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What LeBron's forgetting: If teams leave, so do men with money

by | CBSSports.com Columnist
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At some point, LeBron James' imagination will exceed his grasp, but I think we've gotten a hint of where he is on the power grid today:

He can't be commissioner of the National Basketball Association.

Oh, he has clout, no question. It isn't always pretty and it doesn't always win friends, but be fair. He's in his mid-20s. There's a lot of world he hasn't tackled yet.

But having gotten a taste of general managership, he is now tackling in his own way the thornier problem of keeping billionaires in line, which after all is the only job a commissioner ever does, and so far, he has work to do.

Wednesday, in his pre-Suns address, he tackled the NBA product and concluded with Steinbrennerian decisiveness that the problem with it is that there's too much of it about.

"Hopefully the league can figure out one way where it can go back to the '80s where you had three or four All-Stars, three or four superstars, three or four Hall of Famers on the same team," he said when asked about teams with multiple stars, like, well, his team. "The league was great. It wasn't as watered down as it is [now]."

He's not sure how it would happen, but LeBron James envisions a smaller league with more talented teams. (US Presswire)  
He's not sure how it would happen, but LeBron James envisions a smaller league with more talented teams. (US Presswire)  
He must be referring to 1984, the year he was born, when there were only 23 teams. Or maybe in his pre-conception years, when there were only 12. It's hard to know how many is the tight number for him, since he didn't elaborate below 28.

"Imagine if you could take Kevin Love off Minnesota and add him to another team and you shrink the [league]. Looking at some of the teams that aren't that great, you take Brook Lopez or you take Devin Harris off these teams that aren't that good right now and you add him to a team that could be really good. Not saying let's take New Jersey and let's take Minnesota out of the league. But hey, you guys are not stupid, I'm not stupid, it would be great for the league."

But he is saying let's take New Jersey and Minnesota out of the league, or their equivalents, and he knows that simply relocating Love or Lopez or Harris doesn't make the NBA "great." You'd have to be a lot more comprehensive.

Blake Griffin and the Clippers? Stephen Curry and the Warriors? Tyreke Evans and the Kings? I mean just to name one division.

Do you do it by historical relevance? New Orleans, Charlotte, Memphis? Gone, just like that?

And who exactly goes up to Michael Jordan and says, "Remember what you just did to Larry Brown? Well, now it's you." Or Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, who just chunked down an obscene $450 million for the Golden States? "Nice investment. Oops, sorry."

Therein lies the next stage of James' development as the master of the basketball universe. While Jordan stopped at ownership, James is looking, at least for the purposes of one fanciful conversation, at the entire league. He is exploring the concept of being David Freakin' Stern.

Ahh, but here's where being 25 hurts him. He doesn't yet comprehend that every franchise has a multi-multi-multi-millionaire attached to it, and they don't lemming it off a cliff just because a walking triple-double says they do. James is still caught up in the product, while Stern, having lived three times as long, give or take a cake, knows the league doesn't survive on product but of producers, and the producers are the ones who get paid first.

The owners.

James' theory, which we admit he delivered off the cuff and without the proper research and development, just took out Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire who owns the Nets. You know how many billionaires you get to take out and keep your job? The over-under is minus one-half.

This isn't to say that James is ignorant of the facts of life in his profession. We only suggest that he hasn't yet fully thought this out, and that his motivation for thinning the herd -- not playing on Christmas -- might be a tad flimsy.

"You had more [superior] players on a team, which made almost every game anticipated, not just a Christmas Day game," James said, clearly forgetting that every game in the '60s wasn't Celtics-76ers but had a whole lot of Royals-Bullets in there too. "I don't ever think it is bad for the league when guys decide they want to do some greatness for what we call a team sport."

Well, sure, there is some wisdom there. But it requires more study, and a greater appreciation for the first and some would say only real tenet of building a sport into modern global entertainment.

Never ever ever torque off a billionaire. There's way fewer of them than there are players, and they have crossover dribbles that can bring down entire economic systems. LeBron still hasn't fully mastered the San Antonio Spurs.

But he will learn. Knowing who to lose and who to schmooze is a skill gained over time. Ask David Stern. He didn't get all gray and wrinkly because it was too much work watching Bucks-Grizzlies.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast Sports Bay Area.

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