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Friday, February 20, 2009

Will LeBron Be Like Mike?

The NBA season has just moved past the midway mark, yet many teams and members of the media seem to be just as focused on an event that is still 18 months away than they do on who will win the 2009 NBA title.

It used to be that when teams made trades the number one purpose was to make your current team better. While some teams, like the Orlando Magic with their recent trade for point guard Rafer Alston, are still focused on making themselves better for a run at the 2009 NBA title, many teams have been making trades with more of an eye toward the summer of 2010.

To NBA media and general managers, the summer of 2010 has the allure of Utopia. If things work out as some predict that summer could see the greatest free agent class in the history of the NBA. Superstars including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire and Chris Bosh highlight a potential class of free agents that already has many league executives salivating.

In anticipation, some teams have already begun making deals that will ensure that they have the financial flexibility to compete for the big names.

Before the 2008-2009 season was even a month old, the New York Knicks traded its top two scorers to clear more than $27 million in salary cap room for the “LeBron Sweepstakes.” Other teams have not been quite so blatant in dumping top performers for minimal return, but have also made moves designed to create room under the salary cap.

Since coming into the NBA as an 19-year old phenomenon in 2003, LeBron James has displayed the kind of talent and all-around basketball ability that invokes comparisons with Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and many other greats from the games past. Like Jordan, James has displayed the ability to significantly lift the level of performance for his team. In only his fourth NBA season, James led a mediocre Cleveland Cavaliers squad to the NBA Finals. This season, his sixth in the league, James and the Cavaliers are competing with the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic for the best record in basketball and are a legitimate contender for the NBA title.

For more than a decade, the NBA has been looking for “the next Michael Jordan” and as could be expected, James has constantly been compared with his childhood idle. Unlike others who have been unable to live up to such a high level of expectation, James, who honors Jordan by wearing his legendary number 23, seems capable of filling Jordan’s role both on and off the court.

Not only is James arguably the most talented player to come into the league since Jordan, he also possesses the kind of commercial appeal and likeability that helped make Jordan a mega-star. James isn’t as polished in his appearance as Jordan, but like Jordan, he has been able to catapult his success beyond simply being known as a great basketball player and become a desired television “pitch-man.” Much like NFL star Peyton Manning James has endeared himself with today’s buying public by not taking himself too seriously in television commercials. He comes across genuine and amicable and has been able to raise his exposure beyond the sporting world.

However, if James hopes to one-day reach the level of recognition and greatness enjoyed by Jordan, he must be able to reach the pinnacle of on-the-court success by proving that he is capable of leading his team to multiple championships.

After allowing the Chicago Bulls to spend six years surrounding him with a quality supporting-cast, Jordan led the Bulls to the NBA championship in his seventh season. They ultimately claimed the NBA championship in each of Jordan’s final six full NBA seasons.

To this point, James career has followed a similar trajectory. Though he has already played in one NBA championship, James and the Cavaliers have now developed the nucleus of a team that appears capable of consistently contending for an NBA title.

However, it is hard to tell at this point if James plans to be there to see the Cavaliers plans through to the finish. Though he grew up in nearby Akron and has had the rare opportunity to play before his hometown fans, James has made little attempt to hide his fascination with New York City. When the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians played in the 2007 Major League Baseball playoffs, James was criticized for appearing on TV wearing a Yankee hat. After the Knicks made their moves to free up salary cap room for 2010, James did nothing to quiet rumors and conjecture that he was very interested in eventually playing for the Knicks.

While I am certainly not in a position to tell LeBron James what to do, I can provide some historical perspective of how his future decisions could impact his lasting legacy.

Instead of shopping his services for the best contract or place where he could receive the most exposure, Jordan realized early in his career that the money and exposure would be there anywhere if he concentrated on being the best player in the game and winning titles. He did everything he could, including taking a significantly reduced salary, to help the Bulls build a championship team.

In essence, the Cavaliers have spent the last six years trying to prove to James that they are the rightful caretakers for his enormous talent. They have annually done everything they could to make their team better and contend for the title that season, instead of looking toward the future. Though they were unable to secure another big player before the recently passed trade deadline, many believe that Cleveland already has all the pieces needed to be a contender this year.

Regardless of whether he leads Cleveland to a title in the next two seasons, if James chooses to leave Cleveland for New York (or anywhere else) in 2010, the likelihood that he will be able to match the lasting team success of Jordan is minuscule. With James in the lineup, the Knicks could be a playoff caliber team in 2010-2011, but it will probably be another several years before they would be able to surround James with the kind of talent needed to win a championship. By then, James would be nearing 30 years of age and would have spent nearly a dozen years enduring the pounding of NBA basketball.

Perhaps the clearest example of what James might expect should he leave Cleveland can be found in Shaquille O’Neal. When he left the Orlando Magic for the bright lights of Los Angeles following four seasons and one appearance in the NBA Finals, O’Neal joined a Laker team that had won 53 games the year before his arrival. Over the next three seasons, the Lakers lost twice in the Western Conference semifinals and once in the conference finals. It wasn’t until O’Neal’s fourth season with the team, after the arrival of Phil Jackson as the head coach and emergence of Kobe Bryant as an All-Star, that the Lakers were able to win a championship.

If James does indeed leave Cleveland for New York, he will probably not be joining a team coming off a 50+ win season. The Knicks are currently mired in their eighth straight losing season and have reached the playoffs only once in the last eight years.

So, the question remains: Will LeBron follow the lead of his childhood legend and lead his original team to greatness or will he follow the lights of the big city into a much more uncertain future? We won’t know the answer for 18 months, but you can bet we will hear a lot more about it between now and then.

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