• He has made his plans clear already. Over the summer James made numerous publicity appearances to support a documentary about his Akron high school team as well as a complementary autobiography, Shooting Stars, co-authored with Buzz Bissinger. In all of his interviews James used his life story to define himself as a loyal and well-grounded friend who values personal relationships above all else.
Why would he go to all of this trouble if he was planning to dump his hometown of Cleveland in order to sign elsewhere?
It's easy to anticipate the universal storyline should James decide to sign with the Knicks or Nets as a free agent this summer: He'll be the guy who was drawn away to the bright lights by the superficial lures of money and fame. In so doing he'll break the hearts of the people he has abandoned in Cleveland.
Millions upon millions of fans around the country will suddenly be rooting against LeBron if he walks out on his hometown in order to become a mercenary for the Knicks.
Everything James has done over the last year has deepened his ties with Cleveland. He chose to accept his MVP award last spring at a ceremony in his high school gym in Akron. Throughout his movie and book tour he described himself as someone who puts family and friends first. So why would he work so hard to develop that personal identity in a public way -- only to suddenly and erratically blow it all up by walking out on the people of Cleveland?
Those who believe James will jump to the Knicks argue that he'll be operating on the world's biggest stage. But that stage could hurt him more than it helps him. If he wants to be the most popular athlete on the planet -- and surely he aims to be just that -- James must be universally popular. Walking out on Cleveland won't create a warm identity for him. The glitz and size of the stage in New York will only encourage people to dislike -- rather than adore -- him.
That's why he has spent the last year renewing his bond with Cleveland. The best way to sell products -- and ultimately to sell himself -- is to be viewed as loyal to a fault. Ultimately, I believe, he'll prove that loyalty even as he is being wooed by New York: He'll appear to think about it seriously, weigh the good and the bad, and then he'll decide to stick with his small town.
If going to New York is his endgame, then I think he would have distanced himself this summer from creating a warm-and-fuzzy persona linked to the Akron/Cleveland area.
After he re-signs with the Cavaliers in 2010, James will be able to say he is committed to elevating Cleveland. In spite of his immense talent he will be viewed as taking on an underdog's mission -- because who has ever been able to rescue a city like Cleveland? But you'll see James leading championship parades through Cleveland, and investing himself in urban renewal projects for his hometown, and ultimately creating a new identity for one of the nation's least respected cities. Staying in Cleveland gives him the opportunity to make the world (or at least his little corner of it) a better place.
Loyalty is the keyword. It is the most valuable trait for any athlete who wants to be universally popular, and it is the attribute that will define LeBron's decision to re-sign with the Cavaliers. At least that's what I think.
• He has nowhere else to go. James is a very smart guy. He knows that his goal of worldwide celebrity is based entirely on winning NBA championships. If he doesn't fulfill his basketball potential by winning again and again and again, then his off-the-court goal of achieving riches and fame on an unprecedented scale will never be realized.
In New York Friday James will be playing against one of the least-talented teams in the league. The Knicks have spent more than a year cutting payroll to create space for a major free agent. Even if they're able to lure James, the Knicks are unlikely to have enough cap space to sign another max player to pair with him. It's going to take years to rebuild the roster around him.
In the meantime James will be answering daily questions in New York about why he -- the savior -- hasn't been winning championships. Each time the Knicks fail to win, it will be viewed as his fault. (Ask Kobe Bryant or Alex Rodriguez how they liked answering those types questions in recent years.)
If he moves to New York and doesn't win a championship, then James will be known as one of the biggest busts in NBA history. All hype and no substance.
The lottery-bound Nets are actually better established to turn things around quickly with James, because they have a young All-Star point guard in Devin Harris and solid second-year players in center Brook Lopez and shooting guard Courtney Lee. But they remain years away from a potential move to Brooklyn, they're in the midst of being sold to a mysterious Russian billionaire, and in the meantime they're still playing in the no-man's-land of Exit 16W in New Jersey.
There will be a lot of other teams with cap space in 2010, including the promising young Bulls. But none of those franchises makes sense for James. In Chicago he'll always be overshadowed by memories of Michael Jordan, and the other markets aren't big enough to be worthy of a move from Cleveland. For him it's going to come down to the Knicks, the Nets or Cleveland.
The Cavaliers have spent several years developing a team capable of winning the championship, and James knows as well as anyone how difficult it is to convert a losing organization into a contender. I don't think he is likely to abandon his personal investment in building that franchise.
• He hasn't complained.Shaquille O'Neal remains the only major free agent to win a championship for the team that signed him. Before Shaq left Orlando in 1996 to sign with the Lakers, he spent a year letting everyone know that he wasn't happy with the Magic. By the time he left, a lot of people in Orlando were relieved to see him go.
