LeBron Championship Unlikely To Affect Free Agency Destination

With their 8th straight losing season on the books for the New York Knicks, many of their fans are looking towards 2010 when a host of free agents could break that streak. While it’s possible that the Knicks could reach 41 wins next year, the quickest route to become a serious playoff contender will be finding a top notch free agent next summer. Of course at the head of the class is LeBron James who on his own would make New York an instant playoff team. Although James has shown an affinity for the Big Apple, I wonder how a championship could affect his 2010 address. There usually seems to be two circumstances where a great player chooses to leave his team still near his prime. Either the superstar feels his current team won’t be able to deliver a championship within a few years, or he is tired of his current situation and is looking for a new city.

Examples of the former include Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, and Kevin Garnett. Nearing his prime, Barkley’s Sixers were 35-47 and far removed from the 58 win team from Sir Charles’ rookie season. Barkley forced a trade to Phoenix where he propelled the team all the way to the NBA Finals. Similarly Drexler’s Trailblazers were two and a half seasons removed from their best teams. Portland had reached the Finals in 2 out of 3 years from 1990 to 1992, but had suffered a couple of first round exits since. Drexler was traded during the 1995 season to the Rockets and teamed with Olajuwon for a title. Kevin Garnett was stuck with perennial loser Minnesota until McHale decided to help out his alma mater Boston, and the Big Ticket won a championship in his first year in Green.

On the other hand, there are examples of superstars leaving winning teams. Shaq’s first time was with a 60 win Orlando team that had lost to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, and Houston in the Finals the year prior. O’Neal left for an average Laker squad who wouldn’t get back to the Finals for 4 seasons. Eight years later, Shaq would leave his 56 win Lakers for a 42 win Miami team. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s tenure in Milwaukee was mostly successful. In his 6 seasons, the Bucks averaged 57 wins and Abdul-Jabbar won a championship in 1971 with the team. His final season in Milwaukee was a losing one (where Kareem only appeared in 65 games), but that wasn’t why Kareem was moved. He requested to be traded to New York or Los Angeles to fit his cultural needs.

Unfortunately for Knick fans, LeBron’s chances of leaving are lessened due to Cleveland’s strong play. If the Cavs had a wretched crew around James, he might seek to leave for greener pastures like Barkley, Drexler, or Garnett. While Cleveland does have an aging front court in Ilgauskas (33 yrs), Ben Wallace (34), and Joe Smith (33), most of their roster is under 30. Of their top minute getters Williams, Varejao, Gibson, and West are all under 27 years of age. Barring an unforeseen disaster, Cleveland will stay in title contention until 2010.

So if LeBron leaves Cleveland, he’ll fit in the latter category of athlete looking to expand his horizons. In the cases of Shaq and Kareem, the superstar left because they preferred not to be in their current locale. Shaq’s first exodus was due to a desire to be in the bright lights of Los Angeles, while his second was to distance himself from a contentious teammate. For Abdul-Jabbar, he wanted a more heterogeneous environment than his midwestern municipality could offer. In these cases it didn’t matter if a player had won a title in that city, because their motivation was based on their personal life. New York’s best chance for a happy summer of 2010 rests on LeBron’s wanderlust. If James’ desire to become a man of the world compels him to leave for a bigger locale, then there’s little the Buckeye State could do to contain him. In this situation, a championship will have little bearing on his destination.

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Mike Kurylo

Mike Kurylo is the founder and editor of KnickerBlogger.net. His book on the 2012 Knicks, "We’ll Always Have Linsanity," is on sale now. Follow him on twitter (@KnickerBlogger).

9 thoughts to “LeBron Championship Unlikely To Affect Free Agency Destination”

  1. Mike – good analysis and history. I believe now more than ever that there is almost no chance LeBron leaves Cleveland, whether they win a championship or not (and I think their chances look really good this year) As others have pointed out, in this “wired” era, the city you play and live in does not effect your marketability very much, LeBron can make millions in endorsements wherever he plays. None of the examples you referenced had a guy leaving a team which either won it all or came extremely close, which is where LeBron will be with the Cavs in the next 2 years. I’d like to take the optimistic view and say there’s no place like NY and MSG for an NBA star, but how much bigger can he get?

    PS Also heard rumors that D Wade is talking about re-signing this summer. Our tactic needs to be to sign 2 “secondary” stars and go from there.

  2. Sure many of the Cavs’ core players are young, but they’re also not really that good. Ilgauskas is their second most valuable player and he’s far from young, though he is playing very well.

    What makes them a championship-caliber team is, of course, LeBron.

    As for locale, I agree that LeBron can make loads in endorsements no matter where he is. (Though his jersey would not be #3 in sales if he was playing in NY considering Nate’s jersey is #10 and Lee’s is #12.) But if LeBron wants to be active in fashion and/or entertainment, let’s face it, New York is a bit better than Cleveland.

