When the NBA Free Agency period kicks off this summer, a plethora of premier basketball players will be eligible to sign with any team in what is expected to be the most intense free agent feeding frenzy the league has witnessed to date.
Although perennial All-Stars like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are essentially up for grabs for any NBA team willing to sign the check, nobody will make more of an impact on the NBA free agent landscape than superstar LeBron James.
James was born in Akron, and has been a native Ohioan his entire life. After he was drafted No. 1 straight out of high school in 2003 by the Cleveland Cavaliers, he took the basketball world by storm, and has been hailed with a multitude of nicknames ranging from “King James” to “The Chosen One.”
In any case, LeBron is NBA royalty, and most signs are indicating that the two-time NBA MVP won’t be a Cav much longer.
Many pundits have James pegged to go to a big media market destination like New York, Chicago, or even Los Angeles to play for the woeful Clippers. Others think he will want to be paired with another superstar like, say, Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat, who will provide the championship-caliber supporting talent LeBron lacked in Cleveland.
James is a rare talent who wields so much power as a free agent that he may not only have his personal choice of his team’s head coach, but the front office’s general manger as well.
As lofty as those demands may sound, the once-in-a-generation talent who is guaranteed to bolster ticket sales, television ratings, and jersey sales instantly with a signature, knows what is at stake.
Needless to say, LBJ’s potential departure is a touchy subject for Cavalier fans, business merchants in and around Cleveland’s Quicken Loans arena, and Ohioans in general.
His heart is undoubtedly conflicted to a certain extent, so here’s a breakdown of reasons for him to stay in Cleveland versus why he should skip town.
Why He Should Stay
He’s loyal to his home state.
James has always been a proud representative of the state of Ohio, and knows what is at stake for Cleveland’s economy if he leaves. When Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls (both times), a tremendous ripple effect was felt by Chicago’s local merchants.
If LeBron signs elsewhere, not only would Cavalier ticket sales and television ratings plummet, but sales at local bars, restaurants, and other local vendors would likely suffer as well.
Cleveland would no longer be considered a travel destination for the millions of out-of-state LeBron fans who would love to see him toss up a cloud of chalk powder before the fans at a home game at Quicken Loans Arena.
Given the lackluster play of the rebuilding Indians and the consistently pitiful Browns, it can be safely said that LeBron James has been the pride of Cleveland sports for seven years. Without him representing the city, Cleveland’s reputation takes a bit of a hit .
He’s comfortable in Cleveland, and loves his home state.
LBJ’s family, friends, and personal network are based in Ohio. While he has undoubtedly established legions of national and global connections, the Buckeye State is his home.
Were he to leave Cleveland, whether for another NBA franchise or China, his relationships at home may never be the same.
When Philadelphia native Kobe Bryant elected to go straight to the NBA instead of playing college ball at home first, he was perceived as a traitor, and was unmercifully booed when he returned to the City of Brotherly Love as a Laker and as an All-Star.
Granted, Cleveland’s fans aren’t known to be as notoriously incisive as Philadephia’s sports fans, but at the very least, LeBron would feel a little awkward living in the state he deserted were he to sign with a team other than the Cavaliers.
If he moves, he leaves his friends and network behind. He may bring his closest associates along with him to his future destination, but he certainly can’t take everyone with him.
He wants to stay close to his family.
James’ family is based in Akron. Although he wouldn’t have to necessarily uproot his three-year-old and five-year-old sons from their respective foundations, playing 50-plus home games in another city would lessen the amount of time he could spend with his girlfriend and children, which could take a toll on family relationships down the road.
Why He Should Leave
Cleveland can’t afford him.
As the Cavaliers’ team salary for the 2009-10 offseason currently stands at $48.8 million, this would leave the team with only a few million left to spend on LeBron’s teammates before they hit the salary cap of $50 to $53.6 million. Whether Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is ready to do his Jerry Buss impersonation and tread into luxury tax territory remains to be seen.
