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Friday, November 14, 2008

Getting A Line On LeBron's Future

Getting A Line On LeBron's Future
By Marc Stein

There was a definitive declaration about the future earlier this week from LeBron James. You probably just haven't heard about it yet.
The official decree from King James: "22, 10 and 10."
That's how LeBron replied when someone in Dallas asked him what his ideal, every-night line in the box score would be.
I think I can safely predict the response, too: All of the fans in all of the cities whose teams fantasize about signing James away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2010 will inevitably seize on the fact that LeBron didn't specify where he dreams of racking up all those triple-doubles.
Of course, even had he pronounced himself a Cav For Life in the same sentence, who outside of Ohio would hear him? No. 23 could clearly state his intentions to stay with his home-state team -- and he pretty much did in October at a Barack Obama rally when no one was expecting it -- and it wouldn't discourage anyone in the basketball mecca of New York … or the Nike capital of Portland, Ore. … or now Detroit.
Clevelanders, I'm afraid, will just have to accept that this is going to be their lives for the next 589 days or so. It really has little to do with the usual torture they expect to absorb from their Cavs, Indians, Browns and weather. It's not that deep, folks. Cursed as Clevelanders believe themselves to be, they simply have the most coveted young talent in the game and maybe all of American sport in their midst -- after winning a draft lottery, don't forget -- and lots of teams are planning to have spending money in LeBron's free-agent summer. What else are we going to talk about?
Doesn't matter that LeBron could be heard at that Obama rally announcing to a downtown crowd: "I love Ohio and I ain't goin' nowhere." If the other teams in the NBA aren't listening, why would their fans be?
The line for LeBron, as you've undoubtedly heard by now, got one team longer this week when the Pistons traded for Allen Iverson and a huge chunk of financial flexibility that might just hold up until July 2010. If the cash does stay stashed that long, Detroit won't merely try to sign James, either. We're sittin' here talkin' about Joe Dumars, so trust us: If the Pistons' uber-aggressive president can keep enough cap space to afford two max players in 2010, I'm reasonably sure that his A-1 scenario would be trying to sign James and Chris Bosh.
But try not to tax your brain with too many hypotheticals this far out.
Common sense says that there certainly is a scenario in which LeBron would swap Lake Erie for the, uh, glamour of Motown, crazy as it sounds. If the Pistons are clearly set up better than any other team at that point for LeBron to win multiple rings -- since rings are the thing, as much as anything, that could make him a Global Icon -- how could he ignore Detroit?
Yet you should also be able to work out that there are too many variables, too many things that can happen over the next two years, to start throwing out absolutes here or anoint favorites in the LeBron Sweepstakes. Yes: I've spoken to smart, well-connected folks around the league who have relayed what appear to be highly credible "LeBron's gone" whispers. Yes: I've heard trusted sources say the Cavs are privately but legitimately worried they won't be able to keep him away from a sexier market … even though trying to sign Bosh away from Toronto, to put him next to James, is believed to be Cleveland's A-1 scenario as well.
However …
Why would LeBron decide anything now?
What possible benefit could there be to committing this soon to definitely relocating to storied Madison Square Garden to go play for Mike D'Antoni, or to promise he'll stay and try to be the guy who lifts the Cleveland curse?
Things change too fast in this league to lock in any plans.
Look at Detroit, for starters. How can we be so sure, given all the trade and free-agent possibilities that will inevitably present themselves to the Pistons over the next 20 months, that Dumars will be able to pass on them all to wait on a LeBron maybe?
Look at New Jersey, which seemingly had the ultimate LeBron recruiting tool -- his mentor Jay-Z as part-owner -- and which now can't be sure if it will ever be able to offer James the lure of Brooklyn home games.
Just look at the Lakers. Before the thoroughly unforeseen Pau Gasol donation -- er, trade -- remember how bleak and tenuous L.A.'s future with Kobe Bryant looked at this time last year?
Things change fast in this league, friends.
No fewer than 15 teams -- including the Cavs -- have less than $40 million in committed salaries on their books for the 2010-11 season, hoarding cap space for a free-agent class so deep that we don't even talk about Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki and early Eastern Conference player of the month favorite Joe Johnson. Among those teams are Chicago, Houston, Miami, Phoenix, Portland and Bosh's Toronto Raptors. I also fully expect the likes of San Antonio and Dallas to be major bidders by the time LeBron and Co. hit the open market, which is to say that the Pistons, between now and the NBA's Free Agent Frenzy of 2010, won't be the last team to be mentioned as a new threat to steal LeBron away from Cleveland. Far from it.
The Cavs, though, are still in a pretty good spot. James, for starters, is a certifiably proud Ohioan, which has to help. What happens if they make one more trade for one more difference-making sidekick this season or next? What happens if they actually manage to win it all once before LeBron's contract expires? The Cavs better have a convincing championship plan to hit James with when he's free to leave, because the closest thing to a sure thing in this whole process is what we were told this week by one source close to LeBron: "He knows that championships will determine his legacy." Then again, they're not that far off with what they've got right now to surround their potential 22, 10 and 10 guy.
We're convinced that this could all be much worse for Clevelanders, too, no matter how they've suffered for decades in various stadiums and arenas. Lusting after their LeBron isn't personal, or even original. Orlando lived with the same panic and insecurities every day of Shaquille O'Neal's first four seasons, except for one crucial difference.
The Magic Kingdom's Hall of Fame-bound, larger-than-life superstar, if my recollections are right, sure seemed more determined to leave than LeBron does.

