Since LeBron James was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers as the first overall pick of the 2003 NBA Draft, the question has not been, “When will he win his first title?” but “When is he leaving Cleveland?” 30 Rock’s “flee to the Cleve” plea aside, this is bizarre. If Cleveland is such an NBA backwater, why does it have a team at all? Why does Oklahoma City? Or Portland? Or Toronto?
The Knicks’ shockingly abrupt trades last Friday — shuffling off the only two guys they had who could score for cap space — cleared the deck for them to at least make a run at LeBron James in two years. And as Stephen A. Smith and his ilk will tell you, James is not the only major free agent who'll be available then. There's Chris Bosh, Steve Nash, Dwayne Wade, and Yao Ming. Heck, even Shaq might be hanging around, if he’s not too busy bringing evildoers to justice. The Knicks can aim for two of those guys, maybe even more. Donnie Walsh has done what he set out to do: cleared out most of Isiah Thomas’s mess. (Eddy Curry is still hanging around, but there’s time to reckon with him.) Walsh can now offer LeBron a maximum contract. That’s impressive, and should be commended.
But — and no offense to Knicks fans — so what? The Cavaliers can not only offer LeBron more money in two years than the Knicks can — they can offer him a better team. In case you haven’t noticed, the Cavs currently have the third-best record in the NBA. In fact, the Knicks can barely offer a team at all. They have four players under contract for 2010: Curry (gone as soon as the Knicks can pull it off), Jared Jeffries (ditto), Wilson Chandler, and Danilo Gallinari. That’s it. Since they drafted LeBron, the Cavs have worked to put quality players around him. The Knicks are settling for live bodies. On a franchise basis, it doesn’t matter whether Mike D’Antoni coaches the most fun system on earth; the Cavaliers are light-years ahead of the Knicks.
And the notion that New York is an infinitely more lucrative city to play in is an accepted maxim, but for superstars in a globalized marketplace, it’s a theory that’s never been submitted to much scrutiny. LeBron James is a global icon. To get into the New York market, Nike may compensate for whatever the Knicks can't pay him. But how much more money, overall, could he really make if he came here?
Certainly, LeBron’s handlers love spreading the idea that he’s just itching to get out of Cleveland. And maybe he is. But it's still a year and a half until any of this matters, and to think we can know the specific circumstances that will surround LeBron James and the Knicks in 2010 is insane. But talking about it sure beats watching the Knicks actually play, right?