1Early Survey Of The LeBron Landscape

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1Early Survey Of The LeBron Landscape

1Early Survey Of The LeBron Landscape
By Marc Stein
Those of you who dread this topic will be thrilled with the NBA's scheduling computer.

Friday night's trip to New York is the only time that the Cleveland Cavaliers will be playing on the Knicks' floor this season … barring an unlikely reunion in the playoffs.

So maybe that'll cut down on the incessant chatter about LeBron James' future.

OK, OK. Maybe not.

I nonetheless tend to believe that the majority of you understand why so many NBA pundits go here so often and fully expected (and wanted) this to be the thrust of the latest Weekend Dime. Eleven days into the season can't be too soon to start digging into the LeBron Landscape if the league office is going to serve up Cavs-at-Knicks this quick.

We say so even though we've long endorsed the theory that LeBron genuinely can't know what he's going to do yet. Why would he? Why would he make the biggest decision of his professional life so many months before he needs to?

Yet you'll also note that LeBron said the following to reporters in Cleveland on Thursday night: "Every team in the NBA, I've thought about playing [for] at one time in my life."

See? It's an irresisitible game.

And after close consultation with a handful of experts as close to the pulse of this madness as possible, here are the five teams most deserving of a spot in the discussion, as things stand exactly 237 days away from July 1, 2010:

You could probably come up with at least 23 reasons to slam home the idea that the Cavs are still overwhelming favorites to find a way to re-sign the most anticipated free agent in the history of American sport.

You probably already know most of the main reasons, too.

The contract Cleveland can offer LeBron will be one year longer and nearly $30 million richer than any other suitor. The Cavs are on the short list of teams with a spare-no-expense owner who will keep spending until Dan Gilbert puts a supporting cast around James that's championship-worthy. My own favorite take, which I've clung to for years, is that James is clearly proud of his roots in nearby Akron and thirsts to be the guy who beats all the supposed Cleveland curses.

The local hero who proves that you actually can win something on Lake Erie.

The scary part for Clevelanders is that a list of 123 reasons wouldn't calm anyone's nerves. Not until LeBron actually re-signs. Not when they all know how antsy LeBron is in his seventh season, which you'll surely recall is when Michael Jordan broke through to win his first ring.

Doesn't matter how many times someone spouts the reminder that LeBron doesn't need to relocate to Madison Avenue to realize his dream of becoming a global icon because the world is already watching. Doesn't matter if you recite the stats about how few players at LeBron's level -- Shaquille O'Neal going from Orlando to the Lakers in 1996 is really the only one -- have ever switched teams in free agency. If the Cavs fail to win the title in June, having already quickly slipped to No. 3 on the list of the Eastern Conference title threats in the minds of many, everyone in Cavsland will be fearing that the resulting frustration/angst/bitterness becomes so great that James decides he needs a fresh start.

So …

This is quite simply going to be the longest season that the Cavs have ever endured. They can prove nothing in the regular season because of what happened in the playoffs. They have to deal with daily Delonte West uncertainty and the not-so-small matter of trying to get Shaq integrated and productive by April on top of all the LeBron-induced anxiety. Most worrisome of all? The declining salary cap has scuttled any reasonable hope that the Cavs would have the financial flexibility to pursue Chris Bosh or another marquee free agent to be James' new sidekick … when the world can also see that he definitely needs more long-term help.

Even if the Cavs do find a way to win it all this season, those who know James best say he's a virtual lock to at least go see what's out there. The assumption in circulation is that LeBron will make a small flurry of free-agent visits to soak up some major-league courting after emerging as a pro prospect at -- what? -- 12 and missing out on the whole collegiate recruiting experience.

"July 1 is right around the corner," LeBron told reporters in Cleveland on the eve of his trip to MSG, "so it's going to be really exciting."

Right around the corner? He might be the only Ohioan who feels that way.

There is no greater evidence to convey how far the Knicks have fallen than the fact that ESPN hasn't chosen to televise a single game from MSG in more than three years.

And we all know Knicks jokes have replaced Clippers jokes from coast to coast.

However …

Dismiss the lure of Madison Square Garden and the Mike D'Antoni-Donnie Walsh partnership at your own peril.

MSG will forever be a basketball mecca, with or without its forthcoming expensive renovation, because Jordan declared it so. The Knicks also happen to have a coach who has undeniably strong street cred; D'Antoni is admired by just about everyone he's worked with on Team USA. For all the valid questions about what the Knicks will be able to put around him, after stripping their roster all the way down to create maximum cap space, D'Antoni and Walsh are going to have a legit shot at LeBron.

Perhaps I'm a hopeless (and gullible) romantic, but I even believe that the prospect of being the guy who resurrects the Knicks and MSG appeals to LeBron almost as much as the aforementioned Cleveland-curse-lifter scenario.

