In the biggest free-agency bonanza to ever hit the NBA, LeBron James is the first domino that has to fall before everyone else figures out their next move. From D-Wade all the way down to Brian Scalabrine, you could say every other free agent’s future will in some way be affected by LeBron’s decision.
With the official start of free agency set for 12:01 a.m. Wednesday night/Thursday morning, we decided to look at each team believed to be in the running for LeBron and delve into the reasons why LBJ would and wouldn’t (or should and shouldn’t) sign with them. Next up: The Cleveland Cavaliers.
PROS — After two years working from home in Seattle, I moved to New York City this week. It’s the second time I’ve made the 206-to-212 trek (I lived in NYC from ’06-08), and if there’s anything I can at least pretend to identify with LeBron about, it’s this: Leaving home is tough. There’s nothing like being around family, around the people you grew up with, around the places you grew up in. During my last couple of days in Seattle, I found myself getting sentimental over silly stuff, like the ‘hood Red Apple grocery store on 23rd and Jackson, and the greasy fries at Dick’s Drive-In burger joint; things you just cannot replicate outside of my hometown.
So whether it’s Miami or Chicago or any another NBA city, LeBron will face an agonizing decision this summer: Do I really want to leave home?
This isn’t about money. LeBron is going to pull in Scrooge McDuck coinage wherever he plays, as long as he is among the best players in the world and the face of Nike. He’s already turned Cleveland into a major media market, and at 25 years old he’s already big enough to where the hype will come to him; he doesn’t have to chase the hype. Besides, most famous people today value their privacy, and LeBron would have very little privacy in L.A., Chicago or Miami. And he’d have absolutely zero privacy in New York with this city’s hungry wolf pack of media predators. He’d be under constant watch, which would inevitably turn into constant scrutiny. In Cleveland, the people revere LeBron, but they also give him a certain level of respectful space he won’t get anywhere else.
On the court, LeBron will be put in a position to win championships wherever he plays. The Bulls, Heat and Clippers might have more talent on paper than the Cavs currently, but Cleveland is obviously committed to putting the best team around LeBron as possible. Some of ex-GM Danny Ferry‘s moves ultimately didn’t work out as planned, but you can’t fault the organization for trying and taking chances: Bringing in Ben Wallace when he could have had some Defensive Player of the Year mojo left in his body, bringing in Mo Williams when he was considered one of the game’s up-and-coming point guards, bringing in Shaq when he was coming off an All-NBA season in Phoenix, bringing in All-Star Antawn Jamison at the trade deadline, bringing in overseas superstar Anthony Parker to fill a role, and making sure Anderson Varejao — the kind of hustler/rebounder/defender every title team needs — is staying in Cleveland long-term.
The Cavs then cleaned house in the front-office after this year’s conference semifinals loss, and (if yesterday’s rumors are true) will hire Brian Shaw as head coach, who has championship experience as a player and as an assistant while learning under the best (Phil Jackson) and playing with/coaching the best (Kobe, Shaq, Gasol, etc.). In hindsight you can criticize, but Cleveland has tried to surround LeBron with a championship-level supporting cast, and that won’t change after the summer of 2010.
Plus, if legacy is a factor, there’s just something more respected about winning a championship with your original team. Jordan, Bird, Russell, Isiah, Hakeem, Willis,, Kobe, Magic, Kareem, Wade, Pierce and Duncan all did it, and their place in the game is legendary. If the perception is that LeBron had to leave to get his rings, he’s more like KG, Wilt, Drexler, Shaq — not quite a ring-searching nomad — but there’s a little luster lost.
Either way, LeBron will contend for championships wherever he goes. He’ll be mega-famous and mega-rich wherever he goes. So while the bright lights of bigger cities are appealing, for LeBron there’s truly no place like home.
CONS — However, there comes a time when every man has to spread his wings. That’s why I left for New York the first time in ’06, and why I left again in 2010. There’s a big window here, and if LeBron doesn’t switch teams this summer, he will always wonder “What if?” And that’s a feeling you can’t buy back, not even with a championship ring and millions in endorsements.
Once upon a time not too long ago, the second-best pro-Cleveland argument was that LeBron was closer to winning a championship with the Cavs than he’d be with the Knicks, Nets, Heat, etc. But over the last month, that stance is looking pretty weak. Try as they might, the Cavs are not making forward progress: NBA Finals in ’07, Conference Semis in ’08, Conference Finals in ’09, Conference Semis again in ’10. Danny Ferry and coach Mike Brown were let go following this year’s playoff exit, replaced by Chris Grant and Shaw; in other words, the assistant GM who learned under Ferry and the assistant coach with zero head coaching experience at any level. Is this the championship recipe?
The Cavs already fumbled last week’s NBA Draft, failing to acquire a pick and bring in some young talent. The one player who you’d HAVE to unload at this point, Delonte West, is still on the roster. Shaq is a free agent, so the team currently has no starting center. LeBron would be returning to a squad headlined by Mo Williams and Jamison, who left him high and dry in the season-ending Game 6 loss in Boston.
Cleveland is where LeBron has enjoyed the only pro success he’s ever known, but it’s also where he’s suffered his greatest disappointments. It’s where he’s learned he can’t win championships alone or with a subpar supporting cast. With proven front-office execs and potential teammates beckoning from across the country, the grass could look just green enough on another side.
ODDS — 4 to 1.