LeBron James and NBA Free Agency: Trying To Answer The Tough Questions

For the last couple days, I’ve been debating how I was going to attack this article.

Thursday, July 1, 2010. The start of NBA free agency. I couldn’t even tell you when my dad’s birthday is, yet I’ve had this date marked on my calendar for two years. So has every NBA fan nationwide.

Today isn’t just a big story, but one which could change the NBA as we know it forever. Will the stars end up in New York? What about L.A.? Could they change the fortunes of the Heat or Nets? What about the Bulls? Are they all going to go their own ways?

But for all the talk about which guy will end up where, what this ultimately all comes down to is one man, and one question: Where will LeBron James land. Because once the LeBron domino falls, all the others will fall with it.

Which is why rather than spending the rest of this article talking about Bosh and Wade, Boozer or Amare, Dirk or Paul Pierce, I’m skipping them all. This is about LeBron.

But before we can get an answer to where he ends up, we need to first start asking the important questions…

When It Comes To LeBron…The Best Case Scenario For The NBA Is…New York Knicks

So here’s the thing: Even though I more closely associate myself with the Boston teams (Don’t worry though, I hate the Patriots just as much as you do), I feel like I understand New Yorker’s and their fans just as well, if not better.

Make no mistake, New York is a tough, tough place to play. Nobody is harder on their teams or players. One of my best friends is a Mets fan, and he gave up on his team four games into this season. Seriously, he was done. On April 5. That’s New York for you.

No city will boo you, and boo you as mercilessly as New York. It doesn’t matter if you won a championship last year, if you’re stinking up the joint this year, they’ll let you know it. Whether you’re Javy Vasquez getting it after your second start of the season, or Eli Manning getting it two years after you won a Super Bowl, that’s just how New York is. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Grand Central trying to catch a train, or you’re Mark Teixeira trying to hit a 94 mph fastball, everything in New York moves 4000 miles an hour, and you better get going, or get the hell out of the way.

On the flip side though, when you perform in New York, there’s nothing like it. It doesn’t matter that Mickey Mantle was a drunk, we remember him as one of the greatest centerfielders ever. It doesn’t matter that Joe Namath lost more professional starts than he won. We remember him as a Super Bowl icon. Look at Derek Jeter. Sure the guy has five rings. But would he be Derek Jeter, the most recognizable player in baseball, and the guy plowing through the most beautiful women in the world like they’re college sorority girls if he’d won those five rings in Seattle, Milwaukee or St. Louis? Of course not.

Which is the pressure that LeBron would walk into.

New Yorker’s are ready to embrace him, but would never, ever give him the free reign he had in Cleveland. New Yorker’s couldn’t have cared less about LeBron’s sore elbow last spring, only whether he was getting the job done or not. Then again, when all that Delonte West-Gloria James stuff went down, New Yorker’s would have had LeBron’s  back too, that’s just how they are (You better believe that if that story broke after Game 5 and LeBron was a Knick, Vinny from Yonkers would have had Delonte hanging from a light pole by the time Game 6 tipped off. Regardless of whether it was true or not).

But if LeBron did finally come through and bring a title to New York? Well, I’m quite sure exactly what would happen. Maybe Mike Francesa would smile, I don’t know. All I do know is that this is a city where a million people turned out for the Yankees World Series parade this past fall, nine years after they won their last title. The Knicks are going on 37 title-less years and counting. How would they react if the Knicks won a championship? I’m afraid to find out.

Just as happy as the fans would be though, David Stern would be dancing a jig in his office at the same time.

Understand that the NBA lost close to $400 million this past season. Imagine how many sponsorship deals and TV ads the league could sell just if LeBron came to New York, let alone won a title there? Not to mention all the millions (Yes millions) of TV’s in the tri-state area that haven’t turned on the Knicks in years, that would all of a sudden be watching every game.

Whether David Stern wants to admit it or not, there are no bad outcomes if LeBron is in New York.

If that actually happens, remains to be seen.

When It Comes To LeBron…The Worst Case Scenario For The NBA Is? The Miami Heat

To understand why it would be bad for basketball if LeBron ended up in Miami (Assuming Dwyane Wade and another max guy, say Chris Bosh joined him), let’s first go ahead and take a history lesson from baseball.

About 20 years ago, the sport was thriving. From 1991-1993 the Minnesota Twins and Toronto Blue Jays won a combined three rings, with the Pittsburgh Pirates (Yes those Pirates), Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Indians competing for Division crowns. Seriously, think about that for a second. The Blue Jays were two-time world champions. The Pittsburgh Pirates were considered the most talented team in the National League. Baltimore…Baltimore was a baseball hot bed! As my friend John would say, “What planet am I on?”

