May 14, 2010

What will LeBron James do?

Now that James' Cleveland Cavaliers have been eliminated from the NBA playoffs by the Boston Celtics, the biggest free-agent chase in basketball -- and perhaps all of sports -- history is about to begin.

It has been dubbed "the summer of LeBron."

The 25-year-old NBA megastar will officially become a free agent on July 1. James, an Akron, Ohio, native, is expected to be aggressively pursued by the Knicks, Nets, Heat and Bulls among others -- all of whom have cleared sufficient salary-cap space to land him -- as well as the Cavs, for whom James has played in his seven professional seasons.

LeBron has given few clues about his preferred destination.

"It's all about winning for me, and I think the Cavs are committed to doing that, but at the same time I'm giving myself options to this point," James said regarding his impending free agency prior to Cleveland's postseason elimination.

So why all the fuss about LeBron? The No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft already has won two MVP awards in seven seasons, averaging 27.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists for his career. And at 25, James -- who went to the NBA straight from high school -- is entering the prime of his career. He is considered one of the most marketable professional athletes in America.

Cleveland has the capability to offer LeBron as much as $30 million more than any other NBA team -- the Cavaliers likely can offer James a six-year contract worth upwards of $125.5 million, while other teams can give him a maximum of five years and $96.1 million -- but James could be tempted by intriguing offers from other NBA franchises.

The Knicks appear to be the most desperate to sign James. New York has missed the playoffs in eight of the past nine seasons and hasn't had a winning record since 2000-01. But the allure of playing in the nation's largest market -- and the additional endorsement bonanza that likely will come with it -- could be attractive to LeBron.

Even New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg began his own campaign to bring for LeBron to the Big Apple, saying he would "give him a big sales pitch for New York."

"LeBron James would love living in New York," Bloomberg said Friday during a news conference. "It is the world's greatest stage."

Chicago, a big-market team with a more stable franchise, will be another prominent contender to land LeBron. The Bulls are coming off a back-to-back playoff appearances. They were eliminated this season by LeBron's Cavaliers.

But will LeBron actually leave Cleveland?

The city has started its rally to keep its hometown star. A music video featuring Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and other local celebrities -- a sing-along to the tune of "We Are the World" -- already has been released. The song's lyrics? "Please stay, LeBron. We really need you. No bigger market's gonna love you half as much as we do."

The Cavs were largely considered the favorite to win the NBA title entering the playoffs, but were eliminated in the second round by Boston. It was the second consecutive disappointing finish for Cleveland -- a city synonymous with sports heartbreak.

"I love the city of Cleveland, of course, the city, the fans,'' James said after the Cavs' Game 6 loss in Boston on Thursday. "It was a disappointing season to say the least, but at the same time we had a great time together."

Is that time about to end? The countdown to his decision is finally under way.


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