Friday November 13th, 2009

A lot of mail came in following my prediction that LeBron James will ultimately re-sign with Cleveland in 2010. Like LeBron, I believe in giving the people what they want ... so here we go again ...

What are the odds Miami is LeBron's landing place? No state income taxes. Space for a maximum contract. And a friend to play with named Dwyane Wade. Does this make all the sense in the world or is there only enough space, ego-wise, for one superstar? -- James Greenberg, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Any basketball fan (who can look beyond selfish rooting interests) would love to see James and Wade together in Miami or New York, where Mike D'Antoni's offense would create phenomenal possibilities for those two playmakers.

But it's not going to happen for a lot of reasons, starting with this one: Wade would be the second option behind LeBron, and I don't think it would be selfish of Wade to be ambivalent about taking on a subservient role at this promising stage of his career. He's 26 and entering his prime years, and there's nothing wrong with his preferring to compete against LeBron rather than defer to him. That's a good thing, in fact.

When they're in their 30s and they have all of the youthful battling out of their system, maybe then they can try to play together, like the three stars in Boston. Doc Rivers has said many times that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen probably could not have teamed together in their 20s when each was trying to fulfill his potential. And we all know how it played out for the Lakers between their two "alpha males," as Kobe Bryant referred to his divorce from Shaquille O'Neal when each was in his prime.

How would you assess the job Cleveland's front office has done building a team LeBron would want to stay with beyond this year? Take him off that team -- are they a playoff club? Does a team like the Knicks have just as many young pieces with potential? -- Tim, Bronx, N.Y.

You've put your finger on the issue, Tim. If James thinks the Cavaliers haven't developed enough talent around him and he doesn't think he'll ever win a championship there, he should leave. Because he'll wind up receiving most of the blame if the team doesn't win one or more titles.

Of course he is going to have certain doubts about the Cavs, because he knows all of the strengths and weaknesses of that franchise inside and out. But he's going to recognize that other franchises will have their negative issues, too, which will remain hidden as he is being recruited. He could go elsewhere only to realize -- too late -- that he walked away from a superior organization in Cleveland. I'm trying hard to avoid "the grass isn't always greener" cliché, but I think that sensibility is going to weigh heavily in his decision.

Please don't compare the Knicks to the Cavs. It isn't fair. The Knicks have spent the past couple of years trimming back their payroll to get under the cap, while the Cavs have been scaling up their roster to complement LeBron. Cleveland's lineup is superior at every position. If James hadn't played a game for the Cavs this season, they would still be far more talented than the 1-8 Knicks.

So what do you think LeBron was suggesting when he said winning was more important in his decision than a max contract? Would he take less to go play in a place like Dallas? Was he sending a message that the Cavs can't lock him up with offering the most money? -- Jared, Dayton, Ohio

He was creating a larger market for himself. A lot of people -- me included -- figured there was no reason for him to look beyond Cleveland or New York. Fair enough, he doesn't want to limit his options to the Cavs, Knicks and Nets. There are going to be a lot of teams under the cap this summer, and why shouldn't he consider all of them?

That was smart of him to declare last week that he'll make his decision based on the potential to win championships and nothing else, not only because it opens up more competition to sign him but also because a decision to sacrifice a portion of his salary would mitigate the criticism he would receive for abandoning the city of Cleveland.

And you're right, at the same time he continues urging the Cavs to push toward a championship if they want him to stay. They can offer him a better contract than any rival, but that's not going to be reason enough to keep him in Cleveland.

How far do the Cavs have to go this year to persuade LeBron to stay? Is it title or bust? If they get knocked out before the Finals, is he gone? -- Lee Tindle, Pittsburgh

All of this speculation is going to make the playoffs more intriguing than ever. But I don't know the answer to your question.

It will be an easy decision for him to leave if he loses all faith in the organization -- irreconcilable differences, etc. Will he simply want out of Cleveland? I don't envision it coming to that.

So let's say they lose in the conference finals to Boston or Orlando, or in the NBA Finals to the Lakers or Spurs. Now he has to weigh everything. If he were to move to New York or Chicago or the Clippers (that one I throw in for laughs -- no way would he marry his career to Donald T. Sterling), he'd have to feel extremely confident that he could win championships there. And he'd also have to take into account the damage incurred to his good name after walking out on his hometown.

