LeBron James should consider one thing above all: winning

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, July 2, 2010; D01

This LeBron James decision shouldn't be all that difficult, really. He's going to make about $20 million a year wherever he signs to play. He's going to earn as much as another $50 million a year off the court whether he's playing for the Knicks, Clippers, Bulls, Heat, Nets or Cavaliers. It's not like LeBron is choosing between New York and Missoula, Mont. There's not a Sacramento or Oklahoma City among the free agent suitors. His lifestyle isn't going to vary much from one city to another because he's going to be filthy stinking Powerball rich wherever he goes. He'll have a gated estate and bodyguards, never fly commercial and have access to anything and everything the world has to offer.

The notion that he somehow needs New York City is beyond preposterous. Madison Avenue has been known to travel. If fame and fortune found Brett Favre in Green Bay, Wis., or for that matter LeBron in Cleveland, then he doesn't need New York.

Given that LeBron has said more than once that he wants to win championships, plural, and that he wants to be considered one of the greatest players ever, his decision ought to come down essentially to one thing: Where can he win and win quickly? The only way to enhance his brand, the only way to grow the business of Being LeBron, the only way to take his place alongside the greats in his profession is to win championships. He'll have more pressure to win next year than any player has ever had in his life, and he might as well make his call with that in mind.

He's completed seven NBA seasons already without winning a title. Any examination of league history tells us that even though LeBron's only 25 years old, he's still got no more than eight additional years (presuming relative health) of great basketball in him. Nobody in the history of the game has had more than that. It's not the age, it's the mileage. At the age of 25 Michael Jordan had played in 312 regular season games. At the age of 25 LeBron has played in 548 regular season games -- and LeBron won't be 26 until December.

In other words, LeBron's window of opportunity for winning multiple championships, which is how legendary greatness is measured in the NBA, isn't as wide open as his age suggests.

As a very, very smart NBA executive suggested to me recently, start taking real life factors into account. Wherever he goes, one year is likely to be lost to injury, either his or a critical teammate's. Another year is likely to be lost to another team being better. What, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers aren't going to seriously contend this coming season? Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City are young and potent. Another year is likely to be lost to a fluke, a Derek Fisher shot with four-tenths of a second left, or a Ralph Sampson, no-look turnaround, bounce-twice-off-the-rim- at-the-buzzer shot.

That takes LeBron down from eight potential championship seasons to five. Hell, Kobe's already got five. Shaq and Duncan have four. LeBron's not even in the conversation yet.

So going to New York, even with a second A-list free agent, would be a waste of two more years at least. Even if Chris Bosh went with him, who's the Knicks' point guard? Where's the rebounding help, the specialists you need to win a championship? The Knicks don't have any of those things and can't acquire them together for at least two seasons. The Nets are further along, but we're still talking a third season. Cleveland hasn't done a thing to improve its roster, but hiring Byron Scott, who took New Jersey to the NBA Finals twice, might be the best thing the Cavaliers could have done. Problem is, Scott is going to inherit a roster, even if LeBron stays, that will begin the season behind Orlando, behind Boston, and probably behind Miami and Chicago. That's fifth in the Eastern Conference alone.

LeBron doesn't have the luxury, if he's looking to put his face on basketball's Mount Rushmore, to open the season with the fifth-best roster in the East. The Wizards can take that approach to building a contender. It's fascinating to observe the difference the last two days between Chicago, where every single conversation in the nation's third-largest city these days seems to start with, "You think LeBron is coming?" and Washington, D.C., where new Wizards owner Ted Leonsis is divorced from the current LeBron madness.

Leonsis, answering a question, said, "It actually feels good to not be holding our collective breath right now . . . We will be the tortoise. We will rebuild slow and steady. We still want to win the race. Time will tell which plan works best." (At Redskins Park, Dan Snyder took note of this slow pace and asked: You can do that?)

Leonsis has two important things on his side: low expectations from his fan base and current success with building the Capitals with draft picks and smart trades -- in other words, slow and steady.

Expectations for LeBron James, wherever he goes, will rage completely out of control. So his choices should have been pared before team executives started flying to Akron to give their recruiting pitches.

Knicks? Out. They have to be one of the least attractive teams in the league for him to join, with the expectation of winning. If LeBron goes to New York -- and there are people in the Knicks organization who believe it's possible -- he'd enter Year 10 of his career with all the fame in the world and zero championships, which means he made the wrong decision.

Nets? Out. Not winning the lottery and being unable to draft John Wall seem to have killed New Jersey's chances.

Clippers? Out. They've got a roster worth considering but an owner of unimaginable incompetence.

He should be left with Miami, presuming Dwyane Wade stays and Pat Riley can convince two more premier players to come to South Beach; and Chicago, where the Bulls already have a top-notch playmaker (Derrick Rose) and a threat to lead the league in rebounding (Joakim Noah).

Want to switch gears and go to Houston, where the Rockets are ready and have the pieces to facilitate a sign-and-trade, and still will be left with a roster than can seriously contend? That's understandable. The Rockets' GM, Daryl Morey, has already had just such a conversation with Chris Bosh, who reportedly listened, but has no such pressure guiding his interests.

Morey made the point that Bosh can join a team or a celebrity trio in Miami, which might not be as suited to win now, even with Riley coaching, as the hype over having such a threesome would indicate. If you don't think role players are important to winning championships, take a look at all those plays made over the years during championship runs by guys such as Michael Cooper, John Paxson, Robert Horry, Steve Kerr, Ron Harper, the aforementioned D. Fisher. Even a guy like James Posey, who helped Boston win two years ago, doesn't work for food. It takes money. Miami might be able to find some. The Knicks? Not so much. But it's up to LeBron to decide this is an urgent situation. If winning is the only thing to him, this might be his best chance to jump-start that part of his career.

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