Should LeBron Stay Or Go?

Published on: 22nd May, 2010

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Reprinted From Hoops World –

Where Cleveland’s LeBron James plays next has been the subject of talk shows and sports radio debates for the better part of the week, and there is no end in sight.

We thought it would be interesting to map out the case for staying in Cleveland and for opting to leave. So without further ado, Tommy Beer and Travis Heath offer up both sides of the equation.

 

On His Way

The last week has resulted in very different emotions for the basketball-loving denizens of different cities. In the aftermath of the Cavs Game 6 loss in the Eastern Conference Semis, Clevelanders have had to confront the depressing possibility of a future without LeBron James. Meanwhile, in places such as New York, Chicago, and New Jersey, the prospect of landing LeBron has Knicks, Bulls, and Nets fans brimming with hopefulness.

Such disparate reactions are to be expected when one of the biggest and brightest superstars in all of professional sports is contemplating potential relocation.

Over the next six weeks, speculation and conjecture will run rampant. Both sides of the coin will be examined in-depth. In this little debate, I’ll state the case for why LeBron will leave. And, unfortunately for Cavs fans, I think there is a very strong argument to be made in this respect.

First, let’s start by examining respective rosters. The Cleveland team that LeBron would be returning to is, for the most part, relatively set. As I talked about last week, the only impactful free agents (other than LeBron) are Shaquille O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

The rest of the team is locked up in long-term contracts. Antawn Jamison and Jamario Moon are signed thru 2012. Mo Williams and Daniel ‘Boobie’ Gibson’s contracts don’t expire until 2013. J.J. Hickson is still in the middle of his rookie contract. Anderson Varejao has another five years left on his deal (with a team option for the 2014-2015 season). Barring a big trade, many of the starters and key bench contributors are locked in.

When the Cavs were steamrolling though the regular season and appeared to be developing into an eventual champion, this future stability and continuity of the Cavs roster was viewed as a saving grace and a significant advantage. Over the last year or so, when someone would play the “LeBron will never leave Cleveland” card, they would often point to the roster and insist that Cleveland gave LeBron the best chance to win, both now and in the future. Why would LeBron leave for uncertainty and inferior talent elsewhere?

Now, in light of the meltdown versus Boston, can that argument really be made with the same conviction?

On the other hand, some the suitors for LeBron will present an interesting and intriguing mix of talent, youth, and (most importantly) flexibility.

The Bulls (whose chances of landing LeBron seem to be rising by the day) boast an all-world point guard in Derrick Rose, who may or may not have been texting back and fourth with the King over the last few days. Chicago also has a good young big man in Joakim Noah, in addition to solid veterans such as Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng.

Out in L.A. the Clippers have plenty of cap space and are four solid starters in Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin, and Chris Kaman. The grand plan is to insert LBJ into the SF spot, take over L.A., and then conquer rest of the NBA shortly thereafter.

The Knicks don’t have much to offer in terms of current commodities (although they do have Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari on cheap, rookie contracts), but the Knicks are the only team (other than D Wade and the HEAT) than can give LeBron the opportunity to select a superstar teammate of his choice and dole out two max-money contracts.

The Nets have a solid foundation in place; highlighted by Devin Harris at the point and Brook Lopez in the paint (although losing out on the John Wall sweepstakes does hurt their cause).

Now, let’s move on to the decision makers: head coaches and general managers. Cleveland’s situation is very much up in the air. It assumed Mike Brown will be fired sooner rather than later, but Danny Ferry’s fate remains unknown. Meanwhile, the Bulls have already canned Vinny Del Negro and Paxson is in the market for a new coach (I am highly dubious of the John Callapari rumors.) It assumed the Nets new owner will allow Rod Thorn to continue to run the show in Jersey (good decision), but they are also undecided on a coach. The Clippers, to no one’s surprise, are rudderless – without a head coach or a GM in place. The Knicks, on the other hand, are set with Mike D’Antoni calling the plays and Donnie Walsh calling the shots.

Next up, let’s discuss finances. Many pundits argue that LeBron will stay in Cleveland because of money. The reasoning is that the Cavs have a huge advantage due to the fact that they can offer LeBron the most money, both in terms of annual salary, percentage increases, and length of contract – with the net amount totaling roughly and additional $25 million if LeBron chooses Cleveland.

However, this supposition isn’t entirely accurate. First, this figure assumes that LeBron will not sign a new contract after his next five-year deal expires. If LeBron does in fact sign a new contract with a team other than Cleveland, he’ll be free to sign another contract when he is 29, at which time he will make up for that ‘extra season’ he ‘lost’ by not re-signing with the Cavs. Thus, looking at the big picture, the actual dollar amount he would gain from staying in Cleveland isn’t as substantial as some are led to believe.