That wouldn't be the case in Cleveland. James has emphasized again and again that he isn't looking to move elsewhere. If he did go to New York, the people of Cleveland would be blindsided. Is that the legacy he wants to create in his hometown?
• Shaq helps him. A lot of people in the league suspect Shaq will sabotage the Cavaliers out of some need to be the dominant personality on the team. So addicted is Shaq to the spotlight, they believe, that he'll be unwilling or unable to defer to LeBron.
I think this is preposterous. This is Shaq's final run in the NBA, he has maybe three more years in him, and he isn't going to want to be viewed as the selfish demon who prevented LeBron from winning. He understands clearly that if he is viewed as a negative force in Cleveland, that image -- in combination with memories of the Shaq-Kobe divorce -- will permanently stain his popular reputation as he retires.
That's why you are going to see Shaq deferring to James and playing team ball to the best of his abilities. Let's say he is every bit the egomaniac his critics make him out to be -- then that's all the more reason for him to defer to LeBron. If James wins, then Shaq's image wins; if James loses, then Shaq's reputation loses all the more.
The truth is that James has been begging the Cavaliers to pair him with a fellow superstar like O'Neal. "Shaq's a guy that you can really deflect things off to him and he knows how to handle it," James told me in preseason. "So it's great to have his personality not only on the court but off the court, also.
"Sometimes you need that, no matter how big your shoulders are. Every now and then you want a little break (from being the only star on the team), and I think I get that with Shaq. But at the same time I'm not going to lessen what I think my job is -- to continue to be the same leader I am, the same guy that I am. But he's going to take pressure off me without me asking to do that, and you've got to respect that."
Will Shaq clog up the paint and slow Cleveland's tempo? I look at it this way: As much as he is revered as the second coming of Michael Jordan, James has always created the impression that he is more proud of comparisons to Magic Johnson. James views himself as a playmaker who scores out of necessity; he has no overwhelming desire to lead the league in scoring. If the young Magic Johnson was running this team in Cleveland, he would find a way to make things work on the floor with Shaq. Therefore I think James will be able to make it work too.
• Imagine the celebration. Maybe my point of view is all wrong, because I surely am going against popular opinion by predicting that James will remain in Cleveland. Of course, there is a possibility that he will decide to leave. But I think something horrible must happen to drive him away from the Cavaliers, whether it's a collapse of his relationships with ownership, management or teammates. And I don't see that happening.
The Cavaliers have been advised that the value of the franchise would plummet by more than $100 million -- $150 million was one figure I've heard -- if James were to leave Cleveland. That's why they've created an environment designed to hold onto him. They've built a new practice facility while steadily improving the roster around him, and if they need to make another trade at the February deadline to further space the floor around James and O'Neal, then they'll surely pursue it.
I bet James already has the entire recruiting process planned out. He'll listen to the Knicks, the Nets and anyone else who wishes to speak with him. Then he'll hold a news conference on live TV and announce that he is staying with Cleveland. It will be the professional version of national signing day, when the top high school recruit announces the college of his choice.
But it will be much bigger than that. An entire city will rejoice, and its people will speak of how proud they are of their LeBron James. Casual fans who would have booed him for going to New York will now be cheering for him because he stayed in Cleveland. By showing loyalty to his hometown, he'll have a chance to become a bigger force than he could have been on the world's greatest stage. He'll be the NBA's Family Guy.
There, I think I've stuck my neck out far enough. Now let's wait another eight months to see if I'm right.
Now, on to the rest of the Countdown ...
• Can a team have too much talent? I ask about the Blazers, who are off to a bit of a stumbling start. At a certain point, do the players' desire for minutes trump the "good of the team?"-- Sean, Seattle
A team can have too much talent if the pieces don't fit together. When I'm doing the interviews for our annual preseason breakdown of all 30 teams, the NBA scouts spend a lot of time analyzing which players need the ball in their hands to be successful, as opposed to teammates who can play without the ball as spot-up shooters and the like. The Blazers need to figure out how Brandon Roy and newcomer Andre Miller can excel on the floor together, because each needs the ball to play at his best.
But I wouldn't read too much into the Blazers' so-so start because it's such a long season: By the time we're into February and March it's hard to remember anything that happened in November.
Along these lines, coach Nate McMillan has done very well to develop a winning program while his key young players -- Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge in particular -- have been pursuing long-term contracts. It's not as easy as the Blazers have made it look to put winning first while simultaneously enabling young players to max-out individually.
