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MARK HEISLER ON THE NBA

Cap in hand, New York courts LeBron James

The free-agent-to-be has kept his options open for a reason -- to position himself to win a title. If not with the Cavaliers, then possibly with the Knicks . . . or any of 28 other NBA teams.

November 08, 2009|MARK HEISLER

Prince of the City without even living there, LeBron James returned to New York last week for the Knicks' last annual LeBron-a-Thon.

Gotham went slack-jawed as usual, from the Yankees players who came from that day's parade through the Canyon of Heroes -- including Alex Rodriguez, whose hand James shook as he went by -- to the usual celebs such as Chris Rock (Knicks fan) and Jay-Z (Nets minority owner).

Knicks officials maintained a stony silence, but not their players, who treated it like the circus it was, had been and would continue to be.

"Like on the plane," said guard Larry Hughes, James' former teammate in Cleveland, "if we have a bad meal, we'll say, 'Hey, the meal would be better if 'Bron was here.' "

In solidarity with James, Jay-Z wore his own trademark NY cap, which, he notes in a rap lyric, he has "made more famous than a Yankee can."

Of course, with Jay's team yet to break ground in Brooklyn, leaving it stuck out in the tall grass in New Jersey as James' decision point nears, it was important to puncture the Knicks' moment and remind 'Bron the Nets are part of (Greater) Gotham too!

James, who once wore his NY cap to playoff games in Cleveland, had already sent his regrets about having to skip the parade, for the usual reason.

"My parade starts at 8 o'clock tomorrow night," he said.

Sure enough, he scored 19 of his 33 points in the first quarter the next night to show whose town this is, should he choose to accept it.

The Cavaliers had been through this before and, to their dismay, it was the same thing all over, with James pointing out he reserved this option for a reason and even more effusive about every possible destination.

Of course, as LeBron pointed out, any team he goes to will have . . . him.

How about the Knicks, supposedly relegated to ragtag non-factors?

James loved them!

"I think the NBA is missing out [because] the Knicks haven't been great in a few years now," James said.

"We all know the history of the Knicks. We all know what's happened in this building and what the Knick franchise has done for this league. As a fan, I think it would be great someday . . . when this franchise can be particularly good."

Of course, the night before when a Chicago writer asked about going to the Bulls, James said they're on the list too!

"I've thought about playing everywhere," James said. "Every team in the NBA, I've thought about playing at one time in my life."

Someone asked if that included the Clippers, either as a joke or in the hope James would eliminate someone.

"Everywhere," LeBron repeated. "At one point in my life, I've thought about playing for every NBA team. All of them."

The conventional wisdom still has the Cavaliers as favorites to keep James, meaning one thing:

Someone better get a new conventional wisdom.

Given James' determination to win a title, in Cleveland first but anywhere he has to go, I'd handicap his chances of staying this way:

If the Cavaliers win the title: 100%.

If they lose in the NBA Finals: 60%.

If they lose in the Eastern finals: 25%.

If they lose before the Eastern finals: Only if they chain him in a dungeon.

If James leaves, it won't be because of any city, good or bad, money or Nike, just his quest to win a title.

He doesn't have to relocate to a world capital; he regards himself as one, summoning corporate partners to his native Akron each summer for his marketing summit.

If Nike yearns to see him in New York -- on its website, James just announced he would build seven gyms there in a letter to New Yorkers -- it doesn't matter. Nike doesn't run LeBron, it worships him.

Should James fall short of the Finals and take a hard look at his team, here's what he'd see: Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao, Anthony Parker, Delonte West and two 7-foot free-agent centers, ages 37 and 34.

As to where he might go, as the global-icon-in-training might say, only the absence of space travel limits his options.

Forget who has cap room, since 29 teams with an exception here and there would gladly tear up their rosters to get him in a sign-and-trade. If you have a billionaire owner and a lot of good young players, like, say, Portland, why can't you get in the game?

The Nets, Knicks and Miami Heat expect to have a $17-million maximum slot.

The Chicago Bulls, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder . . . and Clippers . . . are within reach of a full slot. (Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, Baron Davis, several 7-footers and warm weather? Not bad, especially with the fear of an 0-82 season gone.)

The Cavaliers beat the Knicks, as usual, and went home, with all but one of them thankful to have that over.

That was just the second week of the 2009-10 season with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Amare Stoudemire, just to name a few, also approaching free agency.

Their teams had better strap themselves in. This is going to be wild.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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