Sunday, May 16, 2010

LeBron is LeGone; Question is, Where Will He Go?

In light of Cleveland missing the NBA Finals for a second straight year, the chances of the best player in basketball remaining a Cav are pretty slim right now. A handful of teams have spent the last 2 or 3 years (yes, years) hoping and planning for this moment, and they won't be shy about opening up their checkbooks. After all, LeBron is the greatest return-on-investment in the NBA. You may end up paying him $20 million a season, but you can double ticket prices and still sell out every game, while your merchandise sales skyrocket and you become the most talked about team in basketball. Obtaining LeBron is a no-lose situation, and that's why there's no question that the LBJ Sweepstakes are going to be highly entertaining and competitive this summer.

LeBron officially becomes an unrestriced free agent on June 30th at midnight, and he hasn't denied the fact that he'll keep his options open.

"First of all, I want to win. I think the Cavs are committed to doing that, but at the same time, I've given myself options at this point. We'll see where we'll be at."

"I love the city of Cleveland, of course, the fans, you know ...We had a great time together. We'll see what happens."

We had a great time together, LeBron? Wow, Cleveland fans have got to feel great about that vernacular. No question about it, Cavs-Celtics 2010 is going to go down as the worst thing that ever happened to Cleveland sports.

They haven't won a championship in 62 years. The Browns have never been to the Super Bowl. The Cavs have only been to the Finals once (2007) and won't be back for a very long time. Only the Indians have ever won a championship (1948), and don't expect another one in the decade or two. It's a bleak, bleak, bleak time to be a Cleveland sports fan. But don't expect any sympathy from me, the Lions just went 2-30 over the last 2 years.

So the obvious question is: where will Lebron go?

The major suitors are Chicago, Miami, New York, New Jersey, and LA (the Clippers). Dallas and Sacramento are among the dark horses, and of course Cleveland is in the mix.

Each team has unique advantages and disadvantages, all of which LeBron and his team will weigh in the decisions. There are dozens of storylines at play. The Summer of LeBron has the potential to be more discussed than the Favre Summers of 08, 09 and 10 combined.

Let's take it team by team ...

Sacramento Kings- 2% Chance
Not a sexy choice for LeBron, but the opportunity to play alongside 2010 Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans has got to be pretty interesting.

Dallas Mavericks - 3% Chance
They don't have as much cap space as the others, but they have a superstar who can't get it done by himself (Dirk) and a desperate owner who's not afraid to spend gobs of cash (Mark Cuban).

Cleveland Cavaliers - 5% Chance
It seems like LeBron was almost hoping they'd lose in the playoffs so he could leave town without a guilt conscious.

Miami Heat- 8% Chance
A lot of people think the Heat is one of the most likely destinations for LeBron, and that he could even join Wade there. I think Miami will be able to re-sign Wade, and I don't think that'll leave enough for the record-setting deal LeBron will demand. But if Wade goes elsewhere, the warm weather might lure LeBron to Miami.

LA Clippers - 11% Chance
Wouldn't surprise me at all if LeBron moved to LA and tried to steal the Staples Center from Kobe. He could essentially hand-pick a coach and a GM, and would get to play alongside 2009 #1 overall pick Blake Griffin as well as a great outside shooter in Eric Gordon.

New Jersey Nets - 22% Chance
We'll know a lot more after the NBA Lottery, when the Nets will have a decent shot at the #1 overall pick in 2011 (AKA John Wall). If they get it, it would be tough for LeBron to turn down the chance at playing alongside a point guard with unlimited potential, on a team owned by his good friend Jay-Z.

Chicago Bulls - 23% Chance
LeBron would have the opportunity to literally walk in Michael Jordan's footprints (a challenge I think he'll embrace), and he'll have to change his jersey number, which I think he wants to do anyway to "reinvent himself." He would be able to play alongside a decent big guy in Joakim Noah (who incidentally might be the biggest douche in the NBA) and a top 5 NBA point guard in Derrick Rose. And he could hand-pick his own coach to replace Vinny Del Negro.

New York Knicks - 26% Chance
The lure of playing on America's biggest stage is the key to LeBron being a Knick. They've got plenty of cash, and are the most likely candidates to be able to sign a LeBron/Bosh package. Plus, we know LeBron has been "leading them on" for the past 18 months. Below is a picture of LeBron's 2010 shoe, which believe it or not, has "I Heart NY" on the bottom. I kid you not.

Every NBA writer and analyst has their own interpretation of where LeBron will go and why, but the truth is, I don't think LeBron himself has any idea where he will go yet. He's put himself in an unbeliavably good situation where basically five or six mega-rich owners will be emptying their pockets and begging him to join their franchises. It's basically the NBA's version of The Bachelor.

But LeBron will have demands, and they'll include more than just $20+ million a year. He wants solid teammates who can win a title NOW, not in five years. He wants three things in particular, none of which he had in Cleveland:

  • He wants a good point guard, someone who will unselfishly run the offense and let LeBron take over whenever he deems necesssary.
  • He wants a good big man, someone who can finish in the paint, play defense, rebound, and create their own bucket if LeBron feels like taking a few plays off.
  • And he wants a good coach, someone who he can learn from, someone he respects as an equal, and someone who can handle his monstrous ego in stride.
The point guard and big guy could be a lot of different players. Certainly New York and Miami are lacking both of those positions, and would need to acquire a Chris Bosh type player to lure LeBron. New York could also retain David Lee if they can't get Bosh, but I'm not sure LeBron wants his main sidekick to be a white guy.

