Is this the end of LeBron in Cleveland?


May 12

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Time to strike up the band and get Benny the Bull out to O’Hare!

Oh, right. That didn’t work last time when the Bulls met Tracy McGrady in 2000 with a carnival and he fled to Orlando.

But NBA free agency 2010 just got a lot more interesting Tuesday night when the Cleveland Cavaliers and a passive, seemingly disinterested LeBron James were blown out at home, 120-88, to fall behind Boston 3-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinal.

Lebron_100512It was probably the most shocking game of the NBA season to see the heavily favored Cavs not only fall behind in the series at home, but to see James and his teammates, usually Dancing with the Stars wannabes, lamely accept the loss.

James, at least to me, clearly seems hurt, though he denied anything was wrong. But you could almost see his entire team, usually a rollicking, lively bunch on the sideline along with him, sag with an acceptance of their losing fate, and that James really may be leaving.

So the big question is if he is getting close to that decision where, and the Bulls now have to be in the equation. You hear all sorts of rumors regarding James’ future, and one around the NBA now is James taking the Bulls seriously, though hardly as the only team. There also are rumors circulating around Cleveland now that James will need surgery on his elbow this summer, though you’d certainly take him if you could get him even without a physical.

Unquestionably, James Tuesday was as bad in a big playoff game as just about great player ever has been. I cannot believe his lame explanations of not getting into rhythm, just an off shooting game, or doing other things to help the team. He’s too good. Nevertheless, the NBA outside Cleveland is cheering the possibilities.

If LeBron does decide to leave the Cavs, there will be three main criteria: Where he wants to live and play, whether he can win, and whether he needs a sign-and-trade for a max, six-year deal.

Here’s the way I’d rate the favorites if James wants a max deal and sign-and-trade, which I don’t believe is certain. But I’ll get to that later.

First, you can forget all your Oklahoma Cities and San Antonios, Houstons, Washingtons and Philadephias. LeBron’s going to the big time if he leaves, which means New York, L.A., Chicago, perhaps Miami and maybe, just maybe, Phoenix or Dallas.

So here’s the way I see it if there’s a sign-and-trade:

1. Lakers: Cavs get Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom and Lakers take back Daniel Gibson for Cavs cap relief, or maybe Delonte West with LeBron. I know Kobe supposedly won’t want this, but how could you pass on a chance for Kobe and LeBron with Pau? How great could they be? Of course, if they win again they’ll think they already are.

2. Bulls: Not a great sign-and-trade, but something. Probably Deng, Gibson, a No. 1 pick and Brad Miller going to Cleveland after signing. It gives the Cavs a lineup to work with.

3. Knicks: Probably David Lee and Gallinari. Not that great, either, but then the Knicks could add two free agents to go with LeBron and build a team instantly. Though that would be a hard sell for the Cavs to overpay Lee without a big man.

4. Nets: The No. 1 pick if they get it and maybe Yi or Terrence Williams. The Cavs could start building right away with an attraction. Russian billionaire, Jay-Z. Who knows. Maybe Newark is OK for two years.

5. Clippers: They probably have the best package for the Cavs in Blake Griffin and Chris Kaman. Then they could add LeBron and another free agent with Baron Davis, though they’d try to hold onto Griffin. But would LeBron want to compete with Kobe and the Lakers? I can’t see it.

6. Heat: They’ve got the least. Michael Beasley. Alonzo Mourning has been telling people James is Pat Riley’s secret project, but the Cavs couldn’t in good conscience accept anything from that roster.

I assume those would be the markets LeBron would go for as he likes the spotlight. The Suns would be interesting because old buddies Steve Kerr and Danny Ferry do a lot of business and the Cavs might be able to get Stoudemire and maybe Robin Lopez. Dallas would try to go in big, but I’d assume they’d try to keep Dirk and don’t have much else. I suppose the Cavs could sell Dirk for a few years, but I don’t think Dirk would re-sign to go there.

The other possibility is LeBron just leaves and takes someone’s cap room. I actually think this is more likely because I can see him taking a short deal again, maybe three years as he’s only 25, and seeing if the team he goes to can get the pieces in place. So how would the rankings look then?

1. Bulls: Enough to pay James to fit him in right away with a point guard and center, which no one else can offer. And then it would be up to the Bulls to find a sign-and-trade with the pieces they have to add someone like Chris Bosh or maybe even Stoudemire or Lee. I’ve long thought LeBron would run away from the Jordan comparisons, but Chicago would be the most ready made team in an actual big city.

2. Nets: They could have John Wall to go with Brook Lopez and then a trade of Harris for someone good and LeBron. That, too, could be a heck of a team, but, again, could LeBron put up with the relative anonymity of Newark for at least two years? Though the new Russian owner could make things pretty comfortable.

3. Knicks: They can bring LeBron and anyone else he chooses and he is one of the few who would seem to like the New York attention. It’s uncertain who he could recruit, though, as not many guys want to go somewhere as the second piece, and then one overshadowed all the time by LeBron with the pressure to produce because no one’s blaming LeBron.

4. Heat: They just don’t seem to have enough pieces without a center or point guard. Wade and LeBron would be impressive, though they’d still have to do too much. They’d have money for another high level player, so maybe Boozer or Lee decides to take a bit less and come. It’s possible.

5. Clippers: It could be a heck of a team if Blake Griffin is OK, along with Chris Kaman, Baron Davis and Eric Gordon. But I cannot see LeBron playing second to Kobe and the Lakers, who run the city and the arena. Would he try to upstage them? It’s a heck of a risk and an even bigger one as something seems to happen to guys when they become Clippers.

If the Cavs lose the series Thursday, which now just about everyone expects, James’ future will be the biggest NBA story for the next two months no matter what else happens.

Yes, he could go back to the Cavs on a short deal to give them one more chance or not opt out and take his last year. That was the thinking all along with the assumption the Cavs would at least make the conference finals. But losing in this round would be a step back each of the last two years, and with an aging, uncertain team and few options to improve.

What actually seemed most shocking—and yes this could all change with a win in Boston Thursday—was the way James and everyone seemed to accept their fate in a matter of fact way without much enthusiasm. It’s as if everyone knows and only the date needs now to be filled in. Someone may be getting the sporting prize of a lifetime.

Who’s got the fireworks! Didn’t anyone call the jugglers?

What do you think? Leave a comment below: