When do we know that a sports query or sports story has truly resonated with the public? When a group of guys over 25 gets together for a mini-reunion and manages to talk about them between embellished stories of debauchery. My buddy Bill came back from New York this Holiday season and there were two sports topics discussed: the ever-escalating Tiger Woods sex saga and whether or not LeBron James will stay in Cleveland or bolt for New York. As interesting as it was pretending to be the PR team for Tiger, the most interesting question had for me was the LeBron talks.
The LeBron Relocation Project has been hypothesized for two solid years now thanks to countless sports blogs and ESPN’s need to put up fresh sports content and somehow make the NBA interesting to barely casual fans. There are two schools of thought for this argument: LeBron will sign with the New York Knicks or King James will remain the majestic leader of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Leaving for New York
The Knick contingent argue that LeBron will have a bigger media market in the Big Apple, he wants to play on the big stage (Madison Square Garden), and he wants to play for Coach Mike D’Antoni. Those are all very good reasons but only one of them has any kind of traction: wanting to play on the big stage.
Tiger Woods ($110 million), Kobe Bryant ($45 Million) LeBron James ($40 million), Phil Mickelson ($40 million), and Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($34 million) are the active American athletes finishing in the Top 10 in the Forbes annual list of highest paid athletes. Quick question, how many of these guys live in a major market? Answer: one guy, Kobe Bryant. As the list goes on it becomes apparent that the only sport where a terrestrial location matters is baseball (A-Rod and Jeter were the only two MLB players in the Top 20).
Media market does not mean anything with regards to money or national media exposure in these modern times. Check the national listings and TNT, ESPN, and ABC are more likely to have a Cleveland Cavaliers game on than a New York Knicks game. The star defines the coverage, not the city.
As for all the talk about LeBron wanting to play for Coach Mike D’Antoni after his experience with Team USA, this is simply ridiculous. The only time I have heard a player caring about his coach is in college, when a coach can help shape a player’s game and increase the player’s chance of making it to the NBA. King James is already in the NBA and playing for D’Antoni does not mean he will be playing for Team USA in the context of the NBA.
The salary cap is expected to fall from $57.7 million to between $50.4 and $53.6 million after this season. The attendance figures have not been all that great so teams should assume the lower end of that estimation. This means that the Knicks would have around $20 million to sign LeBron and play him beside Eddy Curry, Jared Jeffries, and a bunch of young players. That number drops significantly if David Lee and Nate Robinson are resigned. Suddenly James is playing for a team with very little talent for another year before maybe being competitive (take a look at HoopsHype to find the salary numbers for every team in the league).
This means the only possible reason LeBron would come to New York would be to play in New York at Madison Square Garden. When these rumors began the assumption was that the cap would go up and James and another superstar would be coming to redeem the Knicks franchise. That is no longer the case and no matter how many Yankees caps James has in his collection, I cannot see James wanting to play a bleak Knicks team to potentially disgrace his career just because of a venerable basketball venue.
There is another option here that need to be discussed though. LeBron has a player option to stay another year in Cleveland for $17 million. He could stay, let Curry and Jeffries contracts run out and then join the Knicks (after they resign Lee, Robinson, and maybe another decent young talent with the cap space they have in 2010). This would mean that the Knicks would have to wait another year and take a huge leap in faith by not going after another big name and assuming that the Cavs will not win him over in that year.
Staying in Cleveland
The reasons for staying in Cleveland are pretty evident. The front office is willing to do just about anything to keep him. They will trade for Shaq to give them some big bodies to beat Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic, they will sign Mo Williams so LeBron is not the only player capable of creating his own shot, and they will trade for a great 3-point shooter or wily defensive veteran late in the season to fill any holes in the roster.
This is all being done because LeBron has repeatedly said he wants to win a championship. If he signs with the Knicks he will only be taking steps backward. This was already covered in the section above. The Cavaliers desperation to keep him puts him in the best possible position to win an NBA Finals, so if he really wants to win then this could be his only choice (more to come on that later).
In addition to a supposed love of winning, LeBron James supposedly has a serious love affair with his roots. Those roots are not just his family and friends, but his hometown, Akron, OH. Cleveland is only an hour from Akron while New York is over seven hours away. This might be the one terrestrial argument that matters in this debate.
There is another aspect here that I have not seen written about nearly enough. LeBron is such a powerful figure in the desolate Cleveland sports scene that he essentially has control over the Cavaliers and can actually affect the other teams in town.
The Browns half-jokingly said they would love to see LeBron in their uniform. This could actually happen. Not just because LeBron is 6-8 and 250 pounds of muscle and the Browns are terrible, but because of the same reason the Chicago White Sox gave Michael Jordan a chance to play baseball (I hear about the White Sox doing this as a PR move all the time, but rarely hear about the reality that Chicago without Jordan in the early- to mid-1990s would have been a depressing decade in the Windy City). The city as a whole needs James and this gives him infinite opportunities to do whatever he wants.
The New Jersey/York Nets?
There are, of course, other possibilities, including a move to the New Jersey Nets, who have the cap space (money factor), the new arena approved to be built in Brooklyn (Yankees factor), a minority ownership by Jay Z (cool factor), a crazy-rich Russian billionaire owner (excessive money factor), and a team with a number of young pieces in place (competition factor).
There is also the historical relevance factor that LeBron would be ushering in a new era for the Nets, bringing them back to New York City (they were forced to move to New Jersey as part of the ABA-NBA merger). He could draw comparisons to Doctor J in a football players body and become the savior of a franchise in need of one since giving up all there talent in the same merger that forced them to find a new home.
Ultimately, the decision is LeBron James and sports fans and writers can only guess what will happen. We do not really know him. We do not know how serious he is about winning, how much he actually wants to stay near Akron, how much he actually cares about money, etc. He will show us who he actually is over this summer when he finally decides how to spend the rest of his career.