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Posted: Friday November 6, 2009 1:10PM; Updated: Friday November 6, 2009 1:22PM
Ian Thomsen

Weekly Countdown: LeBron clues everyone in on his future plans

Story Highlights

Sense of loyalty, desire to win may persuade LeBron James to stay with Cavs

LeBron has welcomed Shaquille O'Neal's ability to shift attention off of him a bit

More topics: Rockets hot start, D-Wade's new emphasis, Suns' fountain of youth

Some financial analysts have estimated LeBron James' worth to the Cavaliers franchise to be as much as $150 million.
Andrew Hancock/SI
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As LeBron makes his lone appearance of the season Friday night at Madison Square Garden, I am convinced he has basically decided to remain with Cleveland as a free agent in 2010. Here's why I believe he has made that decision (and why he won't admit it) ...

5 reasons the Knicks (and Nets) can forget about signing LeBron James

He has made his plans clear already. Over the summer James made numerous publicity appearances to support a documentary about his Akron high school team as well as a complementary autobiography, Shooting Stars, co-authored with Buzz Bissinger. In all of his interviews James used his life story to define himself as a loyal and well-grounded friend who values personal relationships above all else.

Why would he go to all of this trouble if he was planning to dump his hometown of Cleveland in order to sign elsewhere?

It's easy to anticipate the universal storyline should James decide to sign with the Knicks or Nets as a free agent this summer: He'll be the guy who was drawn away to the bright lights by the superficial lures of money and fame. In so doing he'll break the hearts of the people he has abandoned in Cleveland.

Millions upon millions of fans around the country will suddenly be rooting against LeBron if he walks out on his hometown in order to become a mercenary for the Knicks.

Everything James has done over the last year has deepened his ties with Cleveland. He chose to accept his MVP award last spring at a ceremony in his high school gym in Akron. Throughout his movie and book tour he described himself as someone who puts family and friends first. So why would he work so hard to develop that personal identity in a public way -- only to suddenly and erratically blow it all up by walking out on the people of Cleveland?

Those who believe James will jump to the Knicks argue that he'll be operating on the world's biggest stage. But that stage could hurt him more than it helps him. If he wants to be the most popular athlete on the planet -- and surely he aims to be just that -- James must be universally popular. Walking out on Cleveland won't create a warm identity for him. The glitz and size of the stage in New York will only encourage people to dislike -- rather than adore -- him.

That's why he has spent the last year renewing his bond with Cleveland. The best way to sell products -- and ultimately to sell himself -- is to be viewed as loyal to a fault. Ultimately, I believe, he'll prove that loyalty even as he is being wooed by New York: He'll appear to think about it seriously, weigh the good and the bad, and then he'll decide to stick with his small town.

If going to New York is his endgame, then I think he would have distanced himself this summer from creating a warm-and-fuzzy persona linked to the Akron/Cleveland area.

After he re-signs with the Cavaliers in 2010, James will be able to say he is committed to elevating Cleveland. In spite of his immense talent he will be viewed as taking on an underdog's mission -- because who has ever been able to rescue a city like Cleveland? But you'll see James leading championship parades through Cleveland, and investing himself in urban renewal projects for his hometown, and ultimately creating a new identity for one of the nation's least respected cities. Staying in Cleveland gives him the opportunity to make the world (or at least his little corner of it) a better place.

Loyalty is the keyword. It is the most valuable trait for any athlete who wants to be universally popular, and it is the attribute that will define LeBron's decision to re-sign with the Cavaliers. At least that's what I think.

He has nowhere else to go. James is a very smart guy. He knows that his goal of worldwide celebrity is based entirely on winning NBA championships. If he doesn't fulfill his basketball potential by winning again and again and again, then his off-the-court goal of achieving riches and fame on an unprecedented scale will never be realized.

In New York Friday James will be playing against one of the least-talented teams in the league. The Knicks have spent more than a year cutting payroll to create space for a major free agent. Even if they're able to lure James, the Knicks are unlikely to have enough cap space to sign another max player to pair with him. It's going to take years to rebuild the roster around him.

In the meantime James will be answering daily questions in New York about why he -- the savior -- hasn't been winning championships. Each time the Knicks fail to win, it will be viewed as his fault. (Ask Kobe Bryant or Alex Rodriguez how they liked answering those types questions in recent years.)

If he moves to New York and doesn't win a championship, then James will be known as one of the biggest busts in NBA history. All hype and no substance.

The lottery-bound Nets are actually better established to turn things around quickly with James, because they have a young All-Star point guard in Devin Harris and solid second-year players in center Brook Lopez and shooting guard Courtney Lee. But they remain years away from a potential move to Brooklyn, they're in the midst of being sold to a mysterious Russian billionaire, and in the meantime they're still playing in the no-man's-land of Exit 16W in New Jersey.

There will be a lot of other teams with cap space in 2010, including the promising young Bulls. But none of those franchises makes sense for James. In Chicago he'll always be overshadowed by memories of Michael Jordan, and the other markets aren't big enough to be worthy of a move from Cleveland. For him it's going to come down to the Knicks, the Nets or Cleveland.

The Cavaliers have spent several years developing a team capable of winning the championship, and James knows as well as anyone how difficult it is to convert a losing organization into a contender. I don't think he is likely to abandon his personal investment in building that franchise.

He hasn't complained. Shaquille O'Neal remains the only major free agent to win a championship for the team that signed him. Before Shaq left Orlando in 1996 to sign with the Lakers, he spent a year letting everyone know that he wasn't happy with the Magic. By the time he left, a lot of people in Orlando were relieved to see him go.

That wouldn't be the case in Cleveland. James has emphasized again and again that he isn't looking to move elsewhere. If he did go to New York, the people of Cleveland would be blindsided. Is that the legacy he wants to create in his hometown?

Shaq helps him. A lot of people in the league suspect Shaq will sabotage the Cavaliers out of some need to be the dominant personality on the team. So addicted is Shaq to the spotlight, they believe, that he'll be unwilling or unable to defer to LeBron.

I think this is preposterous. This is Shaq's final run in the NBA, he has maybe three more years in him, and he isn't going to want to be viewed as the selfish demon who prevented LeBron from winning. He understands clearly that if he is viewed as a negative force in Cleveland, that image -- in combination with memories of the Shaq-Kobe divorce -- will permanently stain his popular reputation as he retires.

That's why you are going to see Shaq deferring to James and playing team ball to the best of his abilities. Let's say he is every bit the egomaniac his critics make him out to be -- then that's all the more reason for him to defer to LeBron. If James wins, then Shaq's image wins; if James loses, then Shaq's reputation loses all the more.

The truth is that James has been begging the Cavaliers to pair him with a fellow superstar like O'Neal. "Shaq's a guy that you can really deflect things off to him and he knows how to handle it," James told me in preseason. "So it's great to have his personality not only on the court but off the court, also.

"Sometimes you need that, no matter how big your shoulders are. Every now and then you want a little break (from being the only star on the team), and I think I get that with Shaq. But at the same time I'm not going to lessen what I think my job is -- to continue to be the same leader I am, the same guy that I am. But he's going to take pressure off me without me asking to do that, and you've got to respect that."

Will Shaq clog up the paint and slow Cleveland's tempo? I look at it this way: As much as he is revered as the second coming of Michael Jordan, James has always created the impression that he is more proud of comparisons to Magic Johnson. James views himself as a playmaker who scores out of necessity; he has no overwhelming desire to lead the league in scoring. If the young Magic Johnson was running this team in Cleveland, he would find a way to make things work on the floor with Shaq. Therefore I think James will be able to make it work too.

Imagine the celebration. Maybe my point of view is all wrong, because I surely am going against popular opinion by predicting that James will remain in Cleveland. Of course, there is a possibility that he will decide to leave. But I think something horrible must happen to drive him away from the Cavaliers, whether it's a collapse of his relationships with ownership, management or teammates. And I don't see that happening.

The Cavaliers have been advised that the value of the franchise would plummet by more than $100 million -- $150 million was one figure I've heard -- if James were to leave Cleveland. That's why they've created an environment designed to hold onto him. They've built a new practice facility while steadily improving the roster around him, and if they need to make another trade at the February deadline to further space the floor around James and O'Neal, then they'll surely pursue it.

I bet James already has the entire recruiting process planned out. He'll listen to the Knicks, the Nets and anyone else who wishes to speak with him. Then he'll hold a news conference on live TV and announce that he is staying with Cleveland. It will be the professional version of national signing day, when the top high school recruit announces the college of his choice.

But it will be much bigger than that. An entire city will rejoice, and its people will speak of how proud they are of their LeBron James. Casual fans who would have booed him for going to New York will now be cheering for him because he stayed in Cleveland. By showing loyalty to his hometown, he'll have a chance to become a bigger force than he could have been on the world's greatest stage. He'll be the NBA's Family Guy.

There, I think I've stuck my neck out far enough. Now let's wait another eight months to see if I'm right.

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