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With the Summer of LeBron just weeks away, it is time to revisit the Top 10 Reasons LeBron Could Choose New York, originally published August 12, 2009, and discuss one more – the number 11 – reason that could play a major role in LeBron James’ decision.
11. The stars aligning. Some think LeBron would be taking too big a risk leaving Cleveland. But it might be a bigger risk for him to pass up the chance to pair up with another young All-Star – to find ‘his Pippen’ – in this summer’s deep free-agent class. His alternative is to remain with a capped-out Cavalier roster as other elite players around the league join forces.
With their max slots this summer, Miami could sign Chris Bosh or Amaré Stoudemire to play alongside Dwyane Wade, and Chicago could sign Bosh, Stoudemire, or even Carlos Boozer or David Lee, to play alongside Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. This would give both clubs formidable young cores, leaving LeBron in a much tougher Eastern Conference, without the star sidekick who can help him accumulate the multiple championships he seeks.
The Magic will eventually have the cap room to re-tool and potentially build a juggernaut by adding as many as two max free-agents to play alongside Dwight Howard once the $18 million salary of Vince Carter (expiring 2012) and $23 million salary of Rashard Lewis (expiring 2013) come off the books.
To say nothing of the young star couplings in the Western Conference, like Brandon Roy & LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant & Russell Westbrook.
These pairs represent the future of the NBA, but in Cleveland, LeBron would have to wait two more years for the Cavs to have the salary cap room to attempt to sign that prime player LeBron can grow old with.
Come July, the Knicks and Heat are the only two clubs with enough cap room to bring aboard two max free-agents. In New York, LeBron would very likely have his pick of whatever other frontline free-agent he wants to join him at the Garden. Whichever one LeBron chooses might instantly make the best 1-2 combination in the league. If Danilo Gallinari progresses, perhaps the best 1-2-3.
In the back of LeBron’s mind might also be the thought that if he doesn’t say yes to the opportunity to play in New York with another All-Star, a couple of pretty good players will. By 2011, he could find Bosh and Carmelo Anthony at the Garden, another team in the Cavs’ conference with a strong foundation that would stand in his way for years to come.
10. Cash. Over the same five years, LeBron would earn just $4.14 million less signing with the Knicks than re-signing with the Cavs as a free-agent. The Cavs can offer an extra year, but there is little reason to think the security of a 6th season will be decisive. If LeBron put much value on security, he would have sought a longer-term contract in 2006 rather than the 3-year extension he did sign. If security is what he is after, LeBron would have already signed an extension this off-season. Given the relatively small difference between the Cavs’ and Knicks’ 5-year max offers – and given the mountain of endorsement dollars that could come LeBron’s way if he lands in New York – LeBron could have a significant financial incentive to sign with the Knicks.
The common belief now is that LeBron will, in fact, seek another short-term contract – perhaps only three guaranteed years – regardless of whether he stays in Cleveland or not.
“While it is true the Cavs can pay James more than any other team because of the so-called ‘Larry Bird Exception,’ it only makes a big difference if James would sign for the full six years allowed,” Brian Windhorst of The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote recently. “Other teams only can sign him for five years, but James is not expected to want to be locked into a deal for so long.”
The Cavs can offer LeBron about a million bucks more than the Knicks over the next three seasons. Virtually petty cash on a contract so large.
Windhorst broke the news that LeBron’s new Nike agreement would not pay him a bonus for playing in a large market like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. But would LeBron reap greater royalties simply by selling more Nike merchandise? The argument is not that LeBron would generate more personal income merely because his place of business is a few blocks from Madison Avenue. Taking over the basketball Mecca could elevate LeBron’s marketing power into the stratosphere.
9. Talent. The Knicks’ roster, though young and unproven, has the 20-PPG potential of Danilo Gallinari, a two-way wing with upside like Wilson Chandler ... [Both] have higher ceilings than any non-Lebron Cavs. A roster deep with quality role players but not elite talent (the most apt way to describe the Cavs minus LeBron) is only enough to give a great player what he needs to have a successful regular season. Winning in the playoffs requires finding another impact player who can help carry the load. The Knicks have the type of young players who can develop into major pieces next to a superstar and their salary cap is set up to allow the team to bid for other top free-agents in the near term.
A free-agent decision like LeBron’s is more about imagining the immediate future than taking stock of the recent past.
Gallinari stayed healthy and demonstrated flashes of brilliance in his first full season, the most notable being when he went toe to toe with Carmelo Anthony at MSG and came out victorious. He has the size, skills and toughness to make him an exceptionally high-caliber third option on a great team.
Chandler developed into a relentless slasher during his second season of playing time, finishing around the rim with a high rate of success. In February, Jordan Hill was traded to Houston along with Jared Jeffries to pare more salary from the Knicks’ summer cap. But the same week, the Knicks acquired the athletic swingman Bill Walker who converted at a .431 clip from three and is ready to be a regular contributor at only 22 years of age.
The Cavs achieved their second straight 60-win season with LeBron getting even better coming off his first MVP. But the fact remains that Cleveland has an aging frontcourt and continues to be without another prime player who can serve as a consistent second scoring option to share LeBron’s load in crunch time. New addition Antawn Jamison is still effective but will be 34 years of age by the time LeBron hits the free-agent market. The growth of 22-year-old J.J. Hickson’s game this season may have been the most positive development in the Cavs’ quest to retain LeBron.
Your top three or four best young players will form the foundation of your team for several years, and a core of LeBron, Bosh and Gallinari – along with Chandler and Walker – has a high ceiling. If you believe, as most do, that this will come down to deciding between the Cavs and the Knicks, then LeBron only needs to determine that the Knicks’ young talent offers a better nucleus for the future than Cleveland’s. And with LeBron in New York, the Knicks’ young nucleus may ultimately prove superior to any in the NBA.
8. Attracting free-agents. LeBron may realize that getting future free-agents to follow him onto the big stage in New York would be easier than getting them to join him in Cleveland.
This is now an even more crucial factor than it would have been had Donnie Walsh not been able to clear two maximum-salary contract slots. If the Knicks lure LeBron and another max free-agent, surrounding them with quality role players would be all that separates New York from a championship. Good GM’s have no trouble finding adequate pieces to fill in the roster blanks, and it would be an easy sales pitch to get these kinds of players to join LeBron and a second All-Star for a title run in Manhattan.
7. 2011. ... puts the Knicks in position to offer another max contract ... when New York-born Carmelo Anthony is set to hit the free-agent market.
6. Mobley. Cuttino Mobley’s contract, 80% of which [was] covered by insurance, [gave] the Knicks a valuable trade chip the team [could have used] to remove more salary from the 2010 ledger ...
5. Buyouts. If the Knicks are a few million dollars short of the cap room needed to offer a second max contract in 2010, look for Donnie Walsh to engineer a buyout ...
Instead of using Mobley’s contract, Walsh dealt Jordan Hill and two protected first-round picks to the Rockets in order to unload Jeffries. The Knicks gained $9 million of additional cap room, enough to offer a second max contract this summer. As an aside, trading Hill for cap space was probably the flexibility that Walsh cryptically referred to some months ago. But it turned out to be a more difficult task than anticipated.
Curry said he won’t accept less than the $11 million he’s due next season, but with the Knicks having secured those two max slots, it is unlikely Walsh will have any interest in waiving Curry. His expiring contract could be traded for a useful player on a long-term contract that another team would like to shed, most likely a defensive center such as Emeka Okafor or Andris Biedrins. Or the Knicks can retain cap space to pursue another premier free-agent, like Melo, in 2011.