Of course, the strike hit in 1994, and baseball quickly turned into an arms race, with have’s and have not’s creating baseball’s version of the caste system. By the turn of this century, basically every big name was playing in New York or Boston, with just a few other teams able to financially compete with them. Meanwhile, clubs like the Mariners, Twins and A’s had to repeatedly sell of talented young players like they were bad Bernie Madoff stocks, just to keep their franchises afloat.

All of that led baseball to where it is today, with essentially the same 3-4 teams purchasing the best players and competing for every World Series. Let me ask you, if you’re a Pirates, Mariners, Nationals, Indians, Royals or Marlins fan, what incentive do you have to watch baseball every spring? I can’t think of one, unless you’re into losing 100 games every year. In which case, go nuts.

While the structure of the NBA’s salary cap makes a similar caste system relatively impossible in basketball, I don’t see how having one dominant team with LeBron, Wade and fill-in-the-blank big man (Amare, Bosh, Carlos Boozer) makes the NBA all that much different.

Sure, the initial excitement of this dream team might be good for the league, boost rating and sell tickets in Miami, but when the Heart start winning every game by 20 points and piling up championships, how does that keep people interested in the NBA?

It doesn’t. And the sport would suffer.

What makes this league- as it stands- so great, is that there is just enough parity (4-5 true contenders, with another 2-3 teams that are just one piece away (Think the 2009 Denver Nuggets when they got Chauncey Billups) to keep you engaged during the regular season, but at the same time keep you guessing heading into the postseason. After all, show of hands, how many people had the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals at the beginning of this past season? How many had the Celtics going to the Finals at the start of the playoffs? The parity is what makes this sport great.

But all of that ends if LeBron and his crew end up in South Beach.

(Follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres)

When It Comes To LeBron… The Secretly Exciting Situation No One Is Talking About Is? The Los Angeles Clippers

We haven’t seen a pair this perfect for each other since Sammi and Ronnie locked lips for the first time on Jersey Shore (Ok, bad example).

For the Clippers, the benefits of bringing in LeBron are so obvious I shouldn’t even have to lay them out. But I will anyway.

The Clippers would be adding one of the best players in the world to an interesting nucleus of young players that LeBron could grow old with (Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon) and veterans that could help him win now (Chris Kaman, Baron Davis). And of course, for the first time since basically the start of time, the Clippers could finally compete with the Lakers in their own building, and steal some thunder in their own city.

For LeBron, he’d have everything needed to win now: A true point guard in Baron Davis to take some of the playmaking duties off your shoulders. A spot up wing in Eric Gordon. And two big time players in the post; one a current All-Star (Kaman) and another who is all but certain to be one in the future (Griffin). Plus, don’t you think other veterans would want to come to L.A. to fill out this roster and pursue a title?

More importantly though is for a guy who wants to be known as a “global icon,” well, LeBron would be in L.A.! Perfect!

While New York might offer more pure marketing opportunities, there’s no place in the world that LeBron could get his face out there quite like Los Angeles. Can’t you just hear the offers rolling in now?

“Hey LeBron, want to produce the new Akon video?”

“LeBron, we need a male lead for the next episode of Desperate Housewives. You’d play the edgy new paper boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Can you ride a bike?”

“LeBron, what’s up dude, Lamar Odom here. Hey Khloe’s got a sister that I think you should meet. You’re not friends with Reggie Bush are you?”

“Hey LeBron, just got off the phone with Paramount. They’re doing a remake of Airplane, and want you to reprise Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s role of Roger Murdock. Audition is Thursday, can you make it?”

That could all happen. But it could only happen in L.A.

Plus, I’m just thinking out loud here, but what better way to become a global icon than to take the Clippers- everyone’s favorite loveable loser- and turn them into champions? I can already hear the folks at Disney churning out the script now.

Of course, after all this talk, we should probably pinch ourselves and remember, “Wait a second…These are the Los Angeles freakin’ Clippers.”

For all the talk of what they do offer LeBron, here are the negatives:

They’ve made one playoff run of any significance in LeBron’s lifetime.

They don’t have a coach or GM right now (Applications still being accepted!)

Their owner was found (In a court of law) to be an outright racist.

Not exactly a place LeBron would want to spend his prime huh?

