There's so much speculation surrounding the potential future of LeBron James, most of it swirling around the Knicks and their ability to offer two max deals this offseason and the Cavs and the quality "known" that the King has in his hometown. I'm here to give my take on why he stays and why he goes. In the end, no question my heart is with the Knicks, so I can't promise to be completely unbiased, but I'm going to give it my best shot.
If you see any poll, formal or informal, be it a poll of fans, coaches, players, or GMs, the consensus by about 65-35 is that LeBron will stay in Cleveland. The Vegas line has seen some fluctuation over the months, but I saw somewhere recently that New York is in 2nd place at +300 (whatever that means) and Cleveland remains the prohibitive favorite at -170, or something to that effect. The New York mark was a significant improvement over past lines, and still the difference is fairly stark. So, to begin, it seems everyone but hopeful Knick fans thinks LeBron is a Cavalier.
Make no mistake, somewhere in that mix of information is a lot of emotion. New Yorkers are rabid for Lebron and probably aren't completely rational. New York haters, of whom there are many, are likewise blinded by their feelings. Then there are the Jets fans that also "support" the Knicks. They bring a defeatist attitude to their fandom that has convinced them that Walsh is a moron, D'Antoni is a terrible coach, and that we're doomed to overpaying for Rudy Gay.
Extracting anything meaningful from the endless speculation from all corners of the sports world is tough, but there are some arguments to be made. It's easy to start with "Lebron Stays" since the general sentiment is that he will.
1. He's on a great team.
At the moment, the Cavs are 44-14 and hold the best record in the league. LeBron has the best chance to win it all that he's ever had before and he's been with this core group of teammates long enough that the chemistry fits. That's hard to measure. The Jordan Bulls had the same starting lineup for years before they made it all happen and beat the Pistons. It doesn't happen overnight. Were he to leave, he'd be starting over from scratch and there's no guarantee he'd ever find this chemistry again. Of course, winning a title is the goal and the closer he gets, the more likely it seems he'd be a fool to give it all up.
2. He can get paid more to stay in Cleveland.
The money for the first six years of any deal, anywhere, is close. Even with the Cavs having an advantage in the amount they can pay over that span, the money isn't all that different. The seventh year that the Cavs can offer is the big catch. A seventh year guaranteed is a big fish hook for a home team. Nobody likes to leave guaranteed money on the table. There's a built-in incentive for players to remain with their clubs, and LeBron is no exception.
3. He's home.
The King grew up in Akron. He's playing in front of his home town fans. Winning a title in front of them would cement what's already an amazing legacy in Ohio. New Yorkers might scoff at the notion that being a big fish in a small pond is attractive, but that's only if the pond seems small to the fish. It's tough for a New Yorker to look at the world from anything other than the perspective of the big pond. Everything else is small by comparison and so there are a lot of assumptions made from that perspective that many not hold true. I'm not sure how small a pond LeBron thinks he's in. He's on TV every night, he's in tons of ads, he has his likeness on buildings, and there's nowhere on Earth he can go without a good chance that he'll be recognized. In addition to his great skill, Nike did that for him. In Cleveland.
The people in the Cavs organization, the teammates, the fans, the local grocery clerk, his teachers and peers all invested a lot in him to help him reach where he is today. It would be supremely callous and selfish to not understand that. Yes, we all know that sports is a business, and we're reminded of that at every trade deadline and in every offseason. Still, when things are good, money is in your pocket, and people love you, it's easy to focus on loyalty. It's only when things suck and you hate life that you might play cost-benefit with your loyalty and your desire to head for greener pastures. It would be honorable, loyal, and graceful for LeBron to stay in Cleveland and spend his entire career fighting for multiple championships alongside all those people.
It's easy to see from the above points why LeBron staying in Cleveland seems so likely. As a Knick fan I can easily find reasons why I think he'd want to play in New York. It's part of that big pond mindset that I described earlier. I'll attempt to stick to more reasonable logic, but I suspect that anyone reading this might have feelings about my success or failure, regardless.
1. His team is in decline.
It's a bit hard to say that with a straight face while the Cavs are the best team in the league. The thing is, provided LeBron isn't thinking about signing another 2-3 year deal, long term the Cavs have problems. Until the 2012 offseason, the Cavs have little cap room to maneuver. Until the 2013 season, they will only have the ability to sign a mid-level player to compliment James. That means, aside from Mo Williams, who's in his prime, the Cavs will be paying for Antawn Jamison's 35 and 36-year old seasons at top dollar, Anderson Varejao at about $9 million a year into his mid-30s, plus Daniel Gibson and JJ Hickson. If you give LeBron a max deal, you're left trying to lure some future FA to play with him several years down the road.
