Friday, February 18, 2011

RE: What happened to loyalty...

Of course LeBron's Decision left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. His choice to leave Cleveland was defensible yet his way of doing so was not. We've heard it all by now. He should have given the Cavaliers notice ahead of time. He should not have done such a ridiculous show, etc, etc.

As the NBA season scrolls on though, LeBron James' way of handling his free agency is looking classier and classier. Carmelo Anthony, completely by accident, is making LeBron James more popular each and every day.

The question of how could LeBron have handled his Decision any worse comes up often. We finally have the answer. He could have handled it like Carmelo is right now.

We knew LeBron was going to test the free agent waters after his final year in Cleveland was up. He was considering returning to the Cavs but it wouldn't be before testing the market. So he played out that final year, carried Cleveland to the best record in the league, yet again, and into the playoffs.

Now just imagine instead that LeBron James had handcuffed the Cavs franchise and held them hostage, demanding a trade but always rescinding, never admitting he wanted to leave. In fact, he would occasionally come out and say he wanted to sign an extension with Cleveland. But then he would seem disinterested, fuel trade talks with other clubs, say he only wants to play in Miami, and the club would be a train wreck for it.

Welcome to Denver, this is their hell.

Carmelo Anthony could come out and say what he actually thinks instead of talking out of both sides of his mouth. He could end the trade talks forever by saying he wants to stay. There is plenty he could do to help the Nuggets make the playoffs this season other than just scoring points while he's on the court.

Instead, Carmelo has almost encouraged the drama. He refuses to sign an extension, implying he wants to become a free agent. He has also said he wants to play in New York, implying a trade elsewhere would not work for him. Yet he has then come out saying he has never asked to be traded and would like to stay in Denver. Whether Anthony ends up on the Knicks this year or next year, the message is clear. LeBron James actually handled his free agency better than we thought.

On a side note, he has also handled being everyone's villain rather well. James should be the front-runner for NBA MVP right now, heading into the All-Star break, assuming anyone would vote for him. Being Dwyane Wade's sidekick wasn't in the cards I suppose. LeBron, instead, is his old MVP self, just wearing different colors.

If the NBA is not the place to look for examples of sports loyalty, perhaps we should search Major League Baseball. MLB's own LeBron figure, Albert Pujols, is going through his own final year of a contract. Pujols is unquestionably the best player in baseball, is not being paid like it, and has a problem with that.

A few things were made abundantly clear by Albert's self-made contract deadline imposed on St. Louis this week. He wouldn't mind returning to the Cardinals, but they won't get any home town discount. If he had literal sports loyalty, he would have wanted to return, signed a below-market contract to help the Cards sign future players, and it would have been done with. That isn't feasible though; that's not how loyalty works in the sports business world.

Instead, he did the next best thing. If the Cardinals blew him away with an offer, he would have signed before Spring Training. Otherwise, he would head into free agency looking for the contract he thinks he deserves, and if it is given to him by St. Louis, fantastic. If not, oh well.

("What he deserves" is a debate for another column. Should he really get $30 million a year? Can he seriously get a 10-year offer from someone? It seems unlikely, especially with players not excelling into their late 30's and early 40's anymore. And the last, important factor for determining his market is that the Yankees and Red Sox both already have big-time first basemen in their employ.)

But Pujols set his contract deadline, it passed, and now the Cardinals can just play baseball knowing Albert will be a free agent this coming off-season.

There was no holding the franchise hostage with his deliberations. There was no year-long distraction. There was no being kept in the dark of what he will do. And there certainly is no way the Cardinals are going to trade him away. They will have their big slugger for 2011 with contract talks a thing for after the season and that's all they could have asked for.

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