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NBA Free Agency: The Many Options for LeBron James

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As will continue over the next few weeks, you will undoubtedly hear everyone with a sports blog, newspaper column, radio show or podcast state their opinion on where LeBron James should sign once he's able to, which is anytime from July 8 on. So it is only fair that I share with you my opinion on this massively important topic.

As most fans of the game know, James will not be the only marquee free agent this off-season as Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Joe Johnson will all become unrestricted free agents with James. If there was or is to be a secret “summit,” they will discuss not only where they plan to sign, but if they plan to play together. If LeBron wants to win a championship, signing with one of these three guys gives him the best chance to do it. He also has the option to return to Cleveland, where he has enjoyed immense regular season success but very little in the postseason.

What follows is a breakdown assessing the pros and cons of each of LeBron’s options this offseason.

Option 1: Sign somewhere with Johnson

This would be a good fit for both, because, as Johnson’s postseason performance proved, he is incapable of being the top guy on a good team. In the seven game stretch beginning with Game 5 of the Hawks’ series with Milwaukee and including the Magic’s four game sweep of Atlanta, Johnson shot 32% from the field and averaged just 13 points per game. No team is going to win in the playoffs when their best player puts up numbers like those. But cast in a complimentary role with James, Johnson would be free of the pressure to perform while drawing less attention from defenses.

Johnson is a proven scorer, having just averaged 20 points per game for the fifth consecutive season. Like James, Johnson is also durable. He’s played all 82 games in five of his nine NBA seasons. But the biggest tool Johnson possesses is the ability to knock down the open jump shot. James has never played alongside a shooter capable of being a top scorer like Johnson, and the Cavs have shown in the past that they are vulnerable in the playoffs if they cannot hit from outside. The one year that James had anything close to Johnson (Daniel Gibson in the ’07 playoffs), Cleveland made it all the way to the Finals before being swept by the far superior Spurs.

Johnson is even versatile enough to bring the ball up and plays solid defense to boot. James often serves as a point forward anyway, but Johnson could stay in with the second unit whenever James needs a breather.

So the situation would work for both players: Johnson gets a superstar that takes the focus off of him, allowing him to become a complementary star; James gets a knock-down shooter from the perimeter. Should the two land together, they immediately become one of the top two duos in the league (alongside Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant) and need few other pieces in order to succeed.

Option 2: Sign somewhere with Bosh

Bosh brings strong regular season credentials to the table despite a lack of playoff success. He’s coming off the best season of his career in 2009-10, recording career highs in points (24 per game) and rebounds (10.8 per game). His production has been extremely consistent throughout his career, and, though he has been the focal point of Toronto’s offense for several years, will likely happily defer to James in order to win significantly more games should they become teammates. Bosh is also a great rebounder, something else James could use in a teammate. Together, the two would form an intimidating duo at the forward position, and, unlike Shaquille O’Neal (who clogged the paint and slowed down the tempo for James’ Cavs’), Bosh would give LeBron another player capable of running the floor on fastbreaks. Opponents would have to respect Bosh more than any teammate James has had up until this point in his career, and because of that, Bosh would spread the floor in the halfcourt should he choose to drift away from the paint, creating driving lanes for LeBron.

Bosh, even more than Johnson, is unproven at the playoff level. He has been to the playoffs just twice in his career, both times exiting in the first round. This is an underreported fact: for all the hype the free agent summit has received, they combined for just one NBA championship. By choosing to play with Bosh (or Johnson, for that matter), James is taking a risk because none of the three has proven that they can come through when it counts. That said, people harbored the same doubts about the 2007-08 Celtics led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, all ringless at the time. None of the three had been in good situations prior to their unification in Boston. Bosh is certainly in a similar situation, as Toronto has finished above .500 exactly once in his seven-year career.

For further proof that Bosh and James can succeed, look at the past few champs. The ’09 Lakers had Kobe and Gasol. The ’08 Celtics had the Big 3. The ’06 Heat had Wade and Shaq. All these teams had at least two legitimate stars, whereas Bosh and LeBron have always been the sole superstar on their teams. Bosh would create a similar effect to the one Gasol had on Kobe when he was traded to the Lakers midway through the ’08 season. He would give LeBron a legitimate post presence and scoring threat, and, while the offense would still run through James, Bosh would be able to carry some of the scoring load. With another A-list star by his side, LeBron would finally be able to break through his playoff hump.

