Three years on, the mythology of LeBron James' "Decision" has begun to take shape. Two titles, two MVPS, two finals MVPs and three trips to the NBA Finals have done plenty to enrich the milieu of his legendary story.
Here was a once-in-a-generation (if not a once-in-an-ever) talent—a man with the physical gifts, the smarts and the drive to overshadow Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player of all time—on the brink of a life-and-legacy-changing choice.
Does he stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the hometown team to whom he once promised a championship, despite the organization's inability to surround him with the support he needs? Or does he bolt for the sun and sand of South Beach, where he'll be joined by two fellow superstars (Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) on a loaded Miami Heat squad that would contend for the foreseeable future?
We remember LeBron sitting there awkwardly with Jim Gray at a Boys and Girls Club of America in Connecticut. We remember him answering a series of benign (and boring) questions before announcing, on national television, the next destination for his talents. We remember the jubilation and haughty celebration in South Florida, and the jilted fans burning jerseys in Northeast Ohio.
What we forget, though, is that James' ballyhooed free agency wasn't a two-horse race—not from the start, anyway. We forget that he took meetings with six teams (the Heat, the Cavs, the Chicago Bulls, the then-New Jersey Nets, the Los Angeles Clippers and the New York Knicks) in downtown Cleveland.
And we forget that one of those teams (the Knicks) followed Frank Sinatra's advice: that they should start spreading the news that LeBron was leaving today.
For New York, New York—or so they hoped.
That spreading of news started rather early last time around and is well underway again in anticipation of 2015. During an appearance on ESPN New York 98.7, NBA insider Stephen A. Smith suggested that LeBron may forgo free agency next summer and test the market the year after, when the Knicks are due to be flush with cap space (via Tommy Beer of USA Today):
Premature rumblings between James and the Knicks are hardly new or original. In New York, LeBron's last "Decision" was, in essence, the culmination of a two-to-three-year campaign of rumor, speculation and sloughing off onerous contracts, either by trade or by mere expiration.
Talk of LeBron donning a Knicks uniform seemed to overshadow the accumulated misery of a six-year playoff drought. Every time James came to Madison Square Garden, he inspired fans to doctor jerseys and photos, to fuel their own fevered fantasies of a future with the best basketball player on the planet.
It didn't help matters, either, that LeBron put on such a spectacular show every time he took to the Garden floor. In his 11 visits to MSG as a Cav, James averaged 30.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.4 steals, including two 50-point performances and three near-triple-doubles.
Naturally, then, the city assumed that James enjoyed playing there and that he'd want to do so more frequently.
As a member of the beloved-but-perenially-disappointing Knickerbockers, of course. LeBron wanted to win big and win right away. Teaming up with an oft-injured Amar'e Stoudemire, who'd announced his own free agency decision just days before James did his, didn't seem to suit those desires as well as he would've liked.
Stoudemire will be off the Knicks' payroll in 2015. So, too, will Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani. Carmelo Anthony could be a free agent as well, though he's more likely to opt out in 2014 and re-up with the Knicks on a new contract in the neighborhood of $130 million over five years (per Dan Devine of Yahoo! Sports).
As Steve Kyler of Hoopsworld recently reported, the Knicks have offered 'Melo carte blanche to restock the roster as he sees fit come 2015, when the team's books will be the cleanest they've been since (you guessed it!) 2010. It figures, then, that Anthony would want New York to pursue LeBron to be his next running mate.
Of course, that's much easier said than done. Signing James could be prohibitively difficult, if not downright impossible, for a number of reasons.
For one, there's the complicated nature of the Knicks' finances. Per Hoopsworld, New York is currently slated to have over $94 million in cap holds heading into the summer of 2015.
Not that the Knicks should be too concerned with that. Subtracting the $84-plus-million in holds for 'Melo, Amar'e, Bargnani and Chandler leaves the Knicks with commitments of just over $10 million for Metta World Peace, incoming rookie C.J. Leslie and Iman Shumpert, who will be a restricted free agent in two years and, thus, due for a significant raise.
But that number doesn't include 'Melo's likely salary (upwards of $24 million) or the $13.4 million on the books between J.R. Smith (player option), Raymond Felton (player option), Pablo Prigioni (non-guaranteed) and rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. (team option).
Put all of that together, and the Knicks could, in practice, have well under $20 million in cap space to dispense, depending on how the NBA's revenue numbers pan out.
That likely wouldn't be enough to lure LeBron away from South Beach. Neither would the prospect of joining forces with Anthony, who plays a point-forward position that's comparable to the one James mans for Miami.
To be sure, two players as great as James and Anthony could and (eventually) would find a way to play together effectively. But hashing out the details would take time, as would the process of finding the right complementary players with whom to build a team and a system around those two superstars.
Time that James may not have to spare if racking up all-time-great credentials is his goal.
Two years from now, James will be 30 and well on his way to 31. Beyond mere age, LeBron will have to consider the wear-and-tear inherent in 12 years of NBA service, the last 10 of which will (likely) have been extended by deep playoff runs.
James has already seen how long it takes to build a champion and how precariously thin the margins of error so often are. The Cavs tried desperately to surround LeBron with a championship-caliber cast for seven years before he bolted. The Heat didn't have the proper combination of personnel and system in place until deep into the 2012 playoffs, and even then they were far from perfect.
Is James really going to put his trust in Glen Grunwald to fashion a perennial contender around him before the two-time champion goes old and gray? Is he really going to leave Miami, where, by 2015, he might be working on a four-peat?!
This pipe dream may be nothing more than a moot point by next summer, anyway. Like 'Melo, LeBron can opt out of his current contract in 2014 and re-sign with his current club for another five years.
James' potential free agency is but the biggest and most important piece in what could be a major makeover for Miami next summer. As ESPN's Brian Windhorst noted, the vast majority of the Heat's players can or will be free agents. Some (i.e. Ray Allen and Shane Battier) are even expected to consider retirement.
That would leave Pat Riley free reign to refresh the roster with younger players whose talents fit next to LeBron's diverse skill set. It's possible, then, that the Heat will spend next offseason reloading rather than rebuilding.
In Riley's hands, that prospect should be more than enough to convince James to stay put on his Biscayne Bay estate.
Granted, this could all change if Riley and Dwyane Wade both retire, as Stephen A. Smith suggested might happen after the 2014-15 season:
However, such a scenario seems unlikely if the Heat are still in the mix for the Larry O'Brien Trophy come 2015, which will be the case if James stays put.
If you're LeBron, why would you leave behind an opportunity to win more titles alongside your close friends in favor of a spot on 'Melo's squad under the auspices of an embarrassing owner (James Dolan), amidst a franchise with a long, painful history of failure?
Funny thing is, these were many of the same factors that probably played into LeBron's decision the last time around—save for Anthony, who was still with the Denver Nuggets at the time. James shopped around for the situation that best suited his desire to win and found it not in New York, but in Miami.
Don't be surprised if a similar story plays out over the next couple years, now that Knicks fans are hotly anticipating James' arrival .
And if they're left disappointed once again in the wake of yet another, soon-to-be-forgotten spurning from LeBron.
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