Miami Heat

Joseph Goodman: LeBron James, Spurs go after the same thing a different way

LeBron James, right, and David West battle on May 28, 2013. James, now with the Cavaliers, appears to be strong-arming owner Dan Gilbert during free agency. Meanwhile, West took a huge pay cut to join the Spurs.
LeBron James, right, and David West battle on May 28, 2013. James, now with the Cavaliers, appears to be strong-arming owner Dan Gilbert during free agency. Meanwhile, West took a huge pay cut to join the Spurs. Miami Herald Staff

The kid we all used to be loves David West right now.

Meanwhile, every business maven around respects LeBron James this week.

The Heat should be happy with free agency so far, but the clear winners this week are the San Antonio Spurs and LeBron James, Inc. Both entities have dominated the business of the NBA this week, but in two very different ways — one through respect and loyalty, and the other with a little fear and intimidation.

It’s the Spurs, of course (always the Spurs), who managed to do the impossible and construct a team full of star players willing to sacrifice cash. First the Spurs landed LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the most skilled big men in the game. The big savings then came when the Spurs won over West, the bruising yet skilled power forward the Heat knows all too well.

To fully appreciate what West did in leaving the Pacers for the Spurs, one must first set aside reason and logic and everything we’ve been taught to value in this world. For a moment, try to suspend reality. It should be easy enough to do. It’s how we came to love sports in the first place.

In that alternate universe, buried down deep in our imaginations, there is a special place for a person who would want something so badly they would risk a fortune just to have the chance to gain it. That is what West will do Thursday when he signs an NBA veteran’s minimum contract with the Spurs. He was set to make $12 million next season playing for the Indiana Pacers. The Spurs will pay him $1.4 million. The deal gives both player and team a better chance to win a championship.

Once again, San Antonio will be loaded with enough talent and depth to win it all no matter how great of a team LeBron puts together.

In Cleveland, the Cavaliers’ prodigal son is using power, influence and his unique relationship with hometown fans to leverage his owner’s checkbook. It’s an old game, but this time played in reverse.

LeBron and Dwyane Wade took slightly less money in 2010 to help construct a contender, but this time around LeBron is strong-arming Dan Gilbert in Cleveland to build a team. LeBron reportedly will not negotiate his new contract until a deal with teammate Tristan Thompson is finalized.

For LeBron, the deal with Thompson seems to be self-serving in more ways than one. On the surface, LeBron wants the best team possible, and Thompson provides excellent depth in the paint.

There’s more to the story, though.

Both LeBron and Thompson have the same agent, Rich Paul, who is one of LeBron’s longtime friends. In other words, the more money Thompson receives, the more money LeBron’s friend likely makes in commission. It’s a fascinating power struggle, and one that’s sure to become even more complicated the longer LeBron remains in Cleveland.

Considering LeBron’s many motivations for team building, it’s easy to see why he and Heat president Pat Riley shared some philosophical differences.

Can LeBron win without the Heat? That’s a question worth exploring next season. With a team price tag projected to be more than $100 million, he better be. The Cavs’ total team salary for next season will be an enormous number, and that doesn’t even include the luxury-tax bill. The tax could be around $100 million as well.

LeBron deftly mitigated the pressure to win immediately last season, but if he doesn’t deliver in his second season back, that all changes. No matter how much he squeezes out of Gilbert, it’s going to be tough to beat the Spurs.

Longtime San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford are putting together the type of team the Heat had dreams of building at one point last summer. West might be coming off the bench for the Spurs, but he’s so much more than a role player. There were moments during those epic postseason battles between the Heat and the Pacers a few years ago when it seemed like West and his unique skill set might single-handedly undo the Heat’s dynasty.

West never had the supporting cast in Indiana to take down LeBron and the Heat. This week, West changed the game. Money is the great equalizer in the NBA, but when money doesn’t matter, players can hijack the system.

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