The NBA’s conference finals begin tonight with the Lakers and Nuggets, but the more important matchup for Knicks fans is the one beginning tomorrow between the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers, because it features potential-future-franchise-savior LeBron James. In the playoffs thus far, the Cavs (and MVP James especially) have been a juggernaut, sweeping their first two series. Which could be a problem for the Knicks: If the Cavs are a bona fide title team, why would LeBron ever leave? But on the other hand, if the Cavs fall just short this year and next, would he really want to abandon them for a team that’s considerably further away from a title? Here's a breakdown of each Cavs scenario, and what it might mean for the Knicks.
For the sake of this exercise, we’re making a couple of assumptions: that the Knicks and Cavs are the only two teams LeBron would sign with next summer, the extra money the Cavs can offer won’t really matter that much, and LeBron would have at least some reason for wanting to play in New York (the exposure, the coach, the Garden, the superior pizza, whatever). Will the Cavs’ fortunes this year and next be the sole basis for LeBron’s decision? Probably not. But every little bit helps.
Cavs Win in 2009 and 2010: Not a good scenario for the Knicks. Two straight titles when the league’s best player is in his prime has dynasty written all over it, and a Jordan-esque legacy of running off half a dozen championships would be even more appealing than winning in New York and rescuing a franchise in the process.
Cavs Don’t Win in Either 2009 or 2010: Also not a good scenario for the Knicks. If he doesn’t win a title in Cleveland (while on some very good teams), it has to be in the back of his mind that winning in New York is no sure thing, and the mere possibility of never winning a ring might scare him off. It’s hard to imagine that, if he stays where he is, he won’t eventually score at least one championship — the absolute minimum to be considered one of the all-time great players.
Cavs Don’t Win in 2009, But Win in 2010: The toughest call for LeBron. On the one hand, he’ll have his title, so he won’t have to worry about being the next Barkley or Malone (or Ewing). But that same dynasty discussed above could just be budding, for all anyone knows. He’d be a hero in Cleveland for delivering on a title, but it wouldn’t go over well if he left immediately afterwards. And though no one has much insight into how he’ll make his decision — he’s the best at not saying too much or too little — he probably does care about how he’s perceived in Ohio, his home state.
Cavs Win in 2009, But Don’t in 2010: The best-case scenario for the Knicks. He’ll have his title, and will be coming off a season that is, at least in terms of the team’s outcome, a step back. He can justify leaving by talking about a new challenge in his career, without completely screwing over the city of Cleveland. (They’ll have their title, too, after all.) So let’s go, Cavs! For now.