Option 3: Sign somewhere with Wade

This option, though perhaps the least likely scenario, nonetheless deserves mention because of the sheer potential of what James and Wade could accomplish together. Should this happen, it would unite two of the top three players in the world, and they would immediately have to be considered one of the best NBA duos of all time alongside Jordan and Pippen, Shaq and Kobe, and Magic and Kareem. All of the aforementioned duos captured at least three titles together. Should LeBron and D-Wade both ink max deals somewhere, there is no doubt they would match that and would possibly make a run at the six titles of Jordan and Pippen.

Together, they would form the NBA’s best playmaking duo by far. Either is capable of carrying a team for any stretch of time, be it for a few minutes or an entire playoff series. All of this looks good on paper, but there is still the matter of the two gelling together, checking their egos at the door, and winning basketball games. This is where the questions come in. The first big issue is the fact that the likeliest way this scenario plays out would see both players signing with Miami. Wade has said he would like to stay in South Beach if possible, but Miami is rarely mentioned among LeBron’s top destinations. While the team would have the cap room to offer two max deals, a more feasible scenario would have James signing elsewhere.

The second problem is the question of whether the two can play together effectively. Both players have been the unquestioned alpha dogs on their team for as long as they have been playing basketball. Now suddenly, in the prime of their careers, they are expected to cut back on their shots and share playmaking duties with someone else? Look at famous duos again. Kobe and Shaq were two of the top five players in the league when they played together, but things unraveled in 2004 as their Lakers lost in the Finals to the team-oriented Pistons , and boiled over that summer when Shaq was shipped to Miami. James shot 20.1 times a game in 2009-10, fifth-most in the league. Wade ranked right behind him in sixth with 19.6. An NBA team shoots, on average, just under 82 times per game. Two players cannot combine for 40 shots night in, night out. Someone will have to defer. Many view this as an issue for James and Wade. I do not.

Both these guys want to win, and Wade has already proven he can do so at the highest level, taking the Heat to the title in 2006. Being teammates might mean a slight drop-off in production for one or both players, but that does not change the identity of Dwyane Wade or LeBron James. They both still want to win and both can still have featured roles in the offense. Any team foolish enough to discount one’s talent will be exploited time and again. Besides, any decrease in production will be offset by a marked increase in wins (in the playoffs for James, in general for Wade). These guys didn’t get to where they are today by being selfish; as much as they enjoy running their own teams, I am sure they will gladly surrender a little freedom for the most talented teammate of their careers.

The final, and most important, problem that LeBron faces with this scenario is what signing with Wade would do for his legacy. Wade has already begun to establish a legacy; no matter what he does from now on, he will always have the ’06 title where he was the undisputed best player on the team (though Shaq certainly helped him get that ring). LeBron has yet to accomplish the same, and by signing with Wade, he would face the same lingering questions about his career that Kobe did prior to last year’s Finals success. For years, Kobe was plagued by the notion that he couldn’t win a title without Shaq. Should James sign with Wade, his career would likely be defined by whether he could win a title without Wade.

For those that make the argument that winning is winning, and that LeBron shouldn’t care who he wins with, consider LeBron’s life until this point. He has consistently said how he wants to become a global icon, and his two best options outside of Cleveland would be New York (best chance to define his legacy) or Chicago (chance to follow in the footsteps of Jordan). When he’s choosing where to sign, he will be completely aware of the effect each destination has on his future and how he is perceived. Signing with Wade says that he cares about winning, but not about establishing his own legacy as the undisputed best player on a title team. While I think James holds the edge over Wade in the better-player argument, Wade is the one with the ring. Their teams could not be considered “LeBron’s teams” unless Wade willingly took the backseat to James, something that, by all indications, Wade will be unwilling to do.

