Key to landing LeBron? A killer combo

When Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said Tuesday that LeBron James is not involved in the team's coaching search "in any way, shape or form," most considered his words either comical or preposterous.

But although Gilbert certainly laid it on a little thick, calling the notion of LeBron's having input "totally, 100 percent and patently false," believe the owner's hype. If only because LeBron doesn't want any input.

You'd better believe that if LeBron wanted to pick the club's next coach, Gilbert would be on the front step of the superstar's palatial compound with a dozen red roses, a chorus line of dancing girls, a contract extension and the keys to his private jet. Among other enticements.

But James is serious when he says he wants to keep his options open, and he realizes that committing to a coach is essentially committing to a franchise. So he's steering clear of the Cavs' decision-making process.

You also could consider this something of a test -- for the Cavaliers and for LeBron's other coachless suitors. Contrary to popular opinion, LeBron doesn't yet want to run a franchise from top to bottom, handpicking the coach and GM.

His ultimate desire is to have a coach and front-office personnel whom he knows can get the job done. He wants someone who has shown championship mettle on the sideline, someone who can pull off a Pau Gasol-for-Kwame Brown type of deal or add a Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen combo package to the roster. He wants a GM with juice and pull in NBA circles.

At age 25, he has enough on his plate -- leading the team in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks and pregame skits -- without adding front-office duties to boot.

So with that in mind, let's look at the various brain trusts that are in hot pursuit of LeBron and see who's got the goods. For Knicks fans, this might finally provide some good news on the LeBron front.

But let's start in Cleveland, which -- according to LeBron's "Larry King Live" interview last week -- has an "edge" over the rest of the field. Gilbert has proved to be a good owner in that he's spent whatever amount of money necessary in his attempts to put a title team around James. It hasn't worked, but some may blame Danny Ferry, who recently stepped down as general manager.

The question in Cleveland is, How does James view Ferry's successor, Chris Grant? Grant is respected around the league, having spent 10 seasons in Atlanta before joining Ferry five years ago in Cleveland. But even if James likes Grant, Gilbert may be the one ultimately pulling the strings. For instance, he's the one in love with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

Whatever the case, the Cavs' situation is, to put it kindly, a bit muddled. We'll see how their coaching search plays out -- Byron Scott and Jeff Van Gundy also have the Cavs' interest -- but right now, all the uncertainty in the franchise can't be viewed as a plus.

As for the Knicks, owner James Dolan doesn't bring to mind Jerry Buss or Mark Cuban when it comes to success, but he is a big spender who gives his presidents an open checkbook. That, however, doesn't make him any different from Gilbert.

Where the Knicks look good is with team president Donnie Walsh, a basketball lifer who built the Indiana Pacers into a strong franchise during the 1990s and beyond. Walsh is a solid team-builder who follows his gut, which has proved to be correct more often than not. He went against the entire state of Indiana when he drafted noted Knicks killer Reggie Miller for the Pacers in 1987. Then, he put the right pieces -- Mark Jackson, Rik Smits, Jalen Rose, Antonio Davis and Dale Davis, among others -- around Miller to get the Pacers into the playoffs 16 times in 17 years. With the Knicks having several roster spots to fill, even if they sign LeBron and another star, Walsh's track record should bring comfort.

LeBron certainly likes Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, who got close to James as an assistant with Team USA, but LeBron also recognizes the importance of defense. He understands you can't win big without an emphasis on stopping people, and that's where D'Antoni falls short. Being a good defensive team takes a strong defensive philosophy, not just throwing a few good defenders out on the floor. The Knicks would be wise to hire a defensive guru as an assistant coach for D'Antoni -- and wise to force D'Antoni to listen to him!

The attraction of the Chicago Bulls is in their roster, not in their front office. Jerry Reinsdorf hasn't proved to be the open vault that Dolan and Gilbert have been, especially when it comes to paying coaches. Meanwhile, vice president John Paxson and GM Gar Forman raised eyebrows around the league with their less-than-stellar handling of the Vinny Del Negro firing. Paxson also raised his fists, nearly coming to blows with Del Negro in a postgame meeting.

Newly hired coach Tom Thibodeau has been a terrific assistant, but his quality as a head coach is unknown. He's represented by William "Worldwide Wes" Wesley, however, and Wes is a member of LeBron's inner circle. One would have to believe that at the very least, the Bulls got assurances from Wes that Thibodeau wouldn't be a deterrent to LeBron's joining the Bulls.

New Jersey and Miami probably have the most attractive decision-makers in the LBJ sweepstakes. The Nets' new owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, is made of money, and president Rod Thorn is one of the most respected men in basketball. He turned Stephon Marbury into Jason Kidd and two trips to the NBA Finals, then turned a disgruntled Alonzo Mourning into Vince Carter.

Thorn showed more intelligence Wednesday by agreeing to terms with Avery Johnson as the Nets' next coach. Johnson coaches defense and led Dallas to its only appearance in the NBA Finals in 2006.

Miami's strength is Pat Riley. Owner Micky Arison lets Riley do as he pleases, and Riley has shown he can not only coach a team to a title but also build one into a champion as well. He brought Mourning to Miami in his prime, then Shaq to South Beach just in time to squeeze a ring out of him. Then, he was able to get rid of Shaq and clear cap space just as The Big Fella was exiting his prime.

Eric Spoelstra is a solid coach, but he hasn't proved to be anything special yet. That's OK, because one imagines that if the Heat can manage to get LeBron and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade, Riley will be stepping back onto the sideline.

I wouldn't even mention the Los Angeles Clippers if there weren't news that entertainment mogul David Geffen wants to buy the club from longtime owner Donald Sterling. Geffen has already courted James and his business manager, Maverick Carter, so if he is able to get ahold of the club, the Clippers would become a player. But Sterling has given no indication he wants to sell, and LeBron won't join a club led by one of the worst owners in league history.

Washington has money, but why walk into that Gilbert Arenas-created fiasco? Sacramento also has max cash, but, uhhh, how to put this kindly? Let's just say nothing's going to get The King to join the Kings.

New York has plenty of off-the-court attractions to try to sell LeBron on -- lifestyle, marketing opportunities, celebrities, etc. -- and the Knicks should use all of that because that stuff holds some weight with LeBron.

But they also need to be careful: Don't try to fool him with all the bells and whistles. He's about winning first, so this ultimately will be a basketball decision for him. And if the Knicks' sales pitch has more to do with the city's glitz and glamour than with the team's basketball plan and potential, that won't sit well with him.

So with proven basketball men in Walsh and D'Antoni, the Knicks may want to focus on one of their few strengths: the quality and success of the men who would build the team around LeBron.

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