OK, here it goes. It's been a long 96 hours, but the situation surrounding LeBron James' contract extension has finally been made clear.
LeBron has agreed to a three-year extension with a player option for a fourth year. It means the Cavs will maintain his rights for an additional two years after 2007-08, the season after which he could have become an unrestricted free agent under his rookie deal.
The new deal will kick in after this upcoming season, which is the final year of his rookie contract. It is essentially one year less than the deal that was offered by the Cavaliers, which was a four-year deal with an option for a fifth year.
So why would LeBron do this? Despite what some members of the national media will tell you, it's not to throw Cleveland a bone so he can say "you had your chance" when he bolts for New York in four years.
It might come to that if GM Danny Ferry fails in putting a capable roster around LeBron, but this extension is designed to help avoid that kind of outcome.
Here are the facts, if you haven't already read them elsewhere:
1. The base part of LeBron's extension will expire after the 2009-10 season. At that point, he will have seven years' experience in the NBA, and his stock will go way up. For this extension, he is eligible to make 25 percent of the league's salary cap in the extension's first year, with percentage increases in ensuing years.
With seven years' experience, he can make 30 percent of the salary cap with higher percentage increases. Knowing that, it would only make sense that he'd want to negotiate a new deal for his eighth NBA season and thereafter.
It has been reported that fellow 2003 draft studs Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade might follow suit and sign three-year extensions with their teams. This might become a trend, and might expose a flaw in the NBA's contract procedures.
If a player can negotiate an extension after his third season in the league, and that extension can be for up to five years on top of his four-year base rookie contract, it means a rookie deal and an extension can eat up potentially the first nine seasons of his career. Yet he is eligible for a significant raise after seven years.
I think you are going to see more star players begin negotiating shorter deals, banking that their earning ability trumps any security a longer deal can offer.
2. This deal keeps LeBron in Cleveland long enough to attract choice free agents, but it also forces the Cavs to keep their foot on the accelerator with regard to winning.
LeBron signed through 2008 would mean that nobody would want to come to Cleveland. No player in his right mind would sign a four or five-year deal only to have the entire impetus for a championship run pack up and leave halfway through.
LeBron's deal means that good players should consider Cleveland an attractive destination both this off-season and next. But it's up to Ferry to manipulate the team's cap space to make signings happen.
And Ferry will have to make hay while the Sun shines. LeBron has been burned just enough by the Cavs' collapses in his first two seasons that he doesn't yet trust this team to build a champion over the long haul. Shortening the deal, keeping unrestricted free agency on the horizon, will be LeBron's way of forcing the Cavs to remain vigilant about building a winner.
Tim Duncan did much the same thing for his first contract extension in San Antonio, also signing for three years. Then the Spurs rattled off some titles, and Duncan reupped for seven more years.
3. The shortened deal doesn't mean LeBron is out of here in four years. Actually, it could mean the contrary. Forcing the Cavs to stay vigilant about winning means the odds of LeBron staying happy here and re-signing in 2009 or 2010 go up.
Look at the Indians, and look at how many players have apparently gotten lax and lazy with the combination of contract extensions and the 93-win season of a year ago. LeBron doesn't want the Cavs slacking. The shortened deal could prevent an ugly situation in which LeBron becomes displeased with the direction of the team and starts to think about demanding a trade.
I don't know about you, but after watching Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome leave and then get booed upon returning to Cleveland, I don't want to see the same thing happen to LeBron.
4. This deal shows how smart LeBron really is. This deal is a shrewd move. Duncan did it before, but because LeBron has done it, it will likely set a trend among other players.
I think that during his weeklong silence, we got the impression that LeBron was somewhere obliviously flipping a coin to decide whether he wanted to stay in Cleveland or not. But LeBron is acutely aware of this situation in his camp, and the situation in Cleveland.
Perhaps I exaggerated the language a bit in previous columns, but I think LeBron truly wants to win a title for Cleveland. Even though he has never particularly been a fan of Cleveland teams, he grew up around here. He knows about The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot. He was in junior high when Jose Mesa blew Game 7 of the World Series. He knows the pain that exists here, and he would get a major kick out of being able to be the guy to deliver this area a championship.
He knows what a devastating blow it would be to Cleveland and the Cavs organization to lose him, so I don't think leaving Cleveland is ever a decision he'll take lightly.
Having said that, he also knows he is supremely talented and has a limited number of years to work with that talent. He's not about to waste his time somewhere where he gets the impression that the commitment to winning is anything under 100 percent.
I have said before that LeBron is a generation-defining player, and I mean both on and off the court. At 21, you and I were cramming for college finals. At 21, not only is LeBron's understanding of basketball well beyond his years, his understanding of the business of basketball is off the charts.
We are truly blessed to have him here.