James has a player option with the Cavs for the 2010-11 season for $17.1 million, but will, by all accounts, exceed that number in his first year of a new max contract with another team.
If LeBron somehow exercises his player option, the only way they could afford him is if they ditch their only two big men on the team in Shaquille O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and somehow find a championship-caliber supporting cast willing to play for peanuts behind King James.
The Cavalier front office knows deep down that the 2009-10 season, a year when they signed the best (albeit over-the-hill) available big man in Shaq to play with LeBron, was their last shot at winning a championship with James in Cleveland.
With so little cap space, Cleveland will probably have to start from scratch next year with a new focal point of their offense and a new foundation to the franchise unless Cavs GM Danny Ferry gets creative, and a series of deals are worked out.
His best chance to win a championship is elsewhere.
Not only does Cleveland not have the deep pockets to pay LeBron’s expected hefty salary, but the Cavs proved last year that they are more than one player away from a NBA title when they were summarily dispatched by the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
While James will be seeking a big contract from a team with the necessary cap space to pay him, he will also assess which NBA franchise is one LeBron James away from winning the NBA Finals.
In other words, Cleveland has neither the money nor the on-court talent to lure James back into a Cavs uniform.
His star is too big for Cleveland, and needs to shine in a larger market.
All due respect to the denizens of the great city of Cleveland, James is a legendary athlete who could cement his legacy as a global icon if he plays in a bigger media market.
As popular a player as he already is, James is only scratching the surface of his star power being based in Ohio.
James knows he has a worldwide fan-base, and since he won’t win a championship in Cleveland anytime soon, he’ll need to go to a media market where he can truly capitalize on his celebrity and maximize his earning power while he is in his prime.
The New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets are the two NBA teams with the most cap space. New York has hungered for a legitimate NBA star ever since Patrick Ewing retired, and the Knicks have become the Association’s resident laughingstock over the past five years...in addition to the New Jersey Nets.
If James were to sign with the Knicks, instant credibility would return to the franchise. Their front office also has enough room under the salary cap to field a supporting cast for LBJ.
A team as desperate as the Knickerbockers might as well just hand James’s agent a blank check, because they don’t want to get caught in a bidding with with a Russian billionaire.
As no team has more salary cap space ($21 million-$25 million) headed into the 2010 free agency period than the New Jersey Nets, majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov is expected to spare no expense in acquiring the best available talent so that the Nets can be, at the very least, a competitive franchise again.
Throw in hip-hop mogul Jay-Z (one of LBJ’s most significant role models growing up) as a minority owner along with a purported team move across the Hudson River to Brooklyn, and the Nets’ package might be too attractive for James to pass up.
Other big-market opportunities for James include the Chicago Bulls (at President Obama’s request), the Miami Heat (James expressed interest in playing for legendary coach Pat Riley if Riley returns to coaching), and the Los Angeles Clippers. (Although skinflint owner Donald Sterling typically prefers to wallow in mediocrity if it means the franchise returns a profit.)
If he doesn’t leave and never wins a championship in Cleveland, he’ll be saddled with “what ifs” his entire life.
Although he is still only 25 years old and enjoying the prime of his career, James now has the maturity to see the big picture with regards to his legacy after seven years of playing pro basketball.
James has to know what he has in Cleveland, both the city as well as the team. If he takes less money to stay in his home state, he’ll further endear himself to his native Ohioans, but might be passing up the opportunity of a lifetime.
In order for James to own the label of the "New Michael Jordan," he will need to leave the Cavs to get his championship rings. Besides, staying with just one franchise for an entire career is so last century.
All the greatest professional athletes change teams, unlike in previous generations: from Alex Rodriguez to Brett Favre to the great Jordan, there is no longer an unwritten code that a player has to play his entire career with the team that drafted him.
If James never leaves Cleveland and never wins a NBA title before he retires, both James, as well as basketball historians will lament his career as somewhat unfulfilled in spite of his elite athleticism and widespread popularity.
LBJ is far too competitive to let that happen.