Furthermore, even if LeBron was truly motivated to get as much money as possible, he could orchestrate a sign-and-trade. This way he would get the full amount of cash possible, but still not return to Cleveland.

In addition, some analysts close to the situation are of the opinion that James will eschew a max-contract all together, and instead, he will opt to sign a three-year deal with a player option for the fourth season. The thinking behind this decision would be maintaining constant pressure on his employer to stay motivated enough to spend top dollar on complimentary pieces. If LeBron went that route, that extra season the Cavs could offer would be rendered meaningless.

Lastly, let’s discuss the intangibles. Chicago has a winning tradition that includes LeBron idol, Michael Jordan. (But would James want to play, literally, in the shadow of MJ’s statute?). The Nets will have LeBron’s good buddy Jay-Z make their pitch, along with their new billionaire owner who will promise a ‘spend at all costs’ mentality. In addition, they will be playing in Brooklyn in two years; but the downside is having to toil in Newark until the move. The Knicks have been exceedingly awful for the better part of a decade. That is the bad news; the good news is there is nowhere to go but up. If King James ever returned the Knicks to prominence, he would become an immortal icon in the capital of the world. For someone openly aiming to become the world’s richest athlete, and so concerned with promoting his global brand, this is obviously appealing.

Cleveland, just up the road from LeBron’s hometown of Akron, undeniably has a lot working in its favor. LeBron is worshiped as a deity in Ohio. Although he and his teammates did hear some boos in Game 5 (deservedly so), the outpouring of love towards LeBron since Day One has been incredible. On the other hand, LeBron has the weight of the world (or at least an entire state) on his shoulders playing in his hometown.

Will loyalty play a key role in LBJ’s decision?

Unfortunately for Cleveland, as depressing as the season-ending Game 6 defeat was, LeBron’s comments in his postgame press conference afterwards were extremely disheartening as well. Not only did LeBron refuse to refer to the Cavs as “we,” but whenever he spoke about “his team” he was alluding to his agents/friends/handlers. LeBron again spoke of keeping his options open and exploring different possibilities. In no way could it be interpreted as the reassurance Cavs fans were hoping they would hear.
If LeBron does make a decision based on loyalty, who exactly will he be loyal to? Which “team?”

Considering all the intriguing options available, and the many reasons LeBron insisted on availing himself to these many options, it is becoming quite safe to assume he will chose one of these potential exit strategies.

Thus, at the end of the day (or, more appropriately, at the end of July), is appears more and more likely that LeBron will be leaving.Staying Put…

LeBron James is the center of the NBA universe right now. Considering he is the most physically talented player in the game and arguably the best athlete who has ever played, that’s not totally surprising. However, while the world is talking about LeBron, four teams are still competing for a NBA championship.

Is this really the kind of attention James wanted?

In short, James is in the news for all of the wrong reasons. After winning his second consecutive MVP award, his career and quite possibly the legacy he will leave behind is at a crucial turning point. At just 25 years of age one can argue quite convincingly that James has not yet reached the zenith of his powers. For all of his physical talent, though, James has yet to show he can win big when it matters most.

The bigger issue was the way he played in Cleveland’s series loss to the Boston Celtics. At the very least he appeared distracted. Some folks went as far as to say James didn’t give it his all in the final two games of the series. Wherever the truth may lie, James’ reputation is taking a beating right now.

He’s reached that pivotal fork in the road. The choice he makes about where he goes, or doesn’t go, could play a major role in how history remembers him.

It’s important to establish that no one knows where James will land. In fact, he’s probably more confused than anyone about what he “should” do or what “could” happen if landed in one destination or the other.

Truth is, the most compelling storyline for James could involve staying at home in Ohio with the Cavaliers. If he jumps ship this summer, he will forever be viewed by many as as someone who sold out. As a free agent, he certainly has that right. But imagine for a minute some of the headlines if James chooses to stay the course and finds a way to bring a major professional sports title to a city that hasn’t seen one since 1964. He will be the toast of the town.

Growing up in Denver I followed the career of Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway very closely. As a kid in Denver at the time, I really didn’t have a choice. He was easily my favorite athlete in any sport during my childhood.

For 14 seasons I listened to people in Denver say he was the best quarterback who could never win the big one. That same sentiment is being tossed around about James right now.

In the summer of 1992 then Broncos head coach Dan Reeves drafted a quarterback out of UCLA by the name of Tommy Maddox. After this pick the city was largely divided. There were many fans who were calling for the Broncos to trade Elway since it was obvious, in their opinion, that he couldn’t win the big one. Other fans remained fiercely loyal to Elway.

