LeBron leaving Cleveland? 'It's not a foregone conclusion'

After LeBron James dropped 31 points on the Nets and survived the voracious New York media last Tuesday, I told him, "You know tomorrow's newspapers are going to have you heading to New York.''

He laughed, shook his head and said, "Everybody thinks they know where I'm going before I even know."

That, of course, was before two Knicks trades last Friday cleared boatloads of cap room for the offseason of 2010, also known as "The Summer of LeBron.'' Now, with the Knicks in position to add not only LeBron but another superstar, as well, many are assuming it's only a matter of time before he's wearing blue and orange.

That will be the theme Tuesday night when the Cleveland Cavaliers visit Madison Square Garden to face the Knicks. And even though there is certainly reason for optimism in New York -- and even though several national pundits are claiming LeBron's days as a Cav are unquestionably numbered -- this fact still remains:

He doesn't know what he's going to do.

So how can anyone else?

I've had several conversations with LeBron about his future, and I can tell you that anyone who says he's definitely leaving Cleveland doesn't know what he's talking about.

"It's not a foregone conclusion that he's leaving,'' a person close to LeBron said. "It's premature to make that assumption.''

Money probably won't play much of a role in LeBron's decision because he'll obviously be filthy rich no matter where he goes. Cleveland can pay him the most, roughly $133 million over six years, while everyone else can offer about $102 mil over five. And contrary to popular opinion, LeBron does not get more money from Nike if he plays in New York. That clause in his contract expired after his rookie season.

While as many as 18 teams could have major cap space, my gut feeling is that LeBron is going to either stay in Cleveland or leave to resurrect the Knicks.

Sure, he's boys with Jay-Z, but now that the Nets' move to Brooklyn is postponed until at least 2011 (if it ever happens), their chances of landing him appear ruined. Detroit? San Antonio? Why leave Cleveland to go to those markets? I guess Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Miami can't be written off, but I still think it's a two-team race, one that ultimately will be determined by these two things: legacy and lifestyle.

LeBron knows he's not competing against only Kobe, Dwyane Wade, Boston's big three and the rest of the league's stars; he's got to approach Jordan. That obviously takes plenty of titles. One, two and maybe even three, won't do. So, in 2010, what team is going to give him the best chance to win ring after ring after ring?

But Jordan didn't just win championships. He built a dynasty from scratch. That's the mentality LeBron was raised with by his coaches in Akron -- that you have to build something to have a legacy.

LeBron has built Cleveland into one of the league's elite teams -- without another star alongside him. If he's able to win a championship within the next two years without a major change to the roster, that will be more impressive than any title that Kobe has won, since Zydrunas Ilgauskas is not exactly Shaq (or even Pau Gasol).

One of the greatest arguments for Jordan's Top Dawg status is that his supporting cast, while a perfect fit for him, was less star-laden than other dynasties have been. Winning with what he had was more impressive than Magic's winning with Kareem and James Worthy or Bird's winning with Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. LeBron may be on that same track in Cleveland, with even less help.

Some believe a Cavs title by 2010 will make LeBron even more likely to leave since he'll be able to say, "Mission accomplished. I've brought my hometown a championship.'' But will he want to leave a proven winner -- especially if Cleveland has the cap room to add Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire or Yao Ming -- for the unknown?

Of course, the Cavs don't own the legacy argument. If LeBron brought titles to New York, which is going on 36 years of NBA championship withdrawal, he would become the savior/kingpin of the nation's biggest city. The league's largest market, which likes to call itself "the basketball capital of the world'' (even though it's not even close at the high school, college or pro level these days), would finally truly be the mecca again.

What makes the Knicks major players here is the ability to sign a second star. LeBron was never going to New York to play with a bunch of scrubs. But going there with say, Bosh, would position him to contend for a title in Year 1. Such positioning is an absolute must for him to move.

All in all, I'd give the Cavs a slight edge basketball-wise, especially if they win a title in the next year or two and are able to keep all that cap room. A longtime friend of LeBron's is convinced he's staying in Cleveland.

"He loves home,'' the friend told me yesterday. "That dude is a homebody more than people know. People think he's out all the time, but he'd be so happy to be at home.''

But it may come down to the issue of lifestyle.

"He's obsessed with living in New York,'' another friend told me recently.

LeBron is a fashion plate, and what better place to show off your wares than New York. He clearly likes the limelight and the Hollywood scene, so playing in front of the Garden's famous actors, actresses, athletes, rappers, et al would undoubtedly appeal to him. Also, some of the people around LeBron would rather see him in New York, where they believe he's more marketable, than in Cleveland.

Two years is a long way off, and all sorts of things can happen between now and then -- new developments will continue to reshape the league between now and July 2010. The Cavs could win two championships and the Knicks could play so poorly that they scare folks off. Who knows?

So it's too early to definitively say anything. Except this:

Even LeBron doesn't know what he's going to do yet.

Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.