What has to worry the Knicks -- even before they get to the obvious nightmare scenario of missing on LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh and then manufacturing a passable Plan D -- is how much and how quickly the landscape has changed.

The leaguewide consensus for much of last season, when you broached this subject with league executives, pegged this as a purely Cleveland-or-New York decision for James. Not any more.

The Knicks might quietly have the first seeds of a quality supporting cast in their possession if Danilo Gallinari keeps developing and they find a way to re-sign David Lee, but they legitimately can't even be sure that they're still the Cavs' biggest threat.

The Knicks can no longer even be sure that they're the biggest threat to the Cavs' in the greater New York area.

Not when the Nets have a hulking Russian worth nearly $10 billion coming in as their new owner.

Not when that hulking Russian billionaire will inherit LeBron's dear friend and the uber-influential Jay-Z as a minority partner, barring unlikely blockage of Mikhail Prokhorov's ownership bid by the NBA.

Not when a roster Prokhorov is paying some $700 million for the right to purchase might not be good enough now to deliver 25 wins this season … but nonetheless features quality youth at the two hardest-to-fill positions.

Devin Harris is a 26-year-old point guard coming off his first trip to the All-Star Game. And James, I'm told, has rated Harris highly since he began to develop in Dallas. Brook Lopez, meanwhile, is a 21-year-old center who -- no joke -- would conceivably be the No. 2 overall pick if we let teams redo the 2008 draft.

Factor in how the Nets are on course to have more cap space than anyone next summer to likely sign at least one quality helper along with LeBron, and you can see why no one's denying that the Nets have to be back in this conversation. Least of all the Knicks.

The issue, as we've heard for years with these guys, is location, location, location. For all the abuse Cleveland weathers about its image, New Jersey somehow has a worse rep, judging by the leaguewide rush to dismiss any hope the Nets have if they're forced to play in Newark for two years (or more) until their Brooklyn arena fantasy becomes reality.

Heard it from someone plugged into the Team USA scene this week. From a prominent player agent. From an Eastern Conference team official, too.

Move Miami up your list.

That's the advice I'm getting more and more. No doctorate required to understand the thinking, either: Miami's combination of Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley, sufficient cap space to sign one max player and the bonus attraction of South Beach adds up to an offer LeBron might not be able to refuse.

Did we mention D-Wade?

The long-held assumption around the league called for Riley -- forever married to the idea that you win nothing without a dominant big man -- to try to sign Bosh away from Toronto to partner with D-Wade, helped along by the fact that Bosh and Wade are both represented by Chicago-based agent Henry Thomas. Yet one source close to the situation told on Thursday night that the theory is outdated. The source is further convinced that Bosh isn't even looking at Miami and that Riley is definitely dreaming of a Wade-and-LeBron combo.

Michael Beasley might be the only other NBA-worthy starter besides Wade on the Heat's roster come July -- and Beasley obviously still has plenty to prove -- but surely James will be tempted. Think about it.

Let's not overstate the chance to work with Riley or the South Beach factor but instead focus solely on the opportunity to hook up with his fellow 2003 draftee and form what might be the most dynamic perimeter tag team of all-time. At worst? LeBron and Wade could sure put a modern/scary/spectacular spin on the Jordan-and-Scottie Pippen concept.

I'm starting to get the vibe that the Cavs know it, too.

If you're looking for a long shot -- and we concede it's an extreme long shot -- we've got a more genuine nominee than the Clippers (LeBron isn't playing in Kobe Bryant's building or putting any faith in the stewardship of Donald Sterling no matter how good lining up next to Blake Griffin sounds) or the Bulls (since it's equally tough to imagine him driving past His Airness' statue on his way to every home game.)

We repeat: The host city for the 2010 All-Star Game is Long Shot City. That said, Dallas has more in its favor than you think.

Dirk Nowitzki would appear to be the best big man LeBron could conceivably hook up with next summer, which would also mean playing with the Mavs' lead recruiter and James' close friend Jason Kidd.

It doesn't hurt that LeBron is said to be fond of the area and undoubtedly loves the Cowboys as much as or more than he loves the Yankees. Or that Mark Cuban was the NBA's original spare-no-expense owner in the new millennium.

The glaring obstacle here, besides the inevitable suggestions that Big D is neither big enough nor sufficiently glamorous for James, is that the Mavs won't have any cap space to throw at him. Dallas would thus have to propose a sign-and-trade, presumably headlined by Josh Howard and perhaps Erick Dampier's cap-friendly contract for payroll relief, that the Cavs would naturally want no part of.

But here's the thing: Participating in a sign-and-trade has to be more palatable than seeing James walk without compensation. So if it ever gets to that point of darkness for Gilbert -- where participating in LeBron's exit is better than the alternative -- working with his kindred spirit among NBA owners (and sending LeBron to the Western Conference) likely would be the easiest set of circumstances for the Cavs to stomach.

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Wade+LeBron=Something great.

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