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Is LeBron leaving Cleveland?

This column appeared in the Feb. 15, 2010 issue of the magazine.

Should LeBron James decide to move on this summer as a free agent, 2010 will be to Clevelanders what 2012 was supposed to be to the Mayans. But there's good reason to believe that an Ohio apocalypse will be averted. An informal SI poll of a dozen NBA insiders-team executives, coaches and a high-profile agent-finds only two predicting that James will leave the Cavaliers, with both anticipating he'll jump to the Knicks.

"Every time I fly into Cleveland and drive toward [Quicken Loans Arena] downtown and look around, I just can't see him re-signing there," said an Eastern Conference executive whose team is not in the running to sign James. Adds a Western GM, "This whole Tiger Woods scandal comes into play. The world is looking for a new guy to be No. 1, and that makes the New York stage more important to LeBron than ever."

But seven insiders are convinced that James isn't going anywhere, while the other three rate his chances of sticking around at 50-50-depending on Cleveland's performance in the playoffs. While the Cavs can offer James close to $30 million more than any other team over the length of a six-year contract, money is the least of LeBron's concerns; he earns an estimated $28 million per year off the court. Winning is his priority: The Knicks have one of the league's least-talented rosters, and 25-year-old James knows from experience how long it can take to build a title contender from scratch, even when he is the centerpiece.

The Cavs, on the other hand, appear to be on the verge of giving Cleveland its first title in a major sport since 1964, when the Browns were NFL champions. They have done everything they can to keep James, from installing a defense-first mind-set that has become the hallmark of championship franchises to building the league's best practice facility to making inroads in the lucrative Chinese market by taking on a Chinese minority ownership group. Is he really going to throw all that away for a chance to be the savior in New York? And what if he were to go to New York and not deliver a title? James would be viewed as-yes-a bust.

The other reason for LeBron to stay in Cleveland is that he needs to be loved, not only because he is a naturally affable guy, but because his goal of becoming a global icon along the lines of Michael Jordan depends on people really, really liking him. The Cavaliers are not just any franchise; they are James's hometown team. If he were to walk out on a struggling city -- where unemployment is nearly 11 percent -- then he'll find a lot of people suddenly cheering for him to lose. Said a Western GM, "If he leaves Cleveland for New York, he'll never sell another shoe in the Midwest and another shoe in a small market, because people will be so insulted."

And whither the rest of the class of '10? SI's panel of insiders predicts overwhelmingly that Dwyane Wade will stay with the Heat. (One respondent split his vote to give Chicago a 50-percent chance of luring Wade back to his hometown, and another voter predicted that he'll sign with the Knicks.) And only five insiders believe that Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson will re-sign with the Raptors and the Hawks, respectively. The consensus is that Bosh will move to Miami, where he would be a frontcourt complement to Wade, while Johnson is likely to join Derrick Rose in the Bulls' backcourt.

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