The panoramic view of the Miami Heat's free agency has been interesting to watch from all angles. Sports agents lie anonymously to manipulate reporters and inflate the dollars market. Under-pressure journalists look for ways to fill the void with something, anything. Rival executives won't attach their names to information but whisper convenient stuff that plays defense against Miami's free-agent chances by creating a perception of uncertainty. It is speculation and mystery and hope and espionage masquerading as news. It is also not unlike how high school students might gossip about the popular kids.
LeBron James caught a lot of flak for creating a television show around this fun spectacle four years ago. But we are in the middle of showing you that we'll create this programming with or without his help.
Nobody from the Heat, meanwhile, has uttered so much as a public syllable since the start of free agency. Miami is one of the most private organizations anywhere in sports, with precious few leaks, and Pat Riley is surrounded by loyalists and lifers. So the feces storm gathers strength around Miami's silence, in spite of it, because of it, and the three very famous Heat players have grown so comfortable with this noisy nonsense that they literally vacation right in the middle of it.
Maybe the first night or first week you can't sleep if the car alarm keeps going off outside your window. But you'll sleep fine after it has been in your life every night nonstop for four straight years.
The words we have from them before this all started? That information doesn't seem to matter right now, not when cracks and mystery can be perceived, and we can fill the holes where the nonexistent information would go with anonymous hypotheticals that are less boring and intriguing than the three players just returning to Miami as planned. Facts? On-the-record information? Ehhhh, whatever. Sports are just the soap operas that males are comfortable admitting they watch. Cue the dramatic music, and let's go out in search of the sexy and sinister, even if we don't have proof.
So it doesn't matter that Heat owner Micky Arison put the chances of retaining the Big Three at "100 percent." Doesn't matter that Chris Bosh said publicly again and again that he'd play in Miami, and only Miami, for a discount. Doesn't matter that they, you know, put their names on that. Doesn't even matter that Dwyane Wade opted out of $42 million guaranteed dollars he wasn't going to get elsewhere as confirmation that he's working to help the team create flexibility, and Udonis Haslem again risked millions out of loyalty to Miami for the same reason.
All that matters now is what LeBron James hasn't said, because that's where we can invent the cracks -- even if it means James would kind of be betraying the people who did these things with and for him, and won championships (plural) doing them with and for him before.
James is by consensus the most unselfish superstar in sports, with Ray Allen saying he's never had a teammate give such great gifts, sharing James' corporate sponsorships. James would not need merely a better roster (Houston? Phoenix?) to leave Miami for a city where he doesn't know the president, general manager and coach. He'd need for it to be so much better that he'd be willing to again be Mercenary Guy with his repaired image and endure some of what he did four years ago ... and leave behind his championship friends in doing so.
James' agent is taking meetings? That's the guy's job, and this is his first commission, James continuing to empower his friends. See something sinister and scary in it if you like, but his agent better do something to earn that percentage of a max contract. That agent percentage is worth millions and millions of dollars. Taking a few meetings is almost literally the very least his agent could do ... and good practice for one of James' buddies as he has surrounded himself with the crew from "Entourage." Heat fans need not worry until James himself is in one of these meetings, but what is being waved around as news in the interim by nameless sources and needy reporters is what has been said privately by anonymous people who may be dishing misinformation instead of what has been said and done publicly by the informed participants because ... well, that's the interesting part, isn't it?
The transaction often usurps the action in sports in 2014. Tomorrow's hope can feel better than your team's today. Everyone is a fantasy general manager, and ratings monstrosities like the NFL draft show how we can't get enough of the abstractions about tomorrow's team, tomorrow's changes, tomorrow's hope. The possibility of James leaving is only 1,000 times juicier than the probability that he's staying. You'll notice that none of these reporters using these anonymous sources dares call any team other than Miami a front-runner for James' services even while constructing the tapestry to frame these stories.
This should be noted, though: Privately, Miami Heat management is not worried. Privately, management would be blindsided by any of the three leaving. Privately, management says nothing has changed in the last week except for the volume of media noise, and nothing unexpected has happened beyond players the Heat might have wanted, like Jodie Meeks, going for $10-12 million more than expected. Privately, management believes what James has said -- that he and his family love Miami -- and that he doesn't take for granted the difficulties and blessings in making four straight Finals appearances.
Truth be told, management was a lot more scared in 2010 about what would happen with the Big Three. Back then, management knew and had a relationship with only one of these three players. And 2010 was so loud and scary that Stephen A. Smith -- not exactly short on confidence and bombast -- vowed to never do it again. He has recused himself from the present mess, refusing to add to a growing noise that management now views as flies around an elephant's tail.
Still, many people are seeing chaos in this free agency for Miami. They are seeing it because: (1) They want to, (2) Miami hasn't signed anyone yet, (3) the silence is scary, (4) the silence is being replaced by rampant speculation because the media will not abide silence, and (5) the Big Three breaking up puts more hope on the market for other teams. Those five things create the perception that Riley is working at a disadvantage with uncertainty about how much he has to spend. But that ignores something major:
This was all also so in 2010, the last time Riley pulled this off, before the championships and before building relationships and providing proof for these players. Riley didn't have firm numbers, and the Big Three also wanted Mike Miller and Haslem, so Riley worked with them and their discounts to make that so. But he needed to find out what Haslem and Miller needed first, so he could come back to James, Wade and Bosh with those figures. That's what he's doing now with Pau Gasol and Luol Deng -- finding out just how much they need, the same way he did it with Miller and Haslem back when things were actually uncertain.
Riley would be working with James and Bosh on this pre-championships, without knowing them, but not now? What sense does that make when you are running a billion-dollar corporation/partnership with these players? What is seen as a disadvantage in the noisy frenzy of the moment -- Riley doesn't know how much he has to spend! -- would be the kind of advantage craved by any of those other executives who have yet to secure even a meeting with James. Riley is the only basketball executive in the world who can call James, Wade and Bosh and ask, "It'll take about $7 million a year to get Gasol. OKC and the Spurs are offering $5 million. You guys want to make that work?"
All around the silent Heat a noisy media makes it sound as if things could be coming apart. But the ability to make that one phone call -- an ability available in this climate to one of the best closers in the history of sports leadership -- is all it takes to very quietly and very quickly put all this right back together.
This story also appears in the Miami Herald.