The Broncos struggled through five more seasons with Elway at the helm without winning a Super Bowl. The tide began to change, though, when Mike Shanahan was hired as head coach prior to the 1995 campaign. Elway had a great relationship with Shanahan dating back to the days when Shanahan was Elway’s quarterback coach with the Broncos in the 1980’s.

In just three seasons, Elway and Shanahan won the first of what would be back-to-back Super Bowl titles. Elway’s legacy was forever altered. He went from the quarterback who could never win the big one to the most revered person in the city.

For those people who don’t live in Denver they truly don’t understand. This isn’t just hyperbole. The man is royalty in the city. The minute he won that Super Bowl in San Diego in January of 1998 his past failures were instantly erased. Winning another one in Miami the following January only added to his legacy.

It’s amazing to observe how his narrative evolved. It’s almost as if people in Denver forgot all of the struggles he went through. At one point in time he was the cocky young quarterback who was arguably the most talented player to have ever played the position but just couldn’t translate that talent into a championship. People screamed on talk radio that he was a “spoiled brat” and should be traded.

Somehow winning on the biggest stage erased all of that. LeBron has the opportunity to do the very same thing should he stay in Cleveland.

Granted, all analogies breakdown somewhere. Elway didn’t exist in the era of free agency as we know it today in professional sports. However, he easily could have pushed for a trade to get him out of Denver just as he did when he forced a trade from Baltimore when he was drafted in 1983. He chose to stay loyal to Broncos, though, and will remain the city’s favorite son for eternity.

Instead of bailing when things get tough, LeBron has a chance to stick it out in Cleveland. It might not be the trendy thing to do, especially with guys like Kevin Garnett saying he wished he wasn’t as loyal to the Minnesota Timberwolves for all of those years. Of course, that’s very easy for Garnett to say now that he has a championship ring in his back pocket.

Imagine the consequences for LeBron if he jets and never wins a title. He will forever be viewed as a guy who bails when the rubber hits the road. Should he leave Cleveland, there’s certainly no guarantee he will win a title, either.

Writers and fans will concoct all kinds of scenarios on paper that look very attractive. Of course, Cleveland’s situation looked very good on paper heading into the postseason this year. We can go back through many teams over the years in the NBA that looked great on paper and never won the big one.

To extend the Elway analogy, James will likely have the ability to unite with a coach he believes in just as Elway did with Shanahan. Things will go a step further for James, though. He might very well be able to do something unprecedented in professional sports and choose both his GM and his coach should Mike Brown and Danny Ferry both receive pink slips.

While Cleveland’s roster won’t be easy to overhaul as quickly as next season due to all of the “win-now” moves made by Danny Ferry, it’s not unfathomable to think the roster could compete for a title next season with just a few tweaks here and there. In fact, one could make a compelling argument, as I have for nearly two seasons, that Cleveland’s offensive approach is what killed them in the postseason. LeBron’s greatness on the offensive end can sometimes cause other players, and even members of the coaching staff, to develop bad habits.

This certainly isn’t meant to be a Mike Brown bash-fest. I have nothing but love for him. He was actually a coach of mine in the summer of 1992, so this is absolutely nothing personal. That said, one could argue the team’s offensive approach is what truly doomed the Cavs for failure as much as any of LeBron’s flaws.

As things stand now, it seems like a virtually certainty that free agent to be Shaquille O’Neal won’t be back next season. The same could likely be said about lifetime Cavalier Zydrunas Ilgauskas. With a small tweak or two to the roster a new coach with a more structured and diversified offensive system could have the Cavaliers back in contention next season. Heck, they were the favorites according to most “experts” to represent the Eastern Conference in The NBA Finals just one month ago.

Perception is everything, and we all know that perception can become reality very quickly. Perhaps my best friend and mentor in the field of psychology said it best when he told me years ago: “Be careful of the stories you tell about yourself and the ones that others tell about you because eventually they will live you.”

Fair or not, LeBron is viewed by many right now as a guy who shut it down on the Cavs. This story is quickly morphing into reality. If he bails on the Cavs and wins a title, all will likely be well everywhere expect Cleveland. However, if chooses to stay the course and wins a NBA Championship with the Cavs he will become Cleveland’s version of John Elway.

If James is truly concerned about his legacy and wants to craft the story that will reflect most positively on him years down the road staying in Cleveland is his best option. Even if he wins a championship with another team he will risk being viewed as a front-runner who ran away from adversity as he did when the going got tough in Cleveland. If he stays and wins a championship, though, his legend will be one that is passed on for generations as the hometown kid who persevered through adversity and stayed true to his roots.

Staying in Cleveland is the only way for “The King” to find a chair in the castle of everlasting royalty.

— Travis Heath, Senior NBA Writer.

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