    All that said, I give the Knicks no more than a 15% chance of signing LeBron.

  3. I don’t think history tells us much about this situation. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I think that LeBron is more likely to leave if he wins a title or two first in Cleveland. the surrounding cast argument I don’t think matters much, as LeBron makes everyone around him better and I don’t think it would take more than a year or two to build up a quality supporting cast in most cases.

    what I do think the issue is is Cleveland’s long title drought in all sports, and LeBron’s growing up there. if he wins one or two titles there, then goes to NY, he can say that he wants to do something Jordan never did, win titles with multiple franchises, and it’ll be hard for Cleveland fans to be too angry long-term with the guy who singlehandedly ended their title drought.

  4. Really interesting analysis, I never really thought about that segmentation of past All-NBA players moving. Kareem and Shaq both left winners for the bright lights, big city. That would really be the best the Knicks could hope for even if Cleveland weren’t contending, seeing as the Knicks aren’t any good. The elephant in the room is, of course, that LeBron is from Cleveland (Akron…).

    At this point Chris Bosh looks like the most likely of the Big 3 free agents to leave. An All-Star bigman really isn’t such a bad back-up plan, but the 2009 offseason becomes more important if Bosh, not LeBron, is the 2010 catch: he needs a better group around him and I don’t see the same attraction between Bosh and NYC that I do with LeBron. Of course, the Knicks will have plenty on competition outside of Toronto for Bosh. Either way, offseason 2009 is going to have huge implications for the Knicks, so here are some suggestions:

    1. Walshtoni should (privately) set a price they’re willing to pay for Lee and Nate, weighing production and salary cap concerns. If they can get each player for that price bring him back, if not they should do their best to work a sign-and-trade (may seem obvious, but I think a lot of teams just get something in their mind and do it).
    If either player signs an offer sheet above the Knicks price with Walshtoni unable to force a sign-and-trade it’s a tough call. If it’s a market value deal I guess you match and then trade Lee/Robinson for expiring contract(s) and future pick(s).

    2. Do something great with the draft (like win the lottery or take an All-NBA player), obviously easier said than done (picking an All-NBA player) and not necessarily even in Walshtoni’s control (like winning the lottery).
    At #8, and assuming for convenience that nbadraft.net’s top 7 are the top 7 on draft night, my short list would be, in no particular order: Earl Clark, Chase Budinger, Stephen Curry, Gerald Henderson, and maybe DeJuan Blair. (I would also look at any of the top 7–Griffin, Rubio, Thabeet, Hill, Harden, DeRozan, Jennings–if they’re on the board, of course at least 1 or 2 likely will be.) If none of those guys is impressive enough, I would definitely think about trading the pick. Maybe even trading up using #8, Chandler, and possibly a Lee/Nate sign and trade… Could also trade back, for a 2010 1st, or for a vet…

    3. How about seeing what a package of Jared Jeffries and Wilson Chandler can get you? If you brought back an expiring contract, this would cut $9 mill of the 2010/11 cap number.
    Jeffries/Chandler to Minnesota for Mike Miller and the #28 pick in 2009 could work for both teams. The Wolves get 2 rotation players for 1 (yes, I think Jeffries would be a lock for the Wolves’ rotation… not saying much of course), improve their D, and get a better prospect than they’re likely to find at #28. The Knicks save $8 mill off the 2010/11 cap (to resign Lee and/or Nate, or just for flexibility/to play with next offseason), get a sharp-shooter and strong overall offensive wing for 2009-10, and pick up a prospect (nbadraft.net has Jrue Holiday, Sam Young, and DeJuan Summers on the board at #28).

    4. Inquire about the availability of Julian and Brandan Wright. GS already has #7 and is rumored to be trading out of that spot for Andrei Kirilenko, but maybe NO is interested in dealing Julian and moving up in the draft after a disappointing playoff exit. Would they give both Julian Wright AND #21 for #8? Would the Knicks take Wright straight-up for #8? Both seem somewhat unlikely, maybe #8 for Wright and a 2010 1st…

    5. He’s got his share of warts, but Antoine Walker might be a good low cost, low risk free agent. One year veteran’s minimum to play in D’Antoni’s system and see if he’s hungry enough to resurrect his career… Then again, just resigning Wilcox for one season is probably a better option.
    Other low cost veteran free agent possibilities: Grant Hill, Rasheed Wallace, Allen Iverson, Wally Szczerbiak, Rasho Nesterovic, Donyell Marshall, Drew Gooden, Ime Udoka, and both Jason and Jarron Collins. Some of those guys will have no shortage of suitors, but maybe D’Antoni + bright lights, big city is enough for the Knicks to get one or more of those guys for one season.

    5. There are some intriguing free agent bigmen out there who might help the Knicks depending on what happens with Lee and how much they command: Glen Davis and Leon Powe of the Celts and Chris Anderson of Denver. Channing Frye is someone who might fit D’Antoni’s system on the cheap, but doesn’t do as much as the others to help the D.

