National Columnist

The Decision: Part II coming because LeBron wants more easy rings

It's happening again. LeBron James is happening. Another round of free agency. Another decision. Another chance for the greatest player of his generation, and possibly the greatest player of any generation, to stack the deck and make it as easy as possible to win another two or three NBA titles.

He's talking about free agency again, maybe because he was asked, but this is LeBron James. If he doesn't want to talk about it or deal with the fallout of that discussion, he can refuse to have it. Someone from ESPN.com asked him this week about becoming a free agent after the 2013-14 season, and LeBron answered with brutal honesty. Why he'd answer that way I don't know. His honesty makes him look bad -- scared, weak -- but LeBron will be who LeBron will be.

And let me tell you who LeBron is: One of the smartest athletes I've ever written about. I don't mean smart in the "basketball IQ" way, though he has tons of that. I'm talking about smart in the way he processes information at such a fast rate. Look, I've sat through scores of LeBron's press conferences over the years. I see him get asked questions, and I see how he answers them. And I remember what he did to me when I asked a poorly worded question about shrinking during the 2011 NBA Finals: He blew me up. And not with several minutes or even a few seconds to think about how he was going to do it. He instantaneously blew me up with the most perfect answer possible -- to a question he didn't see coming. I walked out of that press conference painfully aware: He's smarter than I am.

So don't give LeBron the excuse that, well, maybe he didn't mean what he said this week. Or maybe he didn't realize how it would come off. This is LeBron James we're talking about, and by that I mean, we're talking about an exceptionally smart, media-savvy adult. If he said it, he meant it. If there's a suggestion to what he said, he planted it.

And Miami is on the clock. That's what he was suggesting in that interview the other day -- that the Miami Heat have the next 10 months to clear the cap space to surround him with better talent than what they'll have in 2014 if the Big Three returns at its projected salary level.

Because in LeBron's view, the projections don't work. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade will make too much money, eat into too much of the salary cap, for whatever production they'll give the Heat after the 2013-14 season. Bosh just isn't as good as LeBron (and the rest of us) thought in 2010, and Wade is getting old, fast. Wade has another few good years left, but he doesn't have any great years left. He's still capable of an occasional great game, but those will become less frequent. And less great.

And LeBron didn't come to Miami for this.

He didn't come to Miami for it to be hard. He came to Miami because he wanted it easy. He wanted a sure thing. Compete for NBA titles? He already had that in Cleveland. He'd have that anywhere he goes, because any roster with LeBron James will compete for an NBA title. That 2009 team in Cleveland was terrible, utter dreck, except for LeBron. And that team won 66 games and reached the Eastern Conference Finals.

LeBron doesn't want to compete for titles. He wants to win titles, and that's not a subtle distinction. His remarks to ESPN confirmed he's the same corner-cutting guy he was in 2010 when he teamed up with Wade and Bosh, the other top free agents on the market.

Since he entered the NBA in 2003 LeBron has been chasing Michael Jordan, and he knows he can't catch him without a bunch of rings. So he took a shortcut in 2010 and it worked. The Heat have won two NBA titles in three years, and they would've won a third had LeBron not shrunk during the 2011 NBA Finals.

So here we go again: LeBron's free agency. This is a tired story already, one we've been sick of since it emerged last year as people started to realize, hey, LeBron could leave the Heat soon. There was the talk of his return to Cleveland. The talk of joining the Lakers. There will be more talk of both franchises in the coming months, and I'll try to refrain from writing on LeBron's every utterance because at some point I'll be as sick of this story as you will. Maybe you already are.

So let me say this just one more time, and get it out of my system: LeBron wants to rig the game. He says he "would love to spend the rest of my career in Miami," but ignores the fact that nobody's stopping him. The Heat would sign him to a lifetime extension this second, if he'd do it. But he won't, because he wants to see what the Heat will do with Bosh and Wade. He wants to see how easy the Heat will make it for LeBron to win titles in 2015 and beyond before he decides to sign the extension he could have signed yesterday.

Meantime, he'll drop hints like the one he dropped this week when he said: "I mean, as a kid, I never thought the Bulls would break up. Never. If you'd have told me as a kid that [Michael] Jordan and [Scottie] Pippen wouldn't play together for the rest of their lives, I'd have looked at you crazy."

See what LeBron did there? That was verbal sleight-of-hand, and it's like I said: This guy is smart. He talked about how the Bulls went through a "break up" and compared the idea of his leaving Miami after this season to Jordan's leaving the Bulls in 1998, leaving out one difference: Jordan retired. He didn't leave the Bulls to find another franchise that would make it easier to win, because he and LeBron have different wiring. LeBron is bigger, faster, stronger than Jordan. Possibly a better shooter and defender. Definitely a better passer. But Jordan was never scared to compete.

LeBron was scared in 2010. And it looks like he hasn't changed.

 
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