By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, May 16, 2010; D03
So we're stuck with this conversation for 45 days, all the way until July 1 to be exact. 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 playoffs on Thursday night means the most curious guessing game in the history of modern sports in America is on, officially. Even though LeBron's presence hardly means a trip to the NBA Finals, he still guarantees immediate and long-term contention, not to mention nightly sellouts, a run on jerseys and media coverage that will tilt the entire town toward the pro basketball team. And with that as the backdrop, the serious contestants are, in alphabetical order: the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, New Jersey Nets and New York Knicks.
Oh, I nearly forgot the Cleveland Cavaliers, although this particular discussion is built on the premise that LeBron cannot stay in Cleveland after this defeat, especially not after rumored locker room disharmony between LeBron and a teammate. It doesn't seem he can stay in Cleveland, short of management rebuilding the entire team. The trade for Shaquille O'Neal appeared smart at the time, but Shaq seemed to have aged three years between last season with the Suns and this season in Cleveland. He might help some team and somebody will certainly sign him, but he's mostly incompatible with LeBron.
Even if Cleveland was able to package young J.J. Hickson and Delonte West, bringing in one all-star and another front-line player in one summer is very, very unlikely, so we move to the other options.
The big issue is whether LeBron is going to make a basketball decision or one geared toward marketing, exposure and his personal life. After talking to several veteran NBA players and several club executives over the past 48 hours, it was somewhat surprising to hear that few people believe LeBron will make primarily a basketball decision. Nobody I talked to believes LeBron was humiliated by the loss to Boston. None of the players I talked to believes LeBron is motivated by winning in the same obsessive way Magic, Bird and Jordan were, or Kobe is. They believe that 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 told me LeBron is one of the most spoiled and coddled players of this generation and as a result isn't particularly accountable, as evidenced by his refusal to shake hands with the Orlando players after they whipped him in last year's Eastern Conference finals. It's a particularly disappointing thing to hear repeatedly because, if true, it suggests LeBron has this AAU mentality that values individual accomplishment over winning. I could live with hearing this about, say, O.J. Mayo, but LeBron James?
If LeBron is realistic about having a serious chance to win a championship next season, he'll go to Chicago, plain and simple. It's no secret LeBron is quite impressed with all-star Derrick Rose and rebounding fiend Joakim Noah, and he has every right to be. The Bulls are the only one of the aforementioned teams that has a fairly complete roster right now. Rose, Noah and Luol Deng are better than their counterparts in the Cavaliers lineup. Kirk Hinrich and all-rookie selection Taj Gibson are splendid reserves. And if the Bulls trade Deng and/or Hinrich, they'll free up even more salary cap room for the likes of, say, all-star Joe Johnson. The Bulls would skip right past every team in the Eastern Conference except the Celtics and Magic and would look both Eastern Conference finalists eye to eye. There would be no more excuses about LeBron's supporting cast.
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 his rights to sign LeBron and a second A-list free agent. And even if LeBron does persuade someone such as Chris Bosh to go with him to New York to save the Knicks, who else would they play with? Who's the point guard, where are the shooters and rebounders? It would take the Knicks at least two more years -- and LeBron would be 10 years into his career by then -- to surround him with a championship-caliber team.
The Clippers, believe it or not, would be a much better basketball choice, since they've got a viable center in Chris Kaman, a veteran point guard in Baron Davis and two young talents in guard Eric Gordon and rookie Blake Griffin. But is LeBron ready to accept second-class citizen status in Southern California? How long until he'd be able to pull the Clippers even with the Lakers? And even if he did that, it would still be a lot more difficult to reach the Finals in the West than in the East. Los Angeles gives LeBron the sizzle he's looking for, but the difficulty of the conference and the near-monopoly held by the Lakers are drawbacks, not to mention the Clippers' historic ineptitude.
Miami does have 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 and especially to the biggest stars. It's really, really difficult to see Wade and LeBron sharing to that degree.
And that leaves us with the New Jersey Nets, the team I think will ultimately wind up with LeBron. Don't let the 70 losses this past season divert your attention from what will matter to LeBron. 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, perhaps the overall No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft and a 7-foot reserve swing in Yi Jianlian. That roster is hands-down better than what the Knicks have, and the Heat, too. That's the meat.
But LeBron ultimately will fall for the sizzle, for the new arena in Brooklyn, for his pal Jay-Z sitting courtside and mostly for the irresistible charms of owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the new billionaire owner. Prokhorov is going to seduce LeBron to New Jersey/Brooklyn; just watch. The parties, the girls, the trips on his yacht (once he locates it), the lure of good times piled upon good times.
LeBron, who was never truly recruited by colleges because he went straight from high school to the NBA, certainly appears susceptible. And if he's looking for somebody to show him the love, Prokhorov seems to be the guy. He can start by convincing LeBron that none of what just happened against the Celtics was really his fault, and that he, the owner, can surround LeBron with everything he needs, including New York City.
Actually, New Jersey has something appealing that New York and Chicago don't: a lack of tradition. If the pressure to save his hometown Cavaliers was part of what overwhelmed LeBron, the pressure to save the Knicks will suffocate him. Likewise, the drawback in Chicago is an obvious one: the ghost of Michael Jordan. If LeBron wins a championship in Chicago, he'll be five behind Jordan. Chicago will never be his town. Jordan is Chicago's Babe Ruth, and it's hard to see LeBron, no matter how attractive the Bulls' roster is to him, going into Jordan's back yard to take on the man whose reputation as the greatest pressure player the last 40 years would serve as a constant reminder, at least in the beginning, of what LeBron has been so far unable to accomplish.
It'll only 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 Cleveland Cavaliers inexplicably let the final two minutes run out on their season Thursday night in Boston and perhaps on their future, LeBron James 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.