LeBron James made two significant pronouncements last week, although one naturally got a lot more attention than the other.
James is indeed going back home to play in Cleveland, and in doing so, seems to be pivoting from his long-stated desire to rack up as many championships as possible. He's starting what he openly admits could be a long process of leading the Cavaliers to their first title. Although their outlook is positive, the Cavs are not yet primed for multiple title runs the way the Miami Heat were in 2010.
The other major statement James made is also a bit of a passion project, but it isn't as public-relations friendly. James is tired of being underpaid, and he's launching a mission to do his best to correct it.
His contract with the Cavs, one year plus a player option for $42 million total, is just the start.
James generally doesn't like to talk about his money, even when the outcome is favorable. As an example, several weeks ago he refused to discuss, even off the record, his recent windfall when Apple bought Beats Electronics in a $3 billion transaction. ESPN ended up reporting James' equity in Beats from a 2008 deal was worth "more than $30 million," but even that number may be somewhat low.
Before a game in Indianapolis last season, James briefly acquiesced and revealed his true feelings when it came to his basketball salary.
"That right there is a story untold," James said when I asked whether it ever bothered him that he'd never even been the highest-paid player on his team. "At the end of the day, I don't think my value of what I do on the floor can be compensated anyway because of the CBA, if you want this truth. If this was baseball, I'd be up there."
James reached his hand high over his head to demonstrate his point. The collective bargaining agreement, of course, installs maximum contract limits. Major League Baseball's does not.
"How high would it be if this were like baseball?" I asked him.
"High. Way high," is all James would say.
Because of these collectively bargained limits, James has routinely not made it a priority in his career. Due to limits on rookie contract salaries and the pay cut that James took in 2010 when he signed with the Heat in a coordinated effort with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James has made the possible max salary in only three of his 11 years in the NBA.
Here's another stat that will put James' relative compensation into some perspective: Last season was the first time in James' career that his salary was in the top 10 in the league.
His new deal with the Cavs will pay him $20.6 million next season, the first time he will crest $20 million in what will be his 12th season in the league. By comparison, Kevin Garnett hit $20 million by his seventh season. Shaquille O'Neal reached $20 million in salary nine straight years. Kobe Bryant's new contract assures him his seventh and eighth years of making $20-plus million.
The difference is these players, even though they are James' contemporaries, came into the league in the 1990s, when high-end contracts had fewer restrictions.
James isn't hurting at all, let's make that clear. If you saw the photos of the moving trucks that came to pick up his collection of exotic cars last week for transportation to Ohio, that is plain to see. But James is starting to push back, trying to get a fairer cut of what he's contributing to the NBA revenue pie.
In the next year, it is likely that James' new Cavs jersey will soar to the top of the charts in sales. However, he will see no direct monetary benefit. The formula established by the players' association and NBA for apparel sales is not based on individual royalties, with all players sharing in the licensing money equally.
These are issues in which James has continually gotten more interested. He flirted with running for union president last year but yielded, and close friend Chris Paul won the position.
The tipping point of all of this for James, sources said, was the recent sale of the Los Angeles Clippers to Steve Ballmer for $2 billion. Hitting that number was jaw-dropping for the players, who took a bit of a beating in the most recent CBA, which was signed in 2011.
James' agent, Rich Paul, and his lead attorney, Mark Termini, discussed this intensely before free agency even began. The decision was made to demand both a max contract -- no more discounts to squeeze in other stars -- and to sign short-term deals for the foreseeable future.
Even if James had re-signed with the Heat or had chosen the Lakers, he would have taken a one-year deal with the player option, sources said, under any circumstances.
There are three main reasons James is going this route. First, it protects him from missing out on cashing in if and when the salary cap jumps in the coming years and provides for a matching jump in the maximum salary.
Second, it opens the door for James to be in position to take advantage if the maximum salary is either abolished or vastly raised in 2017, when a new CBA can be negotiated. You can be assured that James will be heavily involved in those talks. He envisions getting a Michael Jordan-esque payday at the end of his career. Like when Jordan made $63 million over his final two years with the Chicago Bulls, James could put himself in position to get some huge back-end paydays to make up for how he feels he has been underpaid along the way.
Third, the short deals keep his team under pressure to continue spending on talent around him. With the chance to become a free agent every year, James will constantly have the ability to exert maximum influence around the team.
For a long time, James has believed in the phrase "no new friends" when it comes to whom he surrounds himself with. For the foreseeable future, he has another saying: "No long-term contracts."