When the Miami Heat traded up two spots to select former UConn guard Shabazz Napier with the 24th overall pick in last night's NBA draft, the motivation seemed immediately clear, at least to those of us staring at goat entrails: Miami is doing everything it can to convince LeBron James to stay.
What else could it have meant? Wasn't it just a few months ago that LeBron publicly offered his opinion on Napier's skills?
No way u take another PG in the lottery before Napier.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 8, 2014
Five point guards were taken before Napier, who slid well below his projected spot in various mock drafts. The Heat sensed an opportunity to make LeBron happy, the thinking went, and they pounced on it. Almost immediately afterward, LeBron voiced his approval:
My favorite player in the draft! #Napier
— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 27, 2014
After the draft, Pat Riley played it coy, denying that LeBron had any direct influence on the pick in a way that absolutely nobody will believe:
"I know LeBron tweeted something out in the NCAA [tournament] about him," Heat president Pat Riley said after the draft. "Why not. If LeBron and I have the same taste in talent, so be it. But he didn't call me on the phone, or he didn't make a point to me about it."
Oh, a tweet? Hmmm, yeah, I do seem to remember a tweet. What a coincidence!
We have no idea how much Napier's presence on the Heat will help convince James to stay, but the fact that a great many NBA observers spent last night trying to dope out the subtextual meaning of the 24th pick in the draft is a good indication that we are now totally in the orbit of LeBron James's free agency. Everything, even the draft, is about LeBron now.
According to a transcript of ESPN's draft broadcast, LeBron was mentioned 32 times over the course of the evening, more than any of the players who were actually drafted.
"What do you think about what Miami is attempting to do, Tom?" ESPN's Rece Davis asked analyst Tom Penn after the Napier pick.
"LeBron, LeBron, LeBron," Penn replied, and he was not wrong.
When James first announced he was opting out, there seemed to be a small crisis among the NBA's knowing coves, who were simultaneously trying to maintain the ace reporter's pose of imperturbable savvy ("No surprise here—everyone knew LeBron was going to do this; it's purely a procedural move") while admitting the possibility that now, officially, anything could happen. The rest of us were left looking for symbols and signs. If LeBron really intended to re-up in Miami, wouldn't the opt-out announcement have gone a lot differently? Where were Bosh and Wade, for instance? Didn't it seem a little like the Heat were set back on their heels?
And then there was last night: For us tea-leaf readers, it's hard to see Napier as anything but a gift basket left on LeBron's doorstep. Trading assets to move up two spots to draft him isn't exactly a desperate move—he was a great college player who doesn't exactly curl anyone's toes as a pro prospect—but is it really a move the Heat make if they know for sure that LeBron is coming back? If they already had The King locked up, why not just wait and hope Napier falls to 26? This was a public demonstration of their commitment to LeBron, a message saying, "Hey, buddy! We went out of our way to get that point guard you like! Cool, huh?"
The entirety of the NBA has an incurable tropism now, just days before the start of free agency. The other day, the Rockets traded Omer Asik to the Pelicans for a 2015 first-round pick. It was about LeBron. The Mavs brought Tyson Chandler back to town. It was about LeBron. It almost feels wrong to call him a free agent now. He's the shadow general manager of 30 NBA teams.