Chicago is the most appealing option from the standpoint of teammates, and LA a close second. If New Jersey gets the #1 pick and John Wall, they'd be third.

As far as coaching prospects, all signs and rumors point to current Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari. I don't understand why LeBron so desperately wants to be coached by a college guy with a history of disloyalty and recruiting scandal, but that's his prerogative. Calipari could easily take the job in Chicago or LA or New Jersey; in New York it would require the firing of Mike Dantoni, which isn't out of the question; if Miami, it would happen over Pat Riley's dead body.

Adding to the drama are two other storylines - Calipari coached Bulls star Derrick Rose in college, as well as future #1 pick John Wall. That's an added bonus that gives the Bulls and Nets a little more hope and hype.

Of course, Calipari tweeted last week that he's staying in Kentucky - quote "I will be coaching at Kentucky next year. Let's finish what we started!" But can you really trust college coaches when they say they're not going anywhere? We've seen that act dozens of times before, and what coach is going to turn down the opportunity to win NBA championships with LeBron? Seriously Calipari, you should have tweeted "Peace out UK! LBJ my main man!"

Making the decision even more complicated are the slew of other talented free agents who will be, or might be, entering free agency this summer. You already know about Dwayne Wade (50-50 that he's leaving Miami) and Chris Bosh (definitely leaving, he HATES Toronto), but there's also Atlanta's Joe Johnson (90% leaving), Boston's Ray Allen (50-50), New York's David Lee (no idea what he's thinking), Utah's Carlos Boozer (probably leaving), Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire (leaving unless they win the 2010 title), San Antonio's Manu Ginobili (50-50), and Washington's Josh Howard (probably staying). That's some serious talent, and will certainly shake up the landscape of the NBA by the time September rolls around.

(Sadly, none of these guys are going to Detroit. We're tied down by terrible, terrible, terrible contracts.)

LeBron's best chance is to pair himself with either Wade or Bosh, or as some people have suggested, both. I don't see that coming anywhere close to happening.

I can't see LeBron and Wade together for ego-reasons. I can definitely see LeBron and Bosh together, but I could also see Bosh and Wade together. Or I could see Bosh not having the value he thinks he should have because all he's done in his career is lose; he's never been past the first round of the playoffs in 7 years.

Ultimately, I think Lebron's decision comes down to two things, two choices, two ideals. Fame, or winning.

Which does he want more. Which one really drives him.

For Jordan, it was never a question. He only ever wanted to win, and if he became famous as a result, so be it. With LeBron, it's been about fame from the first day. He's never objected to being called 'Chosen' or 'King.' When people compare him to MJ or Magic or Oscar, he doesn't offer the obligatory "To even be mentioned in that company..." line that everyone else does. No, instead he says "Yeah, I am the best. Thank you. Now watch me throw some dust up in the air!"

When asked what his goals are, LeBron has stated that he wants to be a "global icon" and to be the world's first billionare athlete. Sure he talks about winning championships, but that always seems to be an afterthought. Where was that drive and dedication against the Celtics? Where was his competitiveness when he was swept by the Spurs in the 2007 Finals?

If LBJ wants to be the most famous athlete in the world, his choice is simple: join the Knicks.

Yes, he could be mega-famous in Los Angeles, hanging out with Kobe and George Clooney. Or in Miami, replacing Wade and stealing the spotlight from Tiger Woods. Or in Brooklyn, hanging out with Jay-Z and Beyonce. But if he really, truly, seriously wants to be the world's first billionare athlete, and I believe he does, then he'll go to New York.

And on the other hand, if LeBron's main interest and sole priority is winning championships, I think the choice is pretty clear: Chicago. He may be hesitant to go there because of the enormous shadow cast by MJ, and he probably realizes that his chances of winning 6 NBA titles are slim to none, but it is his best chance of raising a banner by this time next year.

From a talent-perspective, Chicago and the Clippers are pretty even. But the difference is, the Eastern Conference is so much less competitive. If LeBron leaves Cleveland and stays within the conference, his new teams instantly becomes the best team in the East.

If LeBron joins the Clippers (or Mavs or Kings), they won't be. They'll have to go past not only Kobe in the playoffs, but also Nash, Durant, Roy, Deron Williams, Nowitzki and Duncan.

In the East, he's got two teams to worry about: Boston and Orlando. Both teams are flawed, and pretty old. Atlanta melted like a cheap candle in the 2010 playoffs, and the young Bulls and Bucks and Bobcats aren't ready to be taken seriously.

If LeBron is smart, and his team of advisors are smart, then their first priority will be simple: stay in the Eastern Conference. That said, if winning is his main priority, I think he has to choose the Bulls. Yeah, the allure of playing with Chris Bosh is pretty excited, but I think LeBron knows that Derrick Rose is a better player and much better teammate than Bosh, and also a more established winner.

Unfortunately for Bulls fans, I don't know if winning really is LeBron's main priority. I think he's pretty torn between the winning and the fame. The spotlight, the stats, and the rings. He can't have it all. If his teammates get better, his stats will get worse. That's just the facts.

Does he really want to try to be the first guy in 50 years to average a triple-double? Does he want to win the MVP award for the next 5 years in a row? If so, he should go to New York, and he should keep Chris Bosh away. Maybe he'll win a championship there, maybe not, but if he surrounds himself with the talent in Chicago, he almost definitely will.

My hunch, even amidst all the "reports" from LeBron's "sources" that have hit the news over the past week saying that LeBron is deciding between Miami and Chicago, is that LeBron will go to New York, just like we always figured he would.

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