The most curious guessing game in the history of modern sports in America is on, officially. Six-plus weeks of leaks and sources, of wooing and recruiting, of LeBron James being sighted at a haberdashery in Midtown Manhattan or a restaurant in Chicago's West Loop or at a private party on Miami's South Beach. Anywhere he shows his face it's sure to be "Breaking News." The Cleveland Cavaliers' stunning elimination from the NBA play-offs means the speculation of LeBron's future has begun. He will become a free agent on July 1, and even though his presence hardly means a trip to the NBA Finals, he still guarantees immediate and long-term contention, not to mention nightly sell-outs, a run on jerseys and media coverage that will tilt the entire town towards the pro basketball team.
The serious contestants are, in alphabetical order: the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, New Jersey Nets and New York Knicks. Oh, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, although this particular discussion is built on the premise that LeBron cannot stay in Cleveland after this defeat, especially not after rumoured locker room disharmony between him and a teammate. The big issue is whether LeBron will make a basketball decision or one geared toward marketing, exposure and his personal life. After talking to several veteran NBA players and club executives, it was somewhat surprising to hear that few people believe he will make primarily a basketball decision.
Nobody I talked to believes LeBron was humiliated by the loss to Boston. None of the players believes LeBron is motivated by winning in the same obsessive way Magic, Bird and Jordan were, or Kobe is. They believe LeBron thinks he has years to win, and isn't particularly pressed at the moment to do so. A former league executive, a former coach and a current general manager all said LeBron is one of the most spoiled and coddled players of this generation and as a result is not particularly accountable, as evidenced by his refusal to shake hands with the Orlando players after they whipped his team in last year's Eastern Conference finals. It is a particularly disappointing thing to hear because, if true, it suggests he has a mentality that values individual accomplishment over winning.
I think LeBron ultimately will fall for the appeal of the New Jersey Nets - for the new arena in Brooklyn, for his pal Jay-Z sitting courtside and mostly for the irresistible charms of Mikhail Prokhorov, the new billionaire owner. If LeBron is looking for somebody to show him the love, Prokhorov seems to be the guy. He can start by convincing him that none of what just happened against the Celtics was really his fault, and that he, the owner, can surround him with everything he needs, including New York City.
It will take a month-and-a-half to sort through the pros and cons, the complexities of a decision that could push the NBA in one direction or another for the next decade. As the Cavaliers inexplicably let the final two minutes run out on their season on Thursday night in Boston and perhaps on their future, LeBron looked almost relieved that it was all over. Whatever it was that seemed to overwhelm him, there will be nothing relaxing or lazy about the end of spring and the beginning of summer for LeBron James. * Washington Post
Chicago Bulls: If he is realistic about having a serious chance to win a championship next season, James will go to Chicago. It's no secret he is impressed with all-star Derrick Rose and rebounding fiend Joakim Noah, and he has every right to be. The Bulls are the only team on his list that have a fairly complete roster right now. There would be no more excuses about a supporting cast. New York Knicks: The Knicks don't have anywhere near the roster of the Bulls; in fact, the Knicks have no roster. Their best player, David Lee, is a free agent and the Knicks would have to renounce Lee's rights to sign James and a second A-list free agent. It would take the Knicks at least two more years to surround him with a championship-calibre team. LA Clippers: The Clippers, believe it or not, would be a solid basketball choice, since they've got a viable centre in Chris Kaman, a veteran point guard in Baron Davis and two young talents in guard Eric Gordon and rookie Blake Griffin. But is James ready to accept second-class citizen status in Southern California? And it would still be a lot more difficult to reach the Finals in the West than in the East. Miami Heat: Miami has the charisma and unquestioned know-how of Pat Riley and a sure-fire alpha male in Dwyane Wade, and there's been all this talk about them discussing playing together. But the guess here is it's just talk, that neither is willing to take a supporting and therefore subordinate role to the other. Things like "who takes the last shot?" really do matter on most NBA teams. New Jersey Nets: Don't let the 70 losses this past season divert your attention. The Nets will wind up being the sexy destination. They've got 7-footer Brook Lopez, a pair of guards with NBA Finals experience in Devin Harris and Courtney Lee, and a 7-foot reserve swing in Yi Jianlian. That roster is hands-down better than what the Knicks have, and the Heat, too.