    6. Consider not holding off until 2010??? If the chance to trade for a Luol Deng, Tayshaun Prince, Andrei Kirilenko, … or sign-and-trade for a Carlos Boozer, Ben Gordon, Lamar Odom, … in a deal Walsh would otherwise make comes up this offseason, should he hold off because of the big names available in 2010? My gut says yes–even a 10% chance of LeBron James is worth it–but it’s definitely a tough call that could look bad in hindsight.

  5. I believe in LeBron the businessman. He knows he is one of the most marketable guys in the world. If he wants to take his brand to the next level then NYC is the place for him. It just makes so much sense. Hes going to get paid a ton of money. Nike will grant him a bunch of exclusive shoe lines. He will be involved in the community. It just makes sense. Its all about expanding your market and exposure. NYC is the place to be. As for Walsh, all he has to do is secure the young talent that we need to be a contender for years to come. A 2010 pick would be nice. An incredible Gallinari would be nice and also a Stephen Curry as our 8th pick in the draft would be nice. We have a bunch of expiring contracts and some free agents that might leave yet still could have value for us in a sign and trade. We need to make some significant moves this offseason and hopefully they are the right ones. C’mon Donnie work some magic!

  6. This is the million dollar question, isn’t it? I think if Lebron wins it this year, then he stays to try for the “repeat”, which is a common goal for stars in the league. I think if for some reason he doesn’t win it this year (unlikely) and if he doesn’t win it next year, then he definitely opts out. By next year Z will be very old, Mo is getting older, Varajeao could leave, and what would be left? In 2 years, that core will not look promising, and it’s not like they have great draft picks.
    As far as Wade goes, it seems like every day there’s a conflicting story about him leaving/staying. The Heat sound desperate to resign him. What about this trade: Curry and the #7 pick for Blount, Daequan Cook and Miami’s first round picks in 2009 and 2010? Not a very sexy trade, but Miami’s desperate to continue building around Wade to keep him. I think they can take on Curry as they don’t have many big contracts on that roster.
    Do you think Kobe would come east in 2010? If he wins it this year, or if Phil Jackson steps down, I could see it…

  7. “The Heat sound desperate to resign him. What about this trade: Curry and the #7 pick for Blount, Daequan Cook and Miami’s first round picks in 2009 and 2010?”

    You can’t trade consecutive first round picks unless you have another first rounder to take it’s place.

  8. nice post mike.

    d-mar’s comments about how “marketability” can be less of an issue if in a city like cleveland because being in a more “wired” world reminds me of thomas friedman’s idea that the world is flattening…


    there is a highly regarded sociologist, richard florida, who has written books about what he calls the “creative class” and how important the creative economy is, and will be in the future who might strongly disagrees with d-mar’s beliefs, as he did with friedman’s.

    he says the world is actually spikey, not flat.

    in essence, the point is that where we live is more important than many of us think. places like cleveland will not provide lebron the constant daily access to madison ave execs, tv/film producers, celebrities, appearances at other big events/nightclubs of which NYC provides on a constant basis amongst other things, of which is a bobo urban paradise lifestyle lebron seems to enjoy (high fashion, nightlife, celebrities, etc.) cleveland can also not provide.

    personality often determines where we want to live, and it seems that with lebron is less conscientious than an average mid-westerner (of whom are considered more so…and i would argue as are many hardcore sports fans, btw) this would mean less attachment to his local culture and region. the fact that he is a yankee fan and wears yankee caps says it all to me. no “true” conscientious person would have much affinity for anything outside of their local teams. it isn’t like the indians have been a bad team either.

    in fact, studies even show that it is not money that makes most of us happy, it is where we live, who we are connected with, and if we are doing what we love. maybe for lebron, while he may not be unhappy on the cavs, he may feel he would be THAT much happier if he were in new york.

    my point is, that while i would not say we know for sure he will come to the knicks or not, i think the notion that there is no chance he will come because of the ability to market himself in a more wired world has far less weight to it than we might suspect.

  9. Oops. Meant to say 1st and 2nd rounders but that didn’t seem like enough. Also, Heat draft picks just won’t be high enough for that trade, I suppose. Also this from an Akron paper:

    LeBron James’ statement was perhaps the strongest the Akron native has made in regard to his future here. ”I’m comfortable with being in Cleveland. I’m excited about it,” James told Schwarz. ”I’m loving the direction we’re [going] in and I’m loving the teammates I have and the organization. So if that’s any indication of me leaving, then somebody must be looking out the wrong box.”

    Damn. I think it will be tough to get Wade, and I don’t think Bosh is the answer. Isn’t Aldridge a free agent in 2010? I think we have to keep our cap space until 2010, so a real 2009 free agent is out of the question unless we pull off a major trade.

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