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The Bobcats and the Summer of 2011

It appears LeBron James has stumbled upon a career strategy that ups his risk of making less than the maximum amount of money over the course of his playing days, but does maximize all the leverage he could possibly want over the direction of whichever team employs him. I'd like to take credit for pointing this out long ago, but I only explained it to a couple buddies and didn't write it down, so Brian Windhorst gets mad props for asking LeBron directly if he'd sign an extension after this season, jumpstarting the conversation again and getting people to think creatively about LBJ's options, which led to Ziller's piece showing how LeBron should just sign short term deal after short term deal. It can be with the Cavs, who probably offer the best chance for him to win now, or with another team, come free agency.

To me, at least, it's clear this is the best strategy for LeBron to pursue. The primary risk is that, for some reason--injury, inexplicable loss of all basketball skills, change in NBA salary cap rules, Russian invasion of the continental U.S.--LeBron's value might decline and he'll be unable to command top dollar for his services. But the odds of that happening are near nil, considering that it would take a pretty catastrophic injury or other happenstance to convince owners that The King isn't worth every max dollar, given his marketing potential alone. The secondary risk is that if he leaves the Cavs and wanders from team to team, he'll weaken his identity with Cleveland and then fail to take root with any other fan base.

The primary upside of taking a succession of two or three year contracts is that until his mid-thirties, LeBron could keep his impending free agency as leverage, for if you have LeBron James around, you're a fool if you don't make every effort to give him a winning supporting cast. He would only have to wait a year or two to bail on any bad situation before jumping to a better situation. It can be argued that while LeBron is beloved in Cleveland, he's a national figure who will garner fans and other followers across the nation. In other words, there's little risk he'd end up like Roger Clemens, in the sense that he was a superstar without any fans of him as an individual.

In the past, LeBron and his camp have acted rationally by taking fewer years than possible and setting up the Summer of 2010 in the first place. Just as in that case, it's not necessarily wise for a player to take a fistful of money offered him in the present, given the salary rules. Consider, also, that LeBron makes as much money from Nike as he does from the Cavs, so he already has Eff You Money and can concentrate on such things as gathering rings and crafting a legacy. While the whispers say he's leaving Ohio, I tend to think he'll see the light and stay a short while longer.

What does this have to do with the Bobcats?

First, we're one of the non-destination teams in the league. I like Charlotte a lot. But it's not Los Angeles (Lakers only). It's not New York. Not Chicago. Not Miami. That makes four teams that can sell themselves on location alone. The next tier down is a bunch of teams that have location in their favor, but need extra convincing to sell free agents on the virtues of the location. Atlanta. New Jersey. Los Angeles Clippers. Golden State. Houston. If you're a rich young man told you can choose to live in any of the NBA cities, there are nine teams whose locales stand out above the rest, just by virtue of being happenin' places. Obviously, depending on the person, he might discount Golden State and add Boston. Whatever. I'm not being precise.

Like I said, I enjoy living in Charlotte. I also like Cleveland a lot. But as a dude in his mid-twenties, if someone offered me a job in Manhattan that paid me enough to live a mostly-carefree lifestyle, and I could bring people I cared about with me? Hell to the yeah, I'd take it. In the summer of 2010, free agents will get to choose among all the NBA cities, and I'm guaranteeing that unless a given city has a championship team at the ready--Cleveland, Orlando, Portland, San Antonio--free agents will discount Charlotte, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, Memphis, and all other places that simply can't stack up with the Iconic Places, before they even consider what kind of organization and money the franchise can offer.

There are only so many free agents, and if LeBron leads the way with this rational choice, the other top-tier potential free agents may follow. Again, keep in mind that these are a bunch of guys ranging in age from their mid twenties to early thirties. None of them will want to go live in a relatively low-population, low-visibility, city and try to bring its basketball team up from the morass, no matter the money.

It's time to face reality. Charlotte cannot and should not plan to compete for top free agents in 2010. Yes, I'm still hung up on JRich and how his contract expired in 2011, but it's still a viable strategy to aim for that free agent class instead of the feeding frenzy in 2010.

We'd have the following players going in to the 2011-12 season, assuming nobody else in the league is stupid enough to take on our obscenely untradeable contracts, we'll drop Ajinca, we won't sign anyone to extensions, we won't trade picks, and the league extends its CBA:

Star Free Agent or Trade Acquisition -- $14.00
Emeka -- $12.54
Gerald -- $10.65
Kirk Hinrich -- $8.00
Carroll -- $3.90
2009-10 5th Pick (big) -- $3.13
2010-11 8th Pick (swing) -- $2.29
2011-12 8th Pick (big) -- $2.20
Reasonable Veteran -- $3.50
Reasonable Veteran -- $3.50
Minimum Youngster -- $0.80
Minimum Youngster -- $0.80
Minimum Youngster -- $0.80
Minimum Youngster -- $0.80

Note this also assumes that we won't have to give up our first round pick to Denver any time soon. See Kirk Hinrich? I'd see if Chicago is willing to swap him out for Diaw since Hinrich is completely redundant with Derrick Rose on board. Some other team might like Diaw, too, and a three way deal might make sense in order to get Chicago a true big man. Hinrich would immediately become the Bobcats' point guard because I'd use DJ Augustin to either package away nasty contracts or land an excellent player who expires after 2010 from a team trying to clear cap space for that summer. Richard Jefferson seems like a natural fit, even if Milwaukee's not likely to be big players in 2010, since the Bucks don't have a set point guard. The Bobcats can also land Chris Kaman for a slightly lesser price.

The beauty of it all is that if two of the lottery picks pan out into better than average players, we'll have a team attractive to a quality free agent because we'll be roughly $12 million under the cap going into that summer. Find a useful player in the second round or find someone cheaper than the Reasonable Veterans above, and we're talking about being able to offer someone max money to be an offensive force on a defense-first team, with Gerald as a reasonable second option and Hinrich able to hit enough threes to keep 'em honest.

Portland's not likely to let Brandon Roy go, but he's the cream of the '06 draft. Someone like Rudy Gay might be available, too. The big catch will be Carmelo, defensive woes and all. Say the Bobcats abandon all hope of competing in the 2010 free agent free for all. Say they aim for the summer of 2011. Yes, they'll be getting leftovers. But the cupboard won't be that bare.