That's why I think he'll stay in Cleveland, because he has too much going for him there to walk out on that investment. As long as the Cavs are right there with the best teams in the league to give James a chance at the championship, there is no compelling reason for him to abandon Cleveland and thereby absorb a highly negative impact to his reputation.

But here's one perspective I didn't bring up last week. Let's say he wins the championship for the Cavs this season. Does that victory crack open the door for him to move to New York? Maybe it does. Because then people can't complain that James walked out on Cleveland before he accomplished the mission. After he has given a championship to his hometown, he can say that it's time for him to strike out on his own and try something new. And with a ring on his finger, he buys himself a couple of years to turn things around in New York.

Just thought I'd throw that scenario out there. But the bottom line is I still think he's staying in Cleveland.

Supposedly, part of LeBron's strategy for keeping his free agent options open is to put pressure on the Cavs to improve the team. There doesn't seem to be much more they can do at this point. If he really wants to stay, why not just verbally commit now? -- Al, Parma, Ohio

I have to disagree. The Cavs still need to decide whether to replace troubled Delonte West at shooting guard, and they probably need a mid-range-or-deeper shooter at power forward to create more space for Shaq in the post (see below). So I don't think they're done improving this roster, and there will be players available at the February trading deadline as losing teams attempt to cut costs and improve their lottery position.

The one point that's being missed amid the 2010 mania is that it's a spectacularly good thing for the league. I don't agree at all that James is disrespecting his franchise or causing any harm by raising the possibilities of moving to another team next summer. He had no say over which team would draft him, and he has already signed one contract to remain with the Cavs. After seven years in Cleveland, he'll take a look around and decide whether he wants a fresh start elsewhere. What's so wrong with that?

It's the least he deserves. The player came into the league as the most-hyped draft pick of the modern era and he has turned out to be better than anyone anticipated. The biggest scandal he has created was to walk off the court at the end of last season without shaking hands. Big deal. In the meantime, a lot of people have made money off him, and he has elevated one of the league's worst franchises while creating a feel-good story in his hometown in what has otherwise been a highly cynical era for the NBA.

He's a 24-year-old who likes to wear a Yankees cap. Where is the harm? What is the problem? If he is pressuring the Cavs to build a championship team around him -- or else -- isn't that a good thing? If he wasn't demanding excellence from his franchise, he would be criticized, justifiably, for not showing leadership. By threatening to leave, he is actually trying to create a winning environment in which he can stay.

When he talks about moving to other markets, all he is doing is creating hope in New York or Miami or Chicago. (Everywhere but the Clippers.) He is telling the fans in those cities that he sees promise there, and that they should see it, too. That's a great thing for the NBA. In that sense, James has emerged as an NBA ambassador in this worldwide Twitter age of chat-room speculation and Internet gossip. LeBron gets all of that, and he drives it and exploits it to the benefit of himself and the NBA as a whole. For two years, the anticipation of his 2010 decision has drummed up interest in pro basketball that wouldn't otherwise exist. I am absolutely certain that David Stern is grateful not only for the enduring buzz but also for a superstar who understands the big picture in such a comprehensive way.

This whole 2010 bonanza has turned into a kind of national campaign orchestrated by LeBron. If you look at it for what it is -- a harmless cottage industry designed to increase public interest in LeBron as well as the entire league -- the end game becomes easier to discern. I'm going to stand by my posting of last week: Unless something disastrous happens to change his circumstances with the Cavs, I think LeBron James is laying the groundwork to remain in Cleveland. The happiest of all endings.

On to the rest of the Countdown ...

These questions are proof that the world doesn't revolve (entirely) around the soon-to-be No. 6.

Can you see any situation in which Allen Iverson would agree to play off the bench for a team? Seems that unless he comes off that stance, his career is over. Agree? -- Stan Godecker, Ridgewood, N.J.

