The Cleveland Cavaliers have officially begun talks with reigning NBA MVP LeBron James in regards to a contract extension.
Now, with the words "LeBron" and "contract" being bandied about in the sports world, the media circus which has been picking up steam for years is barreling into its final act.
Will James stay home and continue his quest to bring Cleveland its first title since 1964? Or will the bright lights of New York finally lure the king away from this championship-starved city, sending an already sorrowful sports town into incomparable depression?
Needless to say, it'll only get crazier from here. That is, unless, LeBron decides to pull a fast one on ESPN and every sports media hub in the state of New York and sign an extension this offseason.
Let's get one thing out of the way right now: I fully believe James will reject any contract offers this offseason. He's spent the past three seasons keeping the Cavaliers organization on their toes, so what's one more year?
However, I still hold firm belief that the much-hyped "Summer of 2010," where the most decorated class of NBA free agents becomes available, will be pretty underwhelming in LeBron's camp. Well, underwhelming for Knicks fans at least.
At the beginning of the 2008-09 season, I was about 60 percent sure James would resign in Cleveland. The massive hype displayed by ESPN, which included billions of "sources" telling analysts about how LeBron is telling everyone he knows about his upcoming move to Manhattan, was just too much to ignore.
Now? My confidence may not be quite 100 percent, but its certainly up in the high 90's.
So, why am I so confident that James, arguably the best player in the NBA, will stay in Cleveland, easily the complete opposite of New York in terms of big-name cities?
Honestly, the question for me is less "why stay?" and more "why not?" When looking at the options in front of LeBron, it just makes too much sense to stay in Cleveland.
Let's start with the obvious factor of the situation—money.
For some odd reason, everyone seems to believe James stands to make more money if he becomes a Knick.
Why? No team can offer more money than the Cavaliers can, no matter how many bad contracts New York attempts to dump. In all respects, the Cavs own the biggest piece to this puzzle.
If not through salary, perhaps people are inferring to the endorsement money James will receive if he moves to the Big Apple. But consider this: As of now, LeBron is making more money through endorsements than Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez combined. And they're on one of the most popular teams in the country, which happens to be located in New York.
As for marketability, can a move to New York really make James a bigger phenomenon than he is right now?
Regardless of playing in a city suffering from economic issues, LeBron is already a global celebrity. Fans at the Olympics in China were so insane that James could barely ever leave his room beyond heading to the arena. Plus, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert sold a portion of the rights to the team to a group of Chinese investors, which will no doubt help the cause in spreading the reign of LeBron.
To me, people may be overstating just how popular a Knicks jersey would make him.
Next, let's look at the current state of both franchises.
The Knicks spent most of 2008 underperforming and trading away talent for short contracts in order to put themselves in the best financial position for 2010. Even in the humdrum lower tier of the East—A.K.A everyone beyond Cleveland, Boston, and Orlando—New York's season was convincingly over well before playoff time came around.
The Cavs, still without a legitimate Robin to LeBron's Batman, lead the league with 66 wins, which included an impressive 39-2 home record. Even though Cleveland was upended by Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavaliers are still considered one of the best squads in the league.
This statement is especially true after a quietly productive offseason.
Cleveland started the summer by trading for Shaquille O'Neal, who at 37 is still one of the most imposing centers in the NBA. This move slid Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the bench, where he and new additions Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon give the Cavs much more depth than they've ever had in the LeBron era.
As of now, if James was basing his decision on playing with a contender, Cleveland is the obvious choice.
However, the big claim is how New York's salary dumping will give them the funds to recruit James and another superstar.
This may have been true before last season, but as everyone knows by now, the salary cap is taking a big drop next year. This means the coveted cap space New York fought so hard to get isn't quite as big as they thought it'd be.
So, would LeBron rather stay home on a team which is on an upswing, or move to glamorous New York, host to a franchise which won't have the money to provide another superstar without shedding legit talent, won't have a lottery pick in the 2010 draft (Utah owns it), doesn't have an All-Star on the roster, and doesn't have a low-post threat to take away pressure?
Would this be jumping from one contender to another, or hitting the restart button?
As convincing as these reasons may seem, I believe there's a bigger factor in what will lead James to stay.
The fact is, believe it or not, LeBron loves living in Cleveland.
This is his home, and he's very proud of his roots. Much of his friends and family live here. He's known to visit his high school in Akron on a frequent basis, even holding his MVP ceremony in the school gym.
He plays in a city which has embraced him not as a player on a team, but as one of their own. The people of Cleveland see James as the one man who can end a 45-year drought.
In a city so desperate for a winner, LeBron is the light at the end of the tunnel.
I struggle to believe James isn't factoring this when it comes to making his final contract decision. Yes, we love him like no other right now. However, if he were to bail on Cleveland, jumping ship for the bright lights of the big city, these same passionate fans would turn on him in an instant.
To give an example of what happens when Cleveland feels its been screwed over, just look at Art Modell.
After moving the Browns to Baltimore, Modell couldn't step foot in the state of Ohio without being berated by angry fans. In fact, when Modell's close friend, Browns Hall of Famer Lou Groza, passed away in 2000, he didn't attend the funeral out of fear of the reaction he would receive.
James, however, wouldn't have such a choice.
Being in the same conference with the Cavs, LeBron would have to come to the Quicken Loans Arena at least once a year. It's safe to say those same fans who currently adore the king would be sure to voice their displeasure whenever he came back to town on a visit from a more favorable city.
Call me crazy, but I just don't believe LeBron wants to become an enemy in his hometown. I can't see him enjoying the idea of coming into an arena he once called his own and being treated like an outcast, and I know he would be less than pleased with the idea of limiting his visits back home for fear of mistreatment from angry fans.
So, when looking at some of the important factors in the inevitable decision James will have to make in regards to where he will spend the next few years, it certainly looks like staying in Cleveland is the better choice.
However, don't take my word for it. As NBA great Reggie Miller put it best, "New York has seen plenty of championship parades. Imagine having one in Cleveland."