• How much of this talk about impending free agency will affect the teams with those stars? Can Cleveland really focus on the Finals when they're not sure if the franchise will be in shambles next year?-- Dale, Atlanta
I don't see it as destabilizing. Just the opposite: Every team in the league is used to dealing with the "distraction" of impending free agency. The threat of leaving is a hammer used by the big stars to convince their owners to build a winning roster sooner than later. Everyone accepts free agency as a necessary part of the business, and without it there would be less incentive for teams to pursue a championship.
• Before the season, there seemed to be concerns that a few teams might be in more financial trouble than others. Do you foresee any clubs relocating soon? If so, what city tops the list of contenders?-- Bryce, Charlotte
Until the Kings work out a deal for a new arena in Sacramento, there will be rumors of their departure to cities like Anaheim or Las Vegas. But there aren't a lot of promising markets open for NBA franchises. Instead of looking for new homes, the owners are waiting for the arrival of a new collective bargaining agreement in 2011-12 to rescue them. They'll be seeking a larger share of the revenue as well as shorter contracts and other concessions from the players, which is leading to anticipation of a lockout that season. Negotiating a new CBA is the priority for owners.
• What do the Suns have in the water in Phoenix that allows so many older players to thrive with nary an injury? Are their trainers that much more advanced? Is the Suns' start for real or will Father Time catch up?-- Steve, Ft. Worth, Texas
The Suns benefit from a system known as Optimum Performance Training, designed by Suns physical therapist Dr. Michael Clark and applied by Aaron Harris, the team's athletic trainer. Their system is based on a scientific understanding of how different parts of the body help or hinder each other. If a player's knee is bothering him, the Suns' staff may focus on treating weaknesses or imbalances elsewhere in the body that are destabilizing the knee. I wrote about this a couple of years ago when Amar'e Stoudemire was rehabbing from microfracture knee surgery.
Steve Nash is a big believer in the Suns' approach and follows the regimen religiously, which helps explain why he has never missed more than eight games in a season while averaging 34.6 minutes since coming to Phoenix in 2004. Grant Hill played 82 games at age 36 last season, while Shaquille O'Neal played 75 games (a nine-year high for him) as he recovered his form to lead the league in field-goal percentage. The Suns provided Shaq with an exercise program to rebuild the small muscles in his rear end, which enabled him to regain some of his old athleticism around the basket. So convinced was Shaq by these results that he told me last summer he would bring a training associate with him to Cleveland who is adept in the Suns' methods.
This is not to say that there aren't other means of athletic training that can be just as effective as O.P.T. There is room for a lot of different perspectives when it comes to fitness and rehab. But there can be no arguing with the results the Suns are enjoying.
How far can they go? They're a thin team, especially up front, so while their perimeter stars and their renewed up-tempo style should carry them into the playoffs, they probably won't be able to earn homecourt advantage or reach the second round. Everything will depend on keeping Nash and Hill healthy, because they are the glue on that team.
• How have you improved since leading Miami to the championship in 2005-06?
"I'm so much better, and maybe it is because I took the challenge of being a better defender. Offensively, I've been gifted all my life to be able to score points and to be able to make things happen. But I haven't taken the challenge of being the best defender, even though I've always had the tools. Now I['m taking] the challenge of being a good defender, of making sure my team knows exactly where to be on the court, of being a better leader. At 24 I was just playing basketball; I had a lot of veteran guys on my team that did a lot of the talking, that did all of that work, and I just played ball. Now I've got to do the talking, I've got to play ball, I've got to make sure guys are in their positions, I've got to be the example. It's harder, but it makes it more gratifying."
• Why did you complain publicly this summer when the Heat failed to make a major upgrade in talent?
"It's going to be criticized every time you step out and say something; and if you don't say something you're going to be criticized for it. As a leader your teammates look to you every day to step up and say something. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't. Like I was telling my teammates at the beginning of the season, me talking this summer was about me making sure that we continue to get better. That our growth is not stunted. And that's not to say that I don't believe in anyone in this locker room; that's just saying that every year you want to add the right pieces to some of the things you have.
"I'm not going back and forth during the season, because I think we've got a pretty good team. But I want to make sure as I'm in my prime that we're adding. And I believe that (team president and former) coach [Pat] Riley and (owner) Micky Arison, they're winners, they want to be winners and the love the feeling of being winners. So my job was just saying it. If I don't say it, who will? That's the way I have to approach it."
• Is there such a thing as a moral victory when you're rebuilding your team?
"Oh, for sure. They say in sports we don't want to take a moral victory. But sometimes you've got to take positive things from a loss. You take the good things and try to incorporate that into the rest of your game. Everybody takes moral victories from a loss, no matter if they want to say it or not. Because you've always got to look at things positive."
• A Western scout on the Rockets' success -- they've beaten Portland and Utah and lost in OT to the Lakers -- without Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest:"It's a lot like how they won those 22 games in a row (two years ago): it's by committee. They've got Aaron Brooks as their main guy to scramble the defense up, and after that if you're open then you shoot it, and if not then you make the next pass with everyone sharing the ball. What a concept!
