It’s been coming for about three years, and now it’s here: The week where every sports writer in the world will write about LeBron James and what he’s going to do this summer. So you don’t need me to make another case for why ‘Bron should stay in Cleveland, go to Chicago, go to New York, or as I’ve heard he’s actually considering from sources close to the situation, take the mid-level exception for a one-year deal with San Antonio. (OK, I didn’t really hear that. But it was fun to imagine.)
Meanwhile, there’s one question I haven’t heard anyone ask: If LeBron does leave, what are the Cavs going to do with the money they would have spent on him?
Answer: Throw it all at Dwyane Wade.
Think about it. The Cavs won 60-plus games this year and made the conference semis with a roster constructed to revolve around one megastar. Whether you think D-Wade is the best, second-best or third-best player in the world, he is undoubtedly a megastar and by almost all accounts belongs in that top three. Would the Cavs be noticeably worse with D-Wade taking LeBron’s place? Not really. Would the Cavs be better with D-Wade? Possibly. Everybody is acting like the franchise and the city itself will die if LeBron leaves, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There doesn’t even have to be an immediate drop-off, so long as LeBron is replaced by another player of his caliber. And there happens to be one player of LeBron’s caliber available.
But it’s obvious why Cleveland would want D-Wade should they fail to keep LeBron at home. The tough part is convincing anybody why D-Wade would want Cleveland.
* For starters, because he can win a championship there. Wade hasn’t been past the first round of the playoffs since 2006, when Miami won its ‘chip. His recent losses haven’t been as spectacular as LeBron’s, but they’ve been just as frustrating, if not more. Wade is tired of losing. So he’ll look on paper and realize that top to bottom, No. 2 through No. 12, the Cavs are better than the Heat. If Wade leaves Jermaine O’Neal, Mike Beasley and Mario Chalmers behind and inherits Anderson Varejao, Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams, his chances of making it past the first round automatically improve. His chances of making it back to the NBA Finals become less fantasy and more reality.
* Cleveland is close to home. It’s not Wade’s hometown of Chicago, but on the private jet his new team will surely kick in to acquire, it’s just a short flight away from the fam.
* Cleveland offers just as much exposure as Miami. In case you haven’t noticed, when LeBron showed up, Cleveland became a big-market franchise. They’re on national TV every week, their merchandise moves units, and they’re a sellout draw on the road. If an A-List celebrity like Wade steps in to replace another A-List celebrity, the Cavs’ popularity isn’t going to drop. Technically, Cleveland doesn’t match Chicago or New York or Miami as a media market, but with a player like D-Wade, the media will follow him.
* Then there’s the concept of legacy. And make no mistake, legacy is important to athletes who are as good as Dwyane Wade. Diplomacy and humility plays well in interviews, but these are people who have reached the highest level of their sport because they’re confident in their ability and because they care about being the best. Even the “nice guys” possess at least a healthy cockiness and a strong competitive drive. D-Wade knows exactly where he finished in MVP voting this year. He knows that with each year his ’06 ring gets older, and as the early playoff exits pile up, his name is further distanced from Kobe and LeBron in the great “Who’s the best?” debate.
D-Wade also knows that if he were to take essentially the same Cavs squad to a championship — or at this point, just to an NBA Finals — that LeBron couldn’t, he vaults LeBron and is considered the best player in the world again. And the way he’s wired, that kind of thing matters to him.
Granted, I don’t think Wade is going to the Cavs. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s not. If Wade is going to go anywhere it’s to Chicago, but honestly I think he stays in Miami and works on convincing fellow All-Stars to join him in one of the NBA’s top destination cities. But like I’ve said before, this is all guesswork, even for us professional experts.
When I interviewed D-Wade for his Dime #54 cover story earlier this season, I asked where winning, money, location and mass appeal would rank on his list of priorities this summer.
“Well, winning is one,” he said. “There’s no question about it. Location might be number two. For me, mass appeal. And then money is last.”
The Cavs can win with D-Wade. They’re close enough to his hometown. He loses zero mass appeal there. And the franchise can pay him what he deserves. For what it’s worth, that sounds like all the right ingredients to crown a new king of Cleveland.