Nov. 28, 2008–Last Friday, the New York Knicks made two trades, getting three journeymen players, forwards Al Harrington and Tim Thomas and guard Cuttino Mobley (whose health has kept the trades from being considered final). But to hear the locals tell it, the Knicks just acquired LeBron James.
The New York media and the local hoops fans are more prone than most to overheated fits of fancy (there is not much else to do when the Knicks are in the midst of a run where they have lost 59, 49 and 59 games in the past three seasons), but there is reason for all the heavy breathing. James will be a free agent in 2010, and with the trades the Knicks will now likely have salary-cap room to pursue him aggressively. By some reckonings, the Knicks will have enough cap room to sign James and another top free agent. So, it’s not without reason that some outlets have taken to calling 2010 “The Summer of LeBron”
Get a grip, people. James isn’t going anywhere.
Even though he loves a big stage and being at the center of attention, LeBron James needs one thing more than any other to complete his legacy—a dynasty. James is the best basketball player since Michael Jordan (Kobe Bryant fans, your guy isn’t even close). James’ 2007-2008 season will be marveled by historians in the same breathless way we look at Oscar Robertson’s early seasons when he averaged a triple double (the only difference is that LeBron’s teams played at a much slower pace, upwards of 10 fewer possessions per game). What’s lacking to cement the James legacy on the very short list of greatest players in NBA history isn’t a title—it’s the run of titles he lacks. (Rasheed Wallace has a title and no one is putting him on any short list of greats.) You know, kinda like Mike had in the ’90s or Magic and Bird in the ’80s, or Bill Russell in the ’60s.
That won’t happen in New York. If James joined the Knicks in 2010, he would be on a team where Wilson Chandler and David Lee would be the next best players. Chandler and Lee are very good ball players, but neither is the go-to guy on a title team. And if the Knicks keep enough cap room to go after two members of the free-agent class of 2010, it will come at a cost of signing those two players for long-term contracts. In other words, most scenarios that involve James leaving Cleveland to join the Knicks mean that he would join a team about as good as the Cavaliers team he played on three seasons ago. It was good enough to reach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals. You can’t build a legacy on being a playoff also ran. Just ask Tracy McGrady.
The Cleveland brain trust includes GM Danny Ferry, a Duke grad who upon discovering that his game wasn’t NBA caliber, joined the San Antonio front office and learned from the best in the business, and coach Mike Brown, who also spent time in San Antonio. He’s one of the best coaches in the league. They have been planning for 2010 all along. That summer, the Cavs figure to have cap room to add another superstar, a Pippen to complement James’s Jordan.
Meanwhile, the team they have assembled for this season is likely to go far. The Cavaliers rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions, a stat that levels the hardwood between up-tempo squads like Golden State and slow-paced ones like Portland). They are clearly one of the top three teams in the league, and Cleveland could easily improve its title chances this year by swapping Wally Szczerbiak and his expiring contract for another key role player (Minnesota’s Mike Miller, for instance, is a sharpshooter who would punish teams that double LeBron). So, by 2010, James might have a title or two to his credit as well as several others in the offing if he stays in Cleveland.
Or he could come to New York and be part of a mediocre team. It really isn’t hard to hazard a guess as to which option James will choose. This doesn’t mean that the Knicks’ management duo, Team President Donnie Walsh and Coach Mike D’Antoni are taking the fans for a ride. They are using the prospect of competing for LeBron in 2010 as the carrot that will make enduring the stick of two more losing seasons more bearable. Walsh is a savvy team builder and while James is almost certainly his plan A, he likely has several alternatives. I think he will continue to rid the team of the shortsighted acquisitions of the Isiah Thomas era and acquire players suited to D’Antoni’s up-tempo style. Then in 2010, he will pick up one of the other marquee free agents and put himself in position to vie for Carmelo Anthony in the summer of 2011, when he can opt out of his contract with the Denver Nuggets. Thus the 2012 Eastern Conference finals might well involve games at Madison Square Garden—with LeBron James as one of the future Hall of Famers—but he will be wearing a different jersey than fans in New York currently envision.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.