Right now, Shaq is 38 and on his last legs. He won't be back. Without him, the Cavs are $10 million over the cap next season. With him, they have even less flexibility and can't guarantee he'll even be able to take the court one night to the next. I wrote that this team has chemistry and it fits, but signing a long term deal with Cleveland risks some very uncertain times in just a few short years. The club will have to make a choice on whether or not to re-sign Mo Williams for his decline years. The trio of Varejao, Gibson, and Hickson will have to develop into bigger players on the club. If they don't, you'll either replace them with some as yet unknown or roll with them and hope LeBron can keep dragging them along. What free agents will be available in 2012 or 2013? How much competition will there be to sign them? That's a lot of uncertainty.
In contrast, the Knicks have a chance to pair LeBron with, say, Chris Bosh. I won't dive too deeply into who the Knicks can get to ride shotgun with LeBron, but I'll just use Bosh as a placeholder for the sake of argument. With a nucleus of LeBron, Bosh, Wilson Chandler, and Danilo Gallinari, the Knicks can start a good young nucleus of players. Chandler and Gallinari will both be in their mid-20s several years from now and improving. Bosh would still be in his prime as well. What's more, Eddy Curry's expiring contract in 2011 gives the Knicks even more room to splash on a decent player or two.
If T-Mac has anything left, and he'd be willing to play for less money (short term, anyway), you could use some of Curry's money to re-sign him via the team's Bird Rights and still grab another decent role player. LeBron, Bosh, McGrady, Gallinari, and Chandler, plues change...
Yes, LeBron has a better chance to win a title if he stays in Cleveland. That is, he has a better chance in the very short term. To be precise, he has 2009-2010, 2010-2011, and maybe 2011-2012 if everything were to break right. This year is his best chance to win it all in Cleveland and beyond lies only doubt. New York, on the other hand, could potentially give him a great shot to win for the remainder of his career.
2. He can get paid more in off court money.
A lot of reports suggest that LeBron couldn't make more money in New York than he can already make in Cleveland. I suspect that there's some kernel of truth to that. LeBron is a global brand and already makes top endorsement dollar. Do I think it's worth extra money to Madison Avenue to have LeBron in New York? Yes. How much? Tough to say, but I'm betting they'll pay him to find out. Since the retirement of Michael Jordan a lot of bad has happened to endorsement money for companies. MJ was revenue magic for companies trying to sell products, and for the TV ratings in general. Since his retirement, things have fallen on a number of players. Kobe and his champion Lakers have received their fair amount of attention and money, but Kobe's rape situation and his general lack of likability, have prevented him in cashing in the way Jordan once did. Tiger Woods got some high end bucks, but his recent scandal has put an end to that. Baseball lacks a marquee personality to pin things on. Pujols is the best player, but is hardly a big draw. A-Rod is too....A-Rod. Jeter is about as close as it gets, but he's just not that transcendent talent that makes people watch his every move. (Except when it comes to girlfriends.) Football has Peyton Manning. 'Nuff said.
There's LeBron James. His Cavs made the Finals in 2007 and were swept by the Spurs. At the time, that series was the lowest rated Finals in the history of the NBA. He has tons of endorsements and stands to get more with the Tiger Woods fiasco in full bloom. In steps New York City and the stage at Madison Square Garden. Nike would be fools to support LeBron staying in Cleveland. Either way they'll get a good return on their investment with him, but the potential is maxed out in Cleveland. An ad agency can only sell LeBron's image to potential clients at a certain price if his appearance in the Finals only garners a 6. It's simple math. A 6 rating will automatically set LeBron at a certain endorsement value. Provided my theory is right, and Madison Avenue also subscribes to it, there is a big pool of money out there to be had.
My theory is that leagues flourish when they have great rivalries, even at the expense of parity for smaller markets. Big markets make for the best rivalries, typically, because there's a mythology around them. Sports fills the role of our modern cultural mythology by forcing us to choose sides. One side is bad and the other is good. When there's an intensity to the relationship, the interest is more hotly focused and the drama is all the more compelling. Think about it.