The more I think about this, the more sympathy I feel for Iverson. At his size, he never could have become one of dominant players of his generation if he'd paid mind to the opinions of others. He spent a prolific decade driving himself hard at bigger opponents whose only defense was to knock him down, and he kept getting back up to go at them again and again. He was an amazing performer and the most charismatic player of his time.

So now we expect him to listen now that everyone is telling him he doesn't have it anymore? That isn't going to happen.

If the single-minded stubbornness that drove him for all of those years in Philadelphia had an on/off switch, he would have switched it off a long time ago. Nobody would choose to expose himself to such punishment -- especially someone as celebrated as Iverson, who had already earned the guarantee of a nine-figure contract and the love of his fans.

Iverson isn't the talent he used to be, but he remains the same person. This stubbornness is the surviving attribute of who he was. We can't have it both ways -- applauding his stubbornness then, criticizing that stubbornness now. He proved us all wrong a decade ago and he thinks he's going to prove us wrong today. It's like he doesn't have a choice in how he approaches these farewell years. This is the only role he knows to play, and it appears to be impossible for him to listen to advice or accept anything less than what he has known.

Unless there is a major backcourt injury in the league that creates a need for Iverson, I don't think anyone is going to offer him a job as a starting guard. My guess is that he will retire, and someday when somebody makes a documentary of Allen Iverson, this will be the time of his life when the sad music begins to play.

What sort of market do you see for Tracy McGrady's services? Couldn't the Rockets really use the scoring, or is his contract so bad that they would give him away for a bag of magic beans? -- Jason Keizer, Fort Worth, Texas

Actually, his contract is spectacularly good. McGrady's $22.5 million salary expires this summer, which could leave Houston within reach of creating space to sign a max free agent to pair with Yao Ming, who hopes to be back next season. They could also trade McGrady before the February deadline in exchange for a franchise star with an expensive long-term deal (whether an expensive talent like that will be available is TBD).

If the 30-year-old McGrady comes back in the next couple of months and proves he has regained his lift after undergoing knee surgeries the past two years, a contender may be willing to offer a worthwhile package to Houston to rent McGrady for the playoff run.

The one thing I don't envision is McGrady's playing for Houston next season.

With the eventual purchase of the Nets by the Russian billionaire, could we finally see the first European head coach in the NBA? Who might it be? -- Rick, Los Angeles

If Mikhail Prokhorov wishes to involve himself in the basketball operations, an obvious choice from abroad will be Ettore Messina, who coached Euroleague champion CSKA Moscow when Prokhorov was financing that team a few years ago. Messina, a 50-year-old Italian, has long been hailed in this space as the most likely European-raised coach to run an NBA team.

But Prokhorov had very little involvement in the day-to-day management of CSKA, and I would expect him to continue that hands-off approach with the Nets. My impression is that he's most interested in the real estate aspect of the Nets' planned move to Brooklyn. Then again, he'll know that the basketball team needs to excel in order to maximize his investment.

Any chance that if Isiah Thomas somehow succeeds at Florida International that he could work his way back into the NBA as a coach again? Or has he sealed his fate after his Knicks debacle? -- Josh, Westport, Conn.

He took a beating for four years in New York, and it will require a lot of success for him to overcome that negative image. Thomas needs to forget all about the NBA and spend the years ahead focusing entirely on his new career as a college coach. If he eventually reinvents himself as a big winner in the NCAA Tournament, the NBA will come back to him.

On trying to rebuild the Suns without falling to last place:

"In this league, it's very difficult to be able to do that. Because you have to be careful about not ending up in no man's land where you never pick higher than 15th but you never get past the first round of the playoffs. At the same time, there's no guarantee that you're going to end up with a great player if you're in the lottery, either. There's so much luck involved in this business that you can't count on anything.

"So you try to manage your cap, you try to put together a good product and you try to give yourself a chance to have a good season and a good future, whether it's through a trade or through free agency. Or -- heaven forbid -- if you have some injuries and you're in the lottery, then you take your shot there. But we certainly would never plan to be a bad team and build that way. I don't think that makes any sense."

