When a native asks if you’re attending the Saturday night Knicks-Cleveland game at the Q, reply, “Yes, and I’m excited about seeing LeBron James play his final season in Cleveland.”
The response is either laughter, utter disdain or both. A guy on Cleveland’s Rapid Transit rail tells me it’s “80-20” — 80 percent of Northeast Ohio patrons believe James will re-sign with the Cavaliers. Then he adds curiously, “But if the Cavs win the championship, that drops to 50-50. He’ll want to win another one somewhere else.”
That is the Cleveland inferiority complex at work. Even if James reaches the summit in Cleveland, bringing the city its first NBA title, he still would want to leave. It’s nonsense, flying against everything James has chattered about in the run-up to his free agency, which begins July 1.
Last night, James stopped chattering, blowing off his pregame interview session, which is becoming more commonplace.
During the Cavs’ 113-106 victory over the Knicks, several fans held up signs reading “No York” — a reference to the Knicks’ pursuit of James, who dropped 47 on them.
The better the Cavaliers do this season — and right now they own the NBA’s best record at 41-11 — the worse the Knicks’ chances of making the biggest score. The worse the Knicks do this season also takes the air out of the July grand ball.
Cleveland Magazine reported 40.5 million Google results for the phrase “LeBron James unrestricted free agent.” The magazine deduced in a cover story titled “LeBron Will Stay” that after parsing all the quotes on the subject, a 90-percent chance exists he doesn’t leave Cleveland.
The worst-kept secret in sports is that James, a pending free agent, is the Knicks' primary target starting July 1. The best thing the Knicks have to offer is Madison Square Garden and endless marketing opportunities - although James appears to be doing pretty well in the marketing department while wearing a Cavs uniform.
Cleveland is also providing James with the best chance to win, which James says is his top priority. The Cavs have now won 11 straight games and are on pace to lock up the NBA's best record for a second straight year. The Knicks have to root for Boston, Orlando or Atlanta to knock off Cleveland during the postseason because a second trip to the NBA Finals would likely result in James re-signing with the Cavs.
"That's what we're thinking," said one Cavs official. "You never know what could happen but I think he'll stay."
The Cleveland franchise is cautiously optimistic that James will spend the prime years of his career - or at least the next three - in his home state. But they also understand the lure of New York City. Walsh has plenty to offer James, except a winning team.
Mike D'Antoni's squad is 19-31 and will struggle to make the playoffs. The Knicks are on pace for a ninth straight losing season and thus it's hard to imagine James leaving to join a rebuilding team.
"I think they're trying to show LeBron that (Danilo) Gallinari is a good piece to build around," said the Cavs official. "I like him as a player but right now he's one-dimensional. And a lot of those other guys are free agents and won't be back. The Knicks are going to get someone this summer. I have no idea who that is but they're still a few years away from being a contender."
James has refused to discuss his future for several months, but people close to him claim that he hasn't made a decision yet. The Knicks are hoping to get him to visit the Garden on July 1 and there is a feeling that James, who likes the attention, would milk the recruiting process for as long as possible.
As a Cleveland fan, I won't believe LeBron is staying until he signs that dotted line but I won't pretend that this isn't a positive development either. If NY folks are starting to realize that LeBron leaving is a long shot, then things are trending in the right direction.
The Cavs and Dan Gilbert can't offer beaches or the big city, but he can offer a winning franchise with top flight facilities (oh, and the most money). As I've said before, James isn't hurting trying to find marketing gigs here in C-Town (and by the way, that McDonalds' Super Bowl HORSE ad with Dwight Howard wasn't that good) and I doubt he wants to start over with a team trying to make the playoffs. The Cavs are winning and the teams hoping to sign LeBron aren't, you can't ask for much more than that.