This is a legacy-defining decision for LeBron, and he is not going to let future writers and historians determine what his role was in any potential championship with Wade. Instead, if he leaves Cleveland, he will look to sign somewhere with Johnson or Bosh, great players in their own right, but no threat to James as the alpha dog. Even though signing with Wade makes the most basketball sense, it is something that James will be hesitant to go through with. Wade is, in effect, too good for James. He makes winning a title too easy and casts too many questions on who deserves the credit. If James cared only about winning, he would not care about these things, but he is focused on building a legacy. If that is truly so, then there is only one logical option for him…

Option 4: Re-sign with Cleveland

Many in the media have argued that if LeBron James truly wants to establish a legacy as one of American sports’ all-time greats, he has to go to New York, resurrect the Knicks franchise, and win a championship (or three). New York has a great basketball tradition, it is the most famous city in the world, and the Knicks play in the most famous arena in the US. That said, it would still be more impressive for LeBron to stay with the Cavs and finally win a title for the city of Cleveland. Perhaps LeBron would garner more fame for delivering a title to the Knicks, but for historical significance, nothing would beat winning one with his home state Cavaliers.

When LeBron was drafted in 2003, the Cavs were coming off a 17-65 season and were in need of a savior. Lucky for them, the 2003 draft boasted great top-end talent, featuring Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh alongside James. The consensus #1 though, was James, and when Cleveland won the lottery, it seemed like a perfect fit: the most hyped high school prospect ever, who grew up just 40 miles away in Akron, would be going to Cleveland to turn around the Cavs. Everyone knows what happened next: LeBron developed into the league’s top player, culminating with back-to-back MVP awards in 2009 and 2010. He’s been named to All-NBA teams, All-Defensive teams, has taken the Cavs to the Finals and has even won a scoring title. The only thing he has not done is win a championship.

In that respect, he is not unlike any other athlete to play in Cleveland over the past 36 years. Since the Browns won the NFL championship in 1964, no Cleveland sports team has won a title, despite near misses from the Indians (extra inning walkoff loss in Game 7 of the ’97 World Series) and Browns (the Drive, the Fumble). Should James win a title in Chicago, he would still have five to go to equal Jordan’s accomplishments. Winning there would not mean nearly as much as winning in Cleveland. New York won a World Series last year and a Superbowl in 2008. A title for the Knicks would be special, but James would still have a ways to go to be mentioned alongside the likes of Jeter in New York sports lore. But should he end Cleveland’s drought, he immediately ranks right alongside Jim Brown in terms of Cleveland legends. By eschewing the big markets and finally bringing a title to the championship-starved city of Cleveland, LeBron James would add far more to his legacy than “just another title” in his other possible destinations. He would be forever worshipped in Cleveland, and his legacy would be confirmed as the man who finally won in Cleveland when no other man could. Moreover, he would have won on his own terms, as the unquestioned star. He would won a title with the team that drafted him first overall, delivering on what all top draft picks are expected to do. To me, winning a championship with the Cavs, finally breaking the drought, would mean more than three titles in any other location.

To leave Cleveland would be to renege on the loyalty James has professed for the city, to reject all the dedication the city and the franchise has shown their superstar since he arrived. His fans profess themselves to be witnesses and his teammates love him. Not only that; Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert has been jumping through hoops trying to keep James, doing all but offering him partial ownership of the franchise. He fired coach Mike Brown despite the fact that Brown led the Cavs to the NBA’s best record in each of the past two seasons. GM Danny Ferry was not re-signed, replaced with Chris Grant. For James to sign elsewhere, despite all the city has offered him would show that he cares little for loyalty (though James has passed over Cleveland for glory before: growing up in the ‘90s, he rooted for the Yankees, Bulls, and Cowboys, who combined to win 12 titles in the decade).

Should James return to Cleveland, they would remain a threat to win the title next season. The nucleus that won 61 games in 2009-10 is almost completely intact (only Shaq and Ilgauskas have contracts that are up, so the Cavs will need a new center). They are a ridiculous 74-8 at home over the past two years. Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams are both under contract through 2012. If it turns out that neither is a suitable sidekick for James, they can let both walk (Jamison has a player option for 2012-13) and make a run at Carmelo Anthony next summer. Cleveland is the best situation for James, not only because they offer the best chance at establishing a legacy, but because they have the best talent to surround James with right now. Any team with the cap space to pursue two max guys faces the drawback of having almost no one else under contract; LeBron doesn’t really know what he’s getting into.

For LeBron, it should come down to what would feel better: winning another title for a big city like New York or Chicago, or winning the first in Cleveland for a generation. There are no words to describe the joy that would be felt in Cleveland should LeBron return and deliver a title. That should tell him all he needs to know this summer.


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