On the lessons of his first two seasons as Suns GM, including the 2008 midseason trade for Shaq:

"I've learned so much and you're absolutely right, it was difficult to take over a team that was close -- but maybe not as close as perception. We were really good, but we never got to the Finals. We were flawed defensively and depth-wise. And we obviously took a shot with Shaq, trying to get over the hump. I said it at the time when we made the trade: I'm going to be the genius or the moron. And I've been the moron. That's part of this business.

"The difficult part was just pulling the trigger on that [trade] knowing that we're giving ourselves a better chance, because the other team [without Shaq] wasn't going to win, we knew that. But to also know that if this doesn't work, I'm going to get blasted, and I'm the fall guy. I'm the guy who broke up the run-and-gun Suns. On the other hand, that's my job. You take a lot of heat and there's a lot of pressure and you live with it.

"I think about everything. I think about the relationship with your coach, the relationship with your owner, the relationship with your key players, and all of that factors into everything you do. And that's the tricky part of the job --navigating your way through all of these different egos and personalities and desires and needs, and ultimately leading the team in the right direction. And I think now I'm in a position where it's like, 'OK, now we can move forward.' The tough part is behind us, because we went for it and we failed and I took a beating. And that's OK. Now we can focus on what's important, which is building for the future."

On coach Alvin Gentry:

"I'm really, really blessed to have Alvin. Alvin has been a lifesaver for me. We have an awesome relationship. We collaborate on everything. He's exactly the right coach for this team and for me as a general manager. He's got so much experience and he's got such a good way about him, he's such a good human being. So it's been a really good relationship, and I think that's going to be a strong foundation for our organization, and for my connection with him and vice versa.''

From an Eastern Conference personnel scout on Philadelphia power forward Elton Brand, who is still recovering from a 2007 ruptured Achilles tendon:

"On Wednesday, the Nets dressed seven guys -- Sean Williams doesn't count -- and they lost 82-79 to the 76ers. They didn't have Yi [Jianlian], they didn't have Devin Harris, they didn't have Courtney Lee. And against that team, Elton Brand didn't make a shot. How can a guy making $80 million [on a five-year contract, with four years still to go] not make a basket against that team? You know you've lost your confidence when you get the ball under the basket and you pump-fake. If he was coming off an ACL [surgery] he might've had a better chance, because guys come back from that. But an Achilles is different. I wonder if he's done.''

From Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, on how he has been adapting to the new players in his rotation:

"The concept we worked with all summer was simplifying the system and turning it over to the guys, especially on offense, with the called plays and that kind of thing. I want Tony Parker [who has been sidelined since Nov. 6 by a sprained ankle] to take over even more, along with our guys who are returning. I've slashed the system in half as far as the number of things they have to know offensively in the playbook or whatever. They have to remember half as much, and it's because of the new guys.

"Guys in our program tend to do better in the second year than in the first year. [Matt] Bonner, [Fabricio] Oberto, [Rasho] Nesterovic, Stephen Jackson -- in the second year, they were always better. Well, I don't want it to be that way this year. That's why Tony Parker is taking more control of what's going on. The returning players are concentrating on that, and the new players don't have to learn as much. We've really simplified it so it's more [Jerry] Sloan-like, where we focus on executing, and less is better. The way the rules are, a lot more happens quickly in random situations, and with all of the new players, these guys have to adjust to each other quickly and learn from each other."

• It's all about Chris Paul now. New Orleans' MVP candidate wasn't happy that the Hornets dismissed Scott on Thursday without informing him. "I felt like, maybe somebody would have at least consulted with me and asked how I felt before it happened," Paul told John Reid of the New Orleans Times-Picayune."It's not to get my approval, but we feel we should know about the decision before it takes place."

In fairness, the Hornets would have put Paul in a difficult position by involving him in their plans to replace Scott before meeting with the coach himself.

If the Hornets don't overcome their 3-6 start and work their way back among the top teams in the West, it's only natural that Paul will be viewed as a superstar who may become available sooner than later. He is desperate to win, and he'll be looking on enviously next summer as the Cavs and Heat do everything they can to build contenders around LeBron and Wade, respectively. Teams hoping to acquire an elite talent will be watching for any signs of a fraying relationship between Paul and Hornets management.

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