Tuesday, December 30, 2008

LeBron's Not a Lock to Leave Cleveland

Not that anyone in New York City wants to hear this, but it’s hardly a given that LeBron James will jump on the opportunity to trade Cleveland for the Big Apple- or anywhere else for hat matter. Despite wearing a Yankees’ hat to a Cleveland Indians playoff game and his admitted love of New York City, the only basketball related statement that LeBron’s made repeatedly is that he’s looking to play for a perennial title contender, and start a collection of championship rings. And from the looks of it, he’s already there.

With the Cleveland Cavaliers sporting a 26-4 record, an unreal +12.6 average point differential (101.7 ppg, 89.1 ppg allowed), and a 16-0 home record, it’s difficult to imagine that LeBron has his eyes set on the exit. This is a sentiment that James himself expressed on December 20, while in Denver to play the Nuggets, telling the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he’ll consider signing a contract extension with the Cavaliers this summer, thus bypassing the highly-anticipated “Summer of 2010”, and saying of the team "The direction we are headed is everything I expected and more."

What to make of this? Hard to say. Maybe he’s just posturing, but the fact that he doesn’t have a track record of being disingenuous has earned LeBron the courtesy of being taken at his word. Besides, LeBron’s not a dumb guy- he probably realizes that both on and off the court, Cleveland’s not a bad spot for him:

This team was built around him- and they’re really good! There’s currently just one NBA team built specifically to complement the talents of LeBron James- and he’s on it. This Cavs team presents LeBron with the best opportunity to compete for a championship. While other teams have been deconstructing their rosters and cutting long-term salary commitments, the Cavs have assembled a custom-built, seemingly championship caliber supporting cast for King James- a collection of team-focused guys who’ve never been “the man” in the NBA, thus avoiding any ambiguity as to whose team it is. Their only other pure scorer, Mo Williams, definitely knows his role, but isn’t afraid to look for his own shot, and seems to have earned LeBron trust to do so.

The Cavs have outstanding chemistry. Watching them interact with one another, there’s an unmistakable camaraderie among the Cleveland Cavaliers. I’ve previously observed this, particularly LeBron’s interaction with each of his teammates before taking the floor, but recently, a couple of other things jumped out at me. First, Ben Wallace, the only member of this team who’s won a ring, has a genuine respect for LeBron James, interacting with him much like he did with the title-winning crew in Detroit. This respect never emerged during his time in Chicago, but in Cleveland Wallace is back to being a monster on defense and on the glass.

Also, these guys really pull for one another. On December 28, in an already-decided game (Cleveland led Miami 91-86 with just three seconds remaining), Anderson Varejao and Wallace fought tooth-and-nail to rebound a missed free throw, which Varejao ultimately tipped in after three or four taps, extending the Cavs lead from five points to seven. As he erupted emotionally, so did LeBron, joining Varejao in celebrating a seemingly meaningless bucket in a relatively mundane win as though it was a game-winning shot. LeBron’s really enjoying himself on a great team- he’s on board with this crew.

There’s no such thing as a “small market” anymore. In the era before the Internet, 24-hour news and hundreds of cable channels, playing in a larger media market, typically New York or Los Angeles, was vital to a player establishing himself as a superstar. This is no longer the case. In the era of dedicated sports cable channels, NBA League Pass, Internet coverage and blogs, very little in sports now goes overlooked. While playing in a major market might help an otherwise good player receive additional media coverage, a superstar the likes of LeBron will thrive in any market. Being in Cleveland hasn’t hindered his career so far, right? LeBron James is a force of nature- the media will come to him.

Additionally, LeBron James’ legacy would actually be greater if he stays put. By bolting for New York, LeBron would be just the latest athlete to run to New York, a superstar city that’s always filled with superstars. And as much as he’ll be adored in New York, it’s a city that’s seen the greats come and go. However, by staying in Cleveland and guiding the Cavaliers to the top of the NBA and continuing his work in the community, LeBron would become not only the greatest athlete in the history of Cleveland, but one of the most revered figures in the city’s history.

He’s home. As we all know, LeBron is from Ohio. He grew up in Akron, about half an hour south of Cleveland. And he’s extremely proud of that. He’s said in the past that he loves Akron, and that he loves being close to family and friends. Throw in the fact that the Cavaliers can offer more him money than any other team, and relocating to NYC to play for an inferior team doesn’t seem like such a sweet proposition. Plus, if this was going to be (or is? not sure if it's been completed yet) your house, wouldn’t you want to be home more often than every offseason?

Is it possible that LeBron James will become a free agent in the summer of 2010? Absolutely. Could he elect to leave Cleveland and sign with the New York Knicks? Sure. Would this be the best move for James to make? Not neccessarily. I'm just saying, as things stand right now, it's pretty good to be King James.

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