As I type, there are 42 days, 16 hours, 18 minutes and nine seconds until LeBron James becomes a free agent. I know this because ESPN.com has unveiled its LeBron Tracker. I know one thing more: By the time LeBron does choose, the Worldwide Leader’s four-wall coverage of Terrell Owens and Brett Favre will be seen as comparative models of understatement.
It is, we must concede, a topic of major weight. Taking a break from coaching his Celtics against the Magic, Doc Rivers called it the biggest story since he has been in the league and likened it to what we’d have seen had Michael Jordan filed for free agency. Two things, however: LeBron isn’t quite Michael, and there’s a chance we’ll all look up two months hence and see that the as-yet-uncrowned King hasn’t gone anywhere.
A month ago the runaway consensus was that LeBron would remain a Cavalier. Today the new consensus holds that he’s had enough of Cleveland. Why? Because his team wasn’t good enough to win him a title. What this conveniently overlooks is the rather blatant truth that LeBron himself wasn’t all that great against Boston. He was awful in the Game 5 loss at home that changed everything, and his Game 6 triple double was nearly a quadruple double — he had nine turnovers.
This much hasn’t changed: The Cavaliers can still pay him more than any other team. And the longer he searches, the more LeBron figures to grasp another sobering slice of reality: There’s nowhere he can go that will guarantee him winning a title next season, or the next.
Three of the teams believed to be in the hunt — the Knicks, the Nets and the Clippers — won a total of 70 games this season past. (The Cavs won 61 by themselves.) The much-discussed pairing of LBJ and Dwyane Wade in Miami isn’t going to happen: They each need the ball all the time.
The Chicago Bulls, for whom our nation’s President is campaigning, have a point guard in Derrick Rose and a fine post player in Joakim Noah. But they were only 41-41, and they’d have to give up at least Luol Deng and possibly Kirk Hinrich in a sign-and-trade if they do land LeBron. And there’s no assurance he and Rose would mesh. The King isn’t accustomed to having someone else run his team.
The Cavaliers didn’t fail because they didn’t try hard enough. They failed because they tried too hard. They spent $20 million for the hulking has-been Shaquille O’Neal in the hope he’d guard Dwight Howard in the Eastern Conference finals, but Boston mooted that point. (And it could just be that Boston, which leads the Magic 2-nil, is better than anyone dreamed.)
They bought out Zydrunas Ilgauskas to make room for the All-Star forward Antawn Jamison, acquired at the trade deadline, and then, winking at propriety, they brought Big Z back. But Jamison was overmatched by Kevin Garnett and Ilgauskas worked a total of 34 minutes in the series, scoring seven points.
When his period of deliberation is done — down, I note, to 42 days, 15 hours, 45 minutes and 17 seconds — James will come to the realization that the Cavs can be faulted in their execution but not their commitment. They’re willing to spend whatever it takes and find him a better coach than Mike Brown, and goodness knows the city wants him to stay. (See video below. And yes, that’s the same Cleveland newsreader Bill Martin with whom I had my on-air kerfuffle last spring.)
Back to Jordan: The greatest player ever needed seven seasons to win his first NBA title, and it didn’t happen immediately after Scottie Pippen arrived as his deputy. It took the great duo four years of trying. LeBron’s seventh pro season just ended, but it must be noted that he’s only 25. Jordan was 28 when he became an NBA champ, and he won five more before he was done.
The point being: LeBron has time. No place is going to work harder for him than Cleveland, and no place will revel more when he does break through. If he wins a title as a Knick … well, Willis Reed already did that. But when the guy from Akron delivers a championship to beleaguered Cleveland, he’ll be both champion and local hero. He really will be the King.