After Hearing Pitches, It's LeBron's Ball
For how long, nobody is sure except the main person involved, and he's not speaking to the public. Yet.
The Cleveland Cavaliers gave their pitch to LeBron James to stay in town Saturday morning, and when they left GM Chris Grant said the discussion was "positive."
The Chicago Bulls arrived in the afternoon to fill the coveted last spot (based on the premise that the last thing a person hears stays with him or her longest). They left silently, just like James, who drove away without commenting amidst a crowd of fans who cheered him after they had booed the Bulls.
This bizarre free agent recruiting process remained just that way Saturday, as a few hundred Cavs fans lined the street leading to the office building where James held his meetings. Many held "HOME" signs, some threw powder, some chanted "LBJ" and others chanted "Noah sucks."
The media wandered the street, all trying to get a look at whatever they could, or to get that one elusive statement that might indicate where James' free agent saga will end.
James provided nothing. He was silent, as he's been since the day the Cavs were eliminated from the playoffs by Boston. His decision will be his, and he's not commented (but for a very blasé interview with Larry King).
All that's left are guesses, and the scuttlebutt remains that the Cavs and Bulls have the best chance, with New Jersey coming on strong. Miami was passionate, with Pat Riley making a strong pitch to James that winning matters more than money. But the same day the Heat officials were talking to James, their own standout free agent Dwayne Wade was intimating he might go to Chicago. That left Miami with some very divided attention.
The Knicks did not seem to help their cause a lot, nor did the Clippers.
James' decision logically comes down to several factors, all played out in front of him these past three days with fancy computer presentations and homemade videos.
• Money. The Cavs can give him the biggest contract, with an extra year and slightly higher annual raises. The total worth: $30 million that he can get only in Cleveland.
But the Knicks and Nets president Mikhail Prokhorov both sold James on what he could do with endorsements working in the New York-New Jersey area. According to one report, the Knicks told James he could make $1 billion in endorsements if he chose to play in New York.
That's all well and good, but the number can be disputed. More important, the $1 billion pull would mean more to a guy who truly wants to be a global icon than a guy who wants to win championships. If winning means the most to James, the endorsements would not be a large pull -- especially because he's not exactly hurting on the endorsement front after seven years in Cleveland.
• Championships. James has said it's about winning and that he'd take less than a max contract to win. That points him to the Bulls, whose roster is best set for him with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Add Wade to the mix, or Chris Bosh, and the Bulls look even better.
When Rose and Noah's contracts are up, the Bulls might have to do some scrambling, but for a year or two James and the Bulls would be formidable contenders.
Second? Probably Miami -- if it can retain Wade. But the Heat have two players under contract, and James would have to leave money on the table to join Wade (and perhaps Bosh) in South Florida.
The Cavs? They simply do not look at the moment like they have a powerhouse team, even with James. A very good team, yes, but not a powerhouse. That said, any team with talent and James can contend -- as James showed when he took the Cavs to the 2007 Finals and the next season took the Celtics to seven games before Boston went on to win the title. A very good team that includes James should be better than very good.
• Sentiment. This was the big card played by the Cavs. While the Knicks used a "Sopranos" type opening to their video demonstration, the Cavs used a custom-made cartoon episode much like Family Guy, one of James' favorite shows. James and his cohorts were in the cartoon.
The entire "family" and "home" theme were large in the Cavs presentation. They asked fans to line the street for James as he arrived, and several hundred showed up. They put up "Home" banners on the bridges over the Interstate James drove to the meetings. They talked about family, about how well they all knew each other. And they had new coach Byron Scott also talk about what it means to win titles at home (which he did for the Lakers after growing up in Inglewood, Calif.). GM Chris Grant even spoke of how it was excellent that James had his meetings in Cleveland, his home.
James told Larry King the Cavs would have an edge, and the Cavs tried to ride that edge without overdoing it. James is a clown at heart, and no doubt enjoyed the Family Guy humor. Owner Dan Gilbert also likes to joke. That theme, combined with the home issue, played to James' loyalties.
• Style of play. The Cavs may have helped their chance ever so slightly in the last couple days when they hired Scott as coach. Scott wants his team to run, and James has longed to run for all of his seven years.
Mike Brown wasn't opposed to running, but his focus on defense sometimes slowed the game. James is a greyhound who can handle and pass the ball. The idea of him running the break (a la L.A.'s Showtime) has to send chills down the spines of some opponents.
In Chicago, Rose would have the ball. In Miami, James and Wade would have to learn to share the ball -- though the two are so close and so good it's tough to believe this would be a real serious issue.
In Cleveland, James would have the ball.
At this point, the ball is more figuratively in James' hands. It's his decision where he wants to go. Teams have based their futures on his choice. Some have gutted their roster for two years just to have a crack at him.
But the city with the most to lose in the entire process is Cleveland, a town hit hard by the economic downturn and punched in the gut over and over again by its sports teams. The city's downtown and service industry would suffer if James left and Cavs' crowds dwindled, and the city itself would have yet one more "Cleveland story" to tell. It's hard to see New York or Chicago or L.A. or Miami losing a lot if they don't land James.
Six teams visited James the past three days.
Five of them badly want him to play in their city.
But one team, and one city, needs him.
The decision should come in the next few days.