Thursday February 18th, 2010

This week, in a move that made perfect sense but was also absolutely insane, the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired Antawn Jamison.

It made sense because Jamison makes the Cavs a better team. It was insane because, for the first time I can remember, the team with the best record in the NBA had to worry more about the future than the present at the trade deadline This is what LeBron James' looming free agency has wrought.

Put yourself in Cavs GM Danny Ferry's office this week. The common feeling around the NBA was that Ferry had to make a move ... even though his team has the best record in the league. Why? Partly because most people figure the Lakers are better than Cleveland. But it's largely because Ferry has to convince LeBron that the Cavs are doing everything they can to win.

But how do you convince LeBron? Ferry had two primary options: Antawn Jamison and Amar'e Stoudemire.

Should Ferry have acquired Stoudemire? There were rumors that's what James wanted. Stoudemire is younger than Jamison (26 instead of 33), and though Stoudemire will be a free agent this summer, he could potentially re-sign and be Pippen to James' Jordan.

But ... Jamison fits the Cavs better right now. Stoudemire and Shaquille O'Neal are like the odd couple in the middle; Stoudemire is a fast-break guy and Shaq is a fast-food guy. Stoudemire could potentially have been a disaster for this season. And I don't think LeBron would say "Hey, that's OK, it was my idea in the first place. Where do I re-sign?" Megastars don't think that way.

But ... what if they trade for Jamison and still don't win the title? Then Cleveland's two big moves in the last year (bringing in Jamison and Shaq) would have made them older and tied up cap space. What are they selling LeBron then? And if he leaves, then what do they have? A mess, is what.

But ... what if LeBron has already decided to leave anyway?

What if he has already decided to stay?

This is a crazy situation. We've seen championship contenders in some crazy situations before. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers led the league in tension for four straight years. The 2005 Pistons nearly repeated even though coach Larry Brown kept calling timeout to listen to other job offers.

But this is different. This is a team that actually has a bigger goal than a championship. If you're a Cleveland fan, and you had to choose, wouldn't you rather lock up LeBron for the next five years than win this year's title? I know it is the most tortured sports town in America, but I'd take LeBron for the next five years. You'd get five years of the best show in sports -- and probably at least one or two titles to go with it.

So I don't think anybody has really been wrong here. James is entitled to play out his contract and test free agency. Cleveland really has no choice but to make every move with him in mind.

But in the end, I think Cleveland made the right decision. You have to try to win now. If you fail, and LBJ flies to JFK and signs with the Knicks ... well, at least you know you tried to win a championship. It would be much worse to make a deal you didn't want to make, then lose him anyway.

Cleveland is still the favorite to sign LeBron, and for good reason. I think some people have this vague notion that if you leave Cleveland for New York you hit the big-time and get to star in Broadway shows and sit in the back room at Toots Shor's, and that is not how the American landscape looks in 2010.

Sure, there is nothing like winning in New York. But how much does James love this city? If he goes to the Knicks will we see tabloid photos of him looking through a viewfinder on top of the Empire State building, wearing an I (Heart) NY t-shirt and eating an oversized soft pretzel?

If LeBron leaves Cleveland, his popularity will go down -- he'll look like he abandoned his first team and his hometown AND his best shot at winning. Besides, half the country doesn't even like New York. (I can say that because I'm a native New Yorker and I know that half of New York isn't all that fond of the rest of the country either.)

LeBron could also lose money if he goes to the Knicks, not just because they can't offer as much as Cleveland can, but because the backlash could hurt his endorsement potential. This idea that you need to be in a big city to make the big endorsement bucks is nonsense. Look at Peyton Manning.

The Knicks' best hope is to bring in another superstar like Chris Bosh to play with James -- and now that they cleared cap space, they can do that. Still, I like what Cleveland did. At the end of the day, after all the worrying and speculation, the Cavs have to trust that LeBron James wants to be remembered as a winner. And this trade gives him the best chance to win.

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