So despite the fact that all this sounds fun (Especially that Airplane remake. Can we make it happen even if LeBron doesn’t go to L.A.?) and despite the fact that this may make the most sense from a basketball and business sense, sorry Clips fans, it ain’t gonna happen.

Good news though, I heard Rudy Gay is still available!

When It Comes To LeBron… The Sentimental Choice Is? The Cleveland Cavaliers

I think I speak for most casual NBA fans (I never had a team growing up), when I say that for all of us without a horse in this race, I hope LeBron stays in Cleveland. I hope he forgets about the bright lights and superstar teammates, and stays with the people and players who’ve been by his side since day one. Because even if he wins five rings somewhere else, it won’t feel the same if he has to leave Cleveland to do it.

Beyond that, here are two more “Big Picture,” thoughts on LeBron leaving Cleveland.

The first has to do with the city itself. I’m not saying that I completely understand the psyche of Clevelander’s because I don’t, and would never claim to. I just know as a fellow sports fan I have sympathy, because let me tell ya, they’ve been through a lot of B.S. over these last couple years. For the sake of any who might be reading, I won’t rehash it all, just understand that the city of Cleveland hasn’t had a pro sports championship since 1964. That’s a long time.

What can’t be understated though is this: If LeBron can’t get Cleveland through this, who can?

This isn’t Kobe coming from Philly to play in Los Angeles for the Lakers, or Allen Iverson coming from the Hampton Roads to play in Philly. LeBron is a Clevelander. He’s one of them, someone who has been through all the heartache and bad breaks. If LeBron looks around at the situation and sees it as too bleak, what chance do the Cavaliers have at keeping their next superstar from skipping town? Or the one after that?

The second big picture thing is, if LeBron leaves Cleveland, what does that say about the future of small market basketball?

We already talked about the potential for the NBA to break into “have’s,” and “have not’s,” but let me ask you this: If LeBron skips town, and in the process leaves $30 million extra dollars on the table (That he can’t make anywhere else), how will any small market be able to compete going forward? If the opportunities are that much better in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami for LeBron, what does that say for teams in Milwaukee, Minnesota and Indiana the next time they’re trying to sign a big free agent?

It’s been said by people better connected and more intelligent than me and its true: If LeBron leaves the Cavaliers, the city of Cleveland might never recover. The same for every small city in the NBA.

When It Comes To LeBron…His Ultimate Destination Will Be? The Chicago Bulls

I went back and forth on this one quite a bit.

My initial stance was that if LeBron went to Chicago, it’d be a no-win situation for him. It wouldn’t matter if he won two, three or four titles (Which we all know isn’t easy), he’d always be compared to and competing against Michael Jordan. And as much as any great basketball player would embrace that challenge, I’m not sure it’d be worth it.

Then I started really thinking about the other options, and well, Chicago just makes the most sense.

Think about it. If LeBron went to New York, there wouldn’t be enough talent around him to win right away. If he went to Miami, there’d be too much talent around him, and he’d never get the credit that he deserved when they won title after title. He isn’t going to the Nets, and waiting two years for them to build their arena in Brooklyn. And he definitely isn’t going to Los Angeles to play for the Clippers, especially since they don’t have a coach or GM right now.

So in the end, it comes down to Cleveland or Chicago.

Clearly right now Chicago is the better team, and really it’s no contest. Derrick Rose is already an All-Star, and will continue to be one for another decade as long as he stays healthy. Joakim Noah is the kind of selfless big man that’d be perfect alongside LeBron. And with some moving and shaking by the front office, the Bulls should be able to clear enough cap space to bring in another free agent, be it Bosh, Amare, Joe Johnson, whoever.

But at the end of the day, LeBron’s stated goal is to be a global icon. At the same time, his unstated goal is to go down as one of the greatest (If not the greatest) players of all-time.

The only way to achieve both, is to win rings, lots of them. There’s a reason that Kobe Bryant has the No. 1 selling jersey in China (Global icon) and that Michael Jordan has a statue in front of the United Center (The best ever). No amount of highlight dunks or chest bumps with Mo Williams can replace good, old-fashioned winning.

While there’s no guarantee of championships in Chicago, the Bulls provide his best chance to win and win big. Sure LeBron might be able to win a ring or two in Cleveland, and go down as a legend within the city and state’s borders. But to be in the same breath as the greats, one ring won’t cut it.

Jordan has six. Kareem has six. Magic has five. Kobe has five and counting.

LeBron? Well the clock is ticking…

See you in Chicago.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.