Countdown: LeBron's future
Cavs' older, expensive roster may not hold drawing power for LeBron James
Teams already eliminated must start mulling their offseason personnel moves
More topics: Scout's predictions for Conference Finals, Jackie MacMullan congrats
5 Ways to make sense of LeBron's defeat
This looked like the Cavaliers' year, but in six games they were divided and dominated by Boston. Will their ultimate championship hopes now be dismantled by LeBron James? You might not have heard about this, but he will be a free agent July 1.
What now, LeBron? "I want to win," he said after Cleveland's 94-85 loss in Game 6 Thursday. "That's my only thing, that's my only concern. It's all about winning for me and I think the Cavs are committed to do that, but at the same time I'll give myself options. Me and my team, we have a game plan that we're going to execute, and we'll see where we'll be at."
Just like that his team is no longer the Cavs. His team is now his closest friends who form his marketing company, his adviser Wes Wesley and his agent Leon Rose. For whatever it was worth, Celtics forward Kevin Garnett was recommending that James forget about feelings of loyalty to the Cavs or Cleveland, which is 45 minutes north of his hometown of Akron. "Loyalty is something that hurts you at times because you can't get youth back," said Garnett, who didn't want to leave Minnesota before he was traded to the Celtics at age 31. "I can honestly say that if I could go back and do my situation over, knowing what I know now with this organization, I'd have done it a little sooner.
"The world is his ... He's the face of basketball."
All season (as some of you may have noticed) I have been assuming James will return to Cleveland, an assumption based on respect for its deep roster and No. 1 seeding over the past two years. But this loss exposes the Cavs as pretenders. None of James' leading teammates over the last two years -- Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao and now Antawn Jamison -- have looked capable of making championship-worthy plays in the biggest moments.
James needs to win multiple championships. All of the other talk of becoming the world's most famous and popular athlete will wither and die if he fails to win multiple titles. But after watching Williams (1-for-8 in the second half of Game 6) and Jamison (2-for-10 overall) and Varejao be ineffectual, is there any reason for him to continue to believe in the only team has known?
Several teams are worthy of his consideration, but each has issues that must be resolved.
The Heat. If they dump Michael Beasley they could sign James, re-sign Dwyane Wade and recruit Chris Bosh. My own feeling -- and I may be wrong -- is that Wade cannot and will not want to play with James. If LeBron goes to Miami then Wade becomes the No. 2 option. Both players need the ball, and each is approaching his peak. Does Wade want to defer when he is the one with the championship ring? Doesn't he want to ultimately beat James and emerge as the best player of his generation? I could see them teaming together in their 30s, when they're all done proving themselves individually, but right now they look more like rivals than teammates. But maybe I'm all wrong on this; maybe Wade and James are on the phone with each other right now working out the details.
The Bulls: He would be joined by point guard Derrick Rose and center Joakim Noah with Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich (if his salary isn't moved) playing secondary roles, so this is not a title-on-the-cusp situation either. James would have to be patient with this group.
Talk of James going to Chicago in a sign-and-trade makes little sense. The potential of receiving Deng or Hinrich in return would not be worth the pain of sending James to a divisional rival. If Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is going to participate in a sign-and-trade, he will do so to ensure that James goes far away to the Western conference. I cannot imagine Cleveland doing anything to help Chicago.
Another recruiting tool for Chicago is to invite James to basically hire his own coach, with the thinking that he would choose his friend John Calipari, the coach at Kentucky. More on that later.
The Knicks: They can add James and another not-quite-max talent, which is not to say James couldn't work out some way to recruit Bosh or Joe Johnson to join him in New York. They would be joined by Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, a couple of bench players, the woebegone Eddy Curry and then a bunch of veteran-minimum fill-ins. That means New York will need at least two years to develop a roster with the depth and heart to get by an Eastern contender like Orlando. Another problem for the Knicks is that team president Donnie Walsh is presiding over a front office that was assembled by his predecessor Isiah Thomas. What does it say about the Knicks that Walsh has yet to hire his own people following New York's failure to recognize the potential in Brandon Jennings at last year's draft? The Knicks have an excellent coach and the world's largest market, but they face practical hurdles in their ability to build a winner around James.
The Nets: They're going to be playing in Newark for the next two seasons, and in the meantime, owner Mikhail Prokhorov's $17 billion can't buy enough talent to quickly turn the league's worst team into its best. Maybe James will take another look at the Nets as they're preparing to move to Brooklyn in 2012.