"The thing that's amazing is they don't have any inside force, and it's not like they're super quick where they can run you. One thing Rick Adelman has usually done is to stick with a rotation of eight or nine guys, even if they're in shooting slumps. So if you're one of those guys and you know he's going to stick with you even if your shots aren't falling, you're not going to stress over getting your numbers or getting your touches before you get yanked out of the game -- because he isn't going to yank you for that. So there isn't that kind of tension for each player 'to get mine' at the expense of the team.
"Some of the guys they have were there when they made their run two years ago, so they know they can do it. I think they can play this way all year."
• Celtics president Danny Ainge on how he decided to recruit Rasheed Wallace last summer:"I put the most weight on the opinions of K.G. (Kevin Garnett), who has known Rasheed since he was coming into the league. So have Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen], so what do they think of how he can fit into our team? Because they've both played against him. And then what does Doc [Rivers] feel, and how does Doc feel he can coach him? Doc talked with all of Rasheed's coaches, so he had a pretty good feel. So now Doc wants him, and Paul, Ray and K.G. feel like he's a perfect fit for us. That's the most important thing, what they think, because obviously I already think Rasheed is a good fit, or else I wouldn't bring it to their attention as something we should explore.
"Then I talk with people I know around the league, whether it's media people who have been around an organization, or players that I'm familiar with that played with him. And the amazing thing is everybody has differing views of a guy like Rasheed. Most people like Rasheed and yet he's an enigma. He's not the easiest guy to coach, and yet he can be a coach's greatest asset at the same time. More than whether we want him or don't want him, the research we do and the conversations that we have is so that you know what you're getting. So obviously we're not going to be shocked when Rasheed gets a technical foul, because we know Rasheed is a very emotional player. We have some emotional players on our team, and that can be a blessing and sometimes that's a curse. K.G. is very emotional, Perk (Kendrick Perkins) is very emotional, Rasheed's very emotional. We have seen how intense all three of these guys can be and what their desire is to win, and I'd much rather take players with emotion than players without emotion and trying to light a fire in them.''
• During a recent visit to Indiana I asked Larry Bird -- a big baseball fan -- what he thought about the controversial umpiring during the baseball playoffs.
I mentioned to Bird that the problems in baseball gave me new perspective on the difficulties facing refs in the NBA. "I know our league has got the best officials in the world," said Bird. "I think overall they do a tremendous job. There are different ways that different officials officiate, but we should be very honored we do have the best."
I'm not certain that the NBA has the best officials of any sport -- who knows? -- but I do believe they have the most difficult job among the officials in the major team sports. Every time I saw an umpire fail to notice whether a baserunner was standing a step away from third base when he was tagged out, or fail to see a batted ball bouncing on the wrong side of the foul line, I was reminded how much more difficult the job is for an NBA referee to be sprinting back and forth without being able to anticipate where the play may ensue.
While umpires are charged with a lot of black-or-white decisions -- either the ball was fair or foul, either the throw beat the runner or it didn't -- NBA referees are faced with a number of subjective decisions. "It's tough," agreed Bird of the burdens on NBA refs. "If you really went by the rules, you could call something every time."
NBA director of officials Bernie Fryer insists that there should be few subjective calls during NBA games. Even when an explosive athlete collides out of nowhere with a defender who is trying to draw the charge, Fryer believes there should absolutely be a right call and a wrong call with no gray area in between. But the speed and unpredictability of the game makes it difficult to separate point-of-view from fact.
Bird felt sympathy for umpires working behind the plate. Whenever a pitch was borderline, the TV networks would impose a virtual strike zone to show whether it should have been called a strike or a ball. "I don't know if that box is 100 percent accurate," said Bird. "I think it really hurts baseball when they put the [virtual] strike zone in there. If you're going to do that, why have an umpire behind the plate?"
Speaking as a fan, Bird also wondered if baseball should introduce instant replay to verify calls such as the inning-ending double play in Game 2 of the World Series in which Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard was credited with catching a line drive off the bat of Johnny Damon. Zoomed-in replays showed that the ball in fact skipped off the infield dirt into Howard's glove, but it would have been very difficult for an umpire to recognize that. "You get somebody in the booth to see that," said Bird. "You don't need a minute. You could see that within 5 seconds."
As much as the problems in baseball may create sympathy for the difficulties of refereeing in the NBA, I pointed out to Bird that he'd be likely to forget that perspective many nights this season when he is frustrated by the decisions that hurt his Pacers.
"That's human nature, you pull for your own team, you want them to do well," he said with a shrug. "It's normal."