Two years ago, somewhere in Beijing and far from the reach of David Stern and his strict NBA rules regarding tampering, LeBron James and Mike D'Antoni engaged in a philosophical conversation about offensive systems. James , a voracious learner when it comes to basketball, wanted to know the principles behind the famous Seven Seconds or Less system.
D'Antoni, an assistant coach for USA Basketball who had just been hired by the Knicks , was more than happy to explain it. Sure, the U.S. team would employ many of the facets of the system en route to the gold medal in those Olympics , so it was important for James, like the rest of the team, to understand the system. But D'Antoni had to relish the opportunity to begin his recruiting pitch for the 2010 free-agency season.
And aside from being greeted on the tarmac by Chris Rock and joined by Donald Trump in the stretch limo to the Garden come July 1, the thing James has to find most intriguing about the Knicks is the potential of what he could do in this system. Most believe it could permit James to become the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season. Oscar Robertson did it in 1961-62.
"I think he could easily average a triple-double in that system," one Western Conference scout said, on condition of anonymity because he was talking about a player currently under contract to another team. "But it also depends on who he has around him."
James, despite his career average of 27.8 points, is nothing like fellow stars Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade , who are more comfortable as high-volume shooters and scorers. James, 25, has had to be a primary shooter for the Cavaliers, but he thrives more by moving the ball and using his teammates as outlets. Given his uncanny court vision and ability to throw precise passes, in the right system, with the right supporting cast, he could improve upon his career average of 7.0 assists.
"If you get one more shooter around him, like a [Danilo] Gallinari and Kyle Korver , he will average 11 assists," said a current NBA player who has played for D'Antoni.
Despite a powerful 6-8, 250-pound body, James has never averaged double figures in rebounds for a season. His career average is 7.0. But in D'Antoni's system, with more cumulative shots per game, there are more rebound opportunities.
"His numbers will be inflated playing for Mike because they shoot quick and they don't grind it out defensively," one Eastern Conference assistant coach said. "As long as they put shooting around him, he will do great as the primary player in Mike's system."
And that should be the main event in the Knicks' recruiting pitch. James' frustration with former coach Mike Brown was evident to anyone near a Cavaliers huddle during the last two seasons. The bottom line is, the Cavs had a two-time MVP and the most dynamic offensive talent in the game on their team, yet their offense all too often was unimaginative and predictable.
D'Antoni may be criticized for his defensive approach, but "unimaginative and predictable" can never be said about his offense.
"Having spent time with him at the Olympics, his offensive mind-set is unbelievable," free agent-to-be Carlos Boozer said earlier this season. "He has some of the best plays I've ever been around, and [they come] on a whim . . . He has plans in the back of his head that he comes up with at a moment."
And D'Antoni has had James, and exactly how he'd fit in his system, in the back of his mind for two years. He's told confidants that he believes James could thrive as the primary ballhandler in his system, a sort of big point guard.
"I don't believe he could play point every night because it would eventually wear on him," the scout said. "He needs to be off the ball some in order to score the way he's capable of scoring."
The NBA player said D'Antoni certainly would do that. "Mike is great at adapting his system to a player," he said. "He would move LeBron around over the course of a game. As a ballhandler, he would space the floor with shooters and let him work off pick-and-rolls. He would also put him on the baseline and let him get isolations closer to the basket.
"The biggest thing is, LeBron wouldn't have to work as hard for his points."
That is important, too, considering how the Boston Celtics ' defense managed to frustrate James in the second round of the playoffs and make Bryant work through a seven-game NBA Finals. Bryant eventually had to rely on his supporting cast - and the ability of the Lakers' offense to find the open man - to win the championship.
That's something both D'Antoni and James have yet to do. Perhaps the coach needs the perfect player for his system and the player needs the perfect system for his game.
That's pretty high praise coming from Boozer, a player who played under Coach K at Duke..