As the NBA Playoffs unfold and only one Conference Semifinal series is left to be decided, the New York Knicks are at a crossroads even though they haven’t taken to the court in a month. Their future could be determined in the coming days, for better or for worse. That’s because the only series left is the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, which is deadlocked at 2-2, with each team winning a game on the road, and featuring historic performances by each teams top player, LeBron James for the Cavs and Rajon Rondo (who is unquestionably the best player even if he isn’t the most famous) for the Celtics. And if the Cavs get knocked out in disappointing fashion again by a lower-seeded team, it could seriously alter LeBron’s decision of where to sign during the summer.
LeBron has demonstrated he is the most naturally talented player in the NBA playing right now. He won the league MVP award and led his team to the best record in the regular season for the second straight year. He can turn any team into a contender, amp the electricity in any arena and any game into a classic. But the roster around him in Cleveland has never been able to support LeBron in the same way Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls did, or Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs, or Hakeem Olajuwan’s Houston Rockets, or any of the other recent championship teams. The Cavs thought Antwan Jamison could be that Scottie Pippen/Manu Ginobli type lieutenant to General James but so far Jamison has yet to step up. Shaquille O’Neal is not the Shaq of old (that last statement was written by Captain Obvious) nor even the 2006 version that teamed with Dwyane Wade. Delonte West, Mo Williams, and Anderson Varejao have their moments, but are inconsistent. If LeBron has a bad game, especially a bad start, the energy gets sucked out of the entire team. Not the making of a championship team. True, stars often are the key ingredient to an NBA title, but there will always be times during a playoff run when another player needs to step up for the big basket, timely pass, or crucial defensive stand if a title is to be won. If the Cavs have yet to build a championship roster around LeBron at this point, will they ever?
This leads to the question that has been hovering over the entire playoffs and really the entire 2009-2010 NBA season, where will LeBron, and the rest of the hyped free-agent class wind up. LeBron is the most coveted target, and everyone - the fans, media, and other players, will be focused on where he ends up. And the two most likely scenarios are the Cavs and Knicks. The Bulls have the young talent (Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah specifically) that can dominate with LeBron, but their front office and coaching situation is a disaster. The Los Angeles Clippers have the cap space and big city, but they are the Clippers. The Miami Heat play in one of the NBA’s destination cities and have the cap room to pair LeBron and Wade, but would LeBron be willing to go to a team that is returning their marquee player that already has a championship? Wouldn’t Wade deserve first billing on a Wade-LeBron Heat team? The two would make a lethal combo, but Miami’s roster isn’t any better than Cleveland’s.
So that leaves the Knicks, whose fan base has already convinced themselves that LeBron will swoop in to save the franchise. The Knicks can offer LeBron the chance to usher in a new era of New York hoops, which after a decade of embarrassing futility would be thrilled to see any sort of relevant basketball again. The Madison Square Garden crowd has shown LeBron how great they can be during a game, and that’s when he was wearing another team’s jersey. LeBron would instantly vault ahead of Derek Jeter, Eli Manning, and David Wright as the most beloved and hyped New York athlete. New York is a true basketball town, which makes their decade long futility even worse, for both the city and the league. The NBA has had some great moments and great players arise over the last ten years, and the biggest media city in the world has been conspicuously absent from all the fun.
Another New York aspect to take into account is the planned total remodeling of MSG. The Worlds Most Famous arena will be comprehensively upgraded over the course of the next five years (to see a rundown of the proposed time line, check out Neils Best's column on Newsday.com) and LeBron would be the perfect headliner for that marquee. Surely Donnie Walsh and James Dolan will show LeBron some nice artists renderings of his likeness plastered all over the New Garden when he comes to visit over the summer.
But LeBron is a unique case because of his roots. Cleveland is not just his only team, it’s his home team. He grew up about 30 miles away in Akron, Ohio. He’s spent his whole life there, which means he knows exactly how important winning a title is to Cleveland. The Indians haven’t won a title since 1948, and suffered a couple of heart-breaking World Series losses in the 1990’s (especially in 1997 against the upstart Florida Marlins) and the Cleveland Browns haven’t won a title since 1964 in the pre-Super Bowl era, and the city had to suffer through losing the Browns and the watch them win a title as the Baltimore Ravens while their new Browns team has appeared in one playoff game since they came back in 1999. The fans there know LeBron could be there best chance to win a title in any sport. Remember last year when a local Cleveland station was winding up their local news, but the newscasters were watching the Cavs-Magic game off-screen, and LeBron hit the game winning shot at the buzzer to send the anchors into a frenzy? How many other cities does that happen in? And LeBron knows this too. He has stated on numerous occasions just how determined he is to win a title for his home city (while also being very cryptic about his plans for this summer) and how important it would be for the legacy of both himself and Cleveland.
Which brings us to the crossroads: Which scenario makes it more likely for LeBron to leave Cleveland for New York, a crushing defeat in the playoffs (to Boston or Orlando, the teams that have eliminated the Cavs the last two seasons) that demonstrates he doesn’t have the team around him to win it all; or rallying his team to win a title and fulfilling his promise to bring a championship to his home city? If the former scenario plays out, it would certain that he would leave if he were from any other region or played for any other team. But because LeBron has roots in Ohio, it makes his willingness to leave without a title unpredictable.
So what’s a Knicks fan to do? Hope LeBron brings Cleveland a title so he can leave at peace, or for everything to fall apart so he sees it was never meant to be? Are the Cavs good enough to dispatch of Celtics, Magic, Suns, or Lakers? If LeBron gets to the finals but loses, will he stay because he knows he’s close?
Personally I think LeBron won’t leave Cleveland without winning a championship first. His sense of loyalty won’t let him leave Cleveland with nothing to show for it, even if the Cavs get knocked out over the weekend. He has never had to sever his roots, and it seems highly unlikely that he would no matter how bad it gets if he didn’t come through for his home fans first. The eyes of all basketball fans will be on Cleveland and Boston for the rest of the week (mostly because they’re the only series that wasn’t a sweep) as we could see the future of the NBA unfold in front of our eyes. But what that future holds is unknown to all, probably even LeBron too.