The Mavericks: They are the dark horse, and they should be taken very seriously. They don't have cap space, but they do have an ambitious owner with a tradition of spending big in hope of winning championships, they have James' good friend Jason Kidd at point guard and they have a future Hall of Famer in Dirk Nowitzki -- and how would rivals match up against a front line of Dirk and LeBron? If James tells the Cavs he is leaving, wouldn't they prefer to participate in a sign-and-trade to retrieve assets from Dallas instead of enabling James to freely join with an Eastern conference rival like Chicago, New York or Miami? It stands to reason that Cleveland would much rather see James move to the West than remain in the East to haunt them. The Mavs have enough depth to work a sign-and-trade and still compete for the championship next year, especially since they could employ their mid-level exception to fill in with tough-minded role players. I guarantee that Mark Cuban was cheering loudly for Boston Thursday night.
The Trail Blazers: Another potential sign-and-trade partner with a rich, ambitious owner and a deep roster, but Portland's young roster should appear less attractive than that of the win-now Mavs. People will talk about a tie-in with Nike, but being near company headquarters won't develop James's brand. Only winning can do that for him.
The next Cavs coach. It's a no-brainer that Cleveland will replace coach Mike Brown, but there are few proven options that may yet lure back James. Only five coaches have championship rings and four of them -- Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers and Pat Riley (who is hinting at returning to the bench for Miami) -- won't be coming to Cleveland. But Larry Brown might, so long as compensation can be arranged with Charlotte. People may shudder at this, but Cleveland's best hope of retaining James is to provide him with a coach who can provide hope of an instant championship. No one else has that pedigree.
Coaching is going to be important to James. He looked frustrated throughout the Boston series as he found himself in no-win situations. As the series wore on he was either turning the ball over or sulking uncharacteristically through Game 5, and when it was all over his demeanor was one of acceptance. Did he refuse to give interviews last year after the postseason loss to Orlando because he was angry with the coaching of Mike Brown? When James played a thoroughly disengaged second half in Game 5, he looked very much like he believed Cleveland had no hope against the Celtics and Rivers' game plan.
Another option for Cleveland is to bring in Calipari, a highly charismatic recruiter who is able to build tight relationships with the players of James' generation and younger. From everything I've been told, there is no doubt James believes he would flourish in Calipari's dribble-drive offense. Between his player relationships and his experience with the Nets, there is reason to believe Calipari can succeed as an NBA coach. But James is going to demand success of the highest level, and he won't need to be reminded that Kentucky lost in the NCAA Tournament because Calipari couldn't overcome West Virginia's surprise tactic of the 1-3-1 zone. If Calilpari has been unable to deliver an NCAA championship, will he be able to outcoach Rivers or Stan Van Gundy or Phil Jackson on his way to an NBA title?
This can't just be about manipulating the system and working out a big-money deal for James and his friends. The bottom line is that James needs to win, because he's at the stage in his career where every loss is going to be viewed now as being his fault.
Cleveland's roster. Could a new coach -- Larry Brown, for example -- turn the Cavs roster into an instant champion? It will be a smaller, quicker team when Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas come off the books. They would be looking at Anderson Varejao as a center (similar to Noah in Chicago), with Jamison or J.J. Hickson at power forward and Jamario Moon providing athleticism off the bench.
Otherwise, there aren't a lot of options. Neither Jamison nor Williams can be traded for anything close to market value. The Cavs could use their mid-level exception to fill in with a couple of role players, but the only way to dynamically change the team is to bring in a coach to change the style and ultimately salvage talents like Williams and Jamison.
There is going to be a lot of second-guessing of Cleveland's midseason decision to acquire Jamison instead of Amar'e Stoudemire, who has thrived in Phoenix since the trading deadline came and went. But would Stoudemire have played so well in Cleveland while sharing the front line with Shaq and others? Probably not.
The need for stability. The irony of this need is that fears of James' eventual departure have helped drive Cleveland to make major moves during the recent trading deadlines and summers.
But the Cavs were beaten in part because the Celtics trusted and relied upon each other, a result of the three years shared by their four-man core of Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Not only did they match up well against Cleveland, but their sum-of-the-parts unity exposed the Cavs' divisions. How was Jamison supposed to fit in when the pressure was on? What was Shaq's role exactly? None of this was fully understood because the players had spent relatively little time on the floor together.
If James walks out on Cleveland, the Cavs will realize close to $6 million in cap space to fill in around Jamison and Williams. They'll be the team that couldn't convince their hometown star to stay home. It will be the death of their franchise.
While it appears more than likely that James will leave, the emotions will cool over the next month and Cleveland may yet be able to reach an agreement to retain him. Cavs fans shouldn't give up hope -- especially if James' intention is to sign a three-year contract with an option to leave after two, which would enable him to continue to dominate the free-agent buzz over the seasons ahead. If he doesn't see a compelling reason to leave this summer, he could postpone his decision for a couple of years.
What this says about James. Whatever he does now, he needs to make certain that he has put himself in position to win championships. Because whatever he creates now will belong to him. The team and coach and GM and owner for whom he chooses to play -- he needs to make sure it works, because in the end he'll receive the blame if it doesn't.
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