In baseball terms, Yankees-Red Sox has it. Most of the country feigns disinterest in that rivalry, but it's hard to argue that it's lukewarm when it drives the rating of both Fox and ESPN over the course of the season. To keep the context New York, the Knicks-Bulls rivalry of the 1990s was a big deal despite the fact the Knicks really could never knock of the Bulls and never ended up playing for a championship while Jordan was on the court. Lakers-Celtics has it to be sure.
I will always argue that while parity has been good for spreading the wealth among NBA teams, it's also made the overall product more dilute and there's less impact at the big moments. LeBron to the Knicks would install NY-LA once again as a prime rivalry. It would also help if the Bulls can return to form. It's my belief that Madison Avenue feels the same way. The NBA as a whole becomes a lot better investment to potential advertisers if the biggest market and the biggest star get married. I could be wrong.
3. He loves NY.
Why has LeBron been wearing the Yankees cap around everywhere for the last few years? Why do members of his entourage wear "I Love NY" t-shirts when they appear with him on award shows? Why the obvious cat and mouse game? One potential answer is that they enjoy fucking with NY. It's funny to them to string NY along. Kind of an inside gag that they play.
Why put Cleveland fans and ownership through the agony of all the speculation if you could kill it with one fell swoop? Why play the game if you know it puts stress on your organization and Cavs fans? It seems to me that once you know that every sign you give that NY could be your new home is met with dozens of speculative articles and rumors, you'd have enough respect for ownership and fans to be a little more careful about what you wear, or what you say. He isn't. In fact, he said, "July 1, 2010 is going to be a very, very big day." Why would he say such a thing if he was certain to stay in Cleveland? The money won't change. The number of suitors won't change. This isn't baseball where the hot stove is fluid in terms of salary offers, perks, and shifting positions on signing free agents. The circumstances are 99% fixed here. He either takes what Cleveland has, or he leaves. There's no middle ground. What does he gain by going free agent? What does he gain by saying something like that? The answer is nothing, unless it's all a stupid gag he's playing because he enjoys the attention.
I can't claim any of this as proof, or even as reasonable speculation on its own, but I do think it's worth wondering aloud. If the conventional wisdom is that he loves Cleveland and he's not interested in NY, then why all the games? Hard to say, but to me it shows that he's at least showing NY that's he's open to a move, whether it happens or not. This, more than anything else, should give some pause to the people who are so sure he's staying put.
4. It's a Test of NY
The New York franchise in the NBA, who play in the most storied basketball arena in the world, are going to offer a historical free agent class the opportunity to sign up in tandem with some good young players to resurrect a franchise BEGGING to be brought back from the dead. If one or more of those free agents signs, brings the team back to respectability, and perhaps wins a title (or titles), they will forever be etched in the most prestigious stone that sports has to offer. Tickertape parade and all.
If none of these guys shows up, the myth of NY as a world class sports town will be permanently damaged to some degree. There will never, ever be a better situation for a class of free agents than there is at the Garden in 2010. Ever.
It's hard for me to believe that all of that can be passed up. More than just the wishful thinking of a New York fan, I think there has to be some merit to this thinking, at least in terms of hope. There's never been a better fit for an NBA free agent than LeBron James and NY. The situation, the magnitude of the player and the city, the ability to choose a running mate from a group of very talented #2s. It just seems right. To me, if I'm LeBron and I'm weighing the possible outcomes of my career, I see the potential to win a title over the next 2, maybe 3, seasons in Cleveland. If I do that, Cleveland will forever love me. The future beyond that is unclear. If I win a title at Madison Square Garden, and I think it's more likely that I will be able to accomplish that once or more for a longer duration of time in NY, there might never be a greater player in the history of the game.
Like it or not, the big stage inflates accomplishments from the merely excellent to the supernatural. Don't believe me? Ask Derek Jeter. An excellent shortstop and a surefire Hall of Famer, who owns a reputation nearly as large as anyone who has ever played the sport. That's NY. CC Sabathia has an inkling of that, and I'm sure that's what he'll be whispering in LeBron's ear. He's practically said as much to the press on more than one occasion.
I can't really say that I'm overly optimistic about LeBron ending up in NY, but I think the situation is fluid, and I think it's not nearly as certain as people on either side want to make it when posturing at the water cooler. There's plenty of argument to be had on both sides, but until we see the outcome of the NBA season currently in progress, and until we see who would be willing to sign with LeBron, it's open.