2 Eastern Conference
Another news flash from LeBron James: "I can do a lot of things."
"I can play the 1, I can play the 2, I can play the 4," he continued. "But I will always be more comfortable at the 3 spot."
This was James' way of saying that his new part-time gig -- regularly playing some power forward -- doesn't exactly feel natural yet. But Cavs coach Mike Brown isn't worried. In Brown's view, LeBron is adapting nicely to his twice-nightly shifts as a 4 man.
Although Brown has always held the option of going small and playing James there, since LeBron is merely the most hulking perimeter player we've ever seen, this is the first time in Brown's four seasons that it's an element of Cleveland's regular rotation. Brown explained this week that his plan most nights is to play LeBron at the 4 for about four minutes each in the first and third quarters, typically around the six-minute mark when teams start going to their bench and inevitably get smaller.
Yet the most significant LeBron-related strategic development with the Cavs can be found in the offensive changes Brown is trying to implement. He's been rapped for years for a lack of ingenuity at that end, but there is clearly more movement and variety in Cleveland's sets this season, with the minutes at power forward only one element of Brown's apparent intent to get his 23-year-old hulk to spend more time playing inside the 3-point line. LeBron's scoring limitations in the low post have been well-documented, but it looks as though he's starting to develop a feel for running the game out of the elbow area. James is also clearly benefiting from the fact that Mo Williams and Delonte West can get the ball up the floor.
Given that this is a transitional phase for the Cavs after the offseason acquisition of Williams -- and considering that they opened the season with a flurry of tough roadies at Boston, New Orleans and Dallas -- coach and superstar sound understandably encouraged. Especially since Cleveland is off to a decent start despite the fact James has struggled mightily with his shot so far, shooting a combined 7-for-41 (just 17 percent) -- on 2- and 3-point jumpers entering Friday's play.
"Preseason can only do so much," James said, "because you don't play as much with each other during the games."
P.S.: Regular readers know that fantasy hoops hasn't been my thing since college, but team owners with LeBron on their rosters can thank the Weekend Dime for prodding some more scoring out of their franchise player. Since we expressed some tongue-in-cheek concern to James on Monday that his first three games were on the quiet side, he's rumbled for 70 points in the past two.
P.P.S.: LeBron's 3-point drought to start the season isn't all bad when you think about it, because James, who was 0-for-13 from behind the line entering the weekend, was also averaging less than three long-range attempts per game.

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