to ponder a decision that will alter the course of his career, he already knows where he'll be when that decision is announced.
He dreams of a press conference.
"I never had the chance to wear that hat on the podium in front of the media," James said. "I told my wife, I'm going to the podium because I've never done that before. For me to just do that once, I'm awed by it. I'm thankful."
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles and writes the Media Blitz column for ESPN The Magazine.