NEW YORK -- All that LeBron James-to-the-Knicks speculation might be focused on the right city but the wrong team.
It appears, judging from James' comments Monday, that the Nets might be James' preferred destination if he opts out of his contract in the summer of 2010 and becomes an unrestricted free agent.
James listed New York as his favorite city Monday (his hometown of Akron, Ohio, came in fifth behind Washington, D.C., Dallas and Los Angeles) as he took part in a one-day USA Basketball media blitz, and he also gave an answer to a follow-up question that'll make Knicks president Donnie Walsh and head coach Mike D'Antoni cringe.
"My favorite borough? Brooklyn," James said, choosing the proposed future home of the New Jersey Nets over the borough of Manhattan, where the Knicks play their home games. "Brooklyn is definitely a great place here in New York City, and some of my best friends are from Brooklyn, so I stick up for them."
James is personal friends with the performer Jay-Z, who owns a small piece of the Nets, but James said that relationship would play no role in whether he decides to leave Cleveland -- either when his contract expires in 2011, or if he exercises his opt-out in 2010. The Nets made a major financial move on draft night to position themselves to make a maximum offer to James in the summer of 2010, shedding Richard Jefferson's contract when they dealt him to Milwaukee for Bobby Simmons and Yi Jianlian. If New Jersey chooses to trade Vince Carter for a player or players whose contracts expire before the summer of 2010, it will have more than enough room to offer James a maximum salary.
The Knicks have also made clear that their No. 1 priority is to clear cap space for the summer of 2010 when James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade can all become unrestricted free agents. But they'll have to move Zach Randolph and at least one other player already under contract through 2010-11 -- Jamal Crawford, Eddy Curry or Jared Jeffries -- in order to get far enough below the cap to make James a max offer.
If James waits until 2011 to become a free agent, the Knicks are positioned to have enough room to make a max offer.
James is a frequent visitor to New York, and he constantly hears pleas from Knicks fans -- and a few Nets fans -- to relocate to the nation's media capital two summers down the road. The Nets plan to relocate from East Rutherford to Brooklyn in 2010 if owner Bruce Ratner is able to clear the final hurdles that have delayed the building of his massive Atlantic Yards project in central Brooklyn, which will have the Nets' new arena as its centerpiece.
"They have a right to dream about it, and I can't take that away from them. My friendship was way before Jay was part-owner of the Nets, and I loved the Garden way before I got to the NBA," James said. "For some reason when I get to the Garden I always play well, so they want me to do it 41 games instead of just two nights a year."
Knicks fans were in abundant supply at midday Monday as James and the rest of Team USA were introduced at a Nike news conference at Rockefeller Center, and James played to the crowd like a true showman -- sprinting with a wide smile and open arms into bleacher seats erected at both ends of a temporary court, embracing dozens of youngsters clad in blue "United We Rise" T-shirts.
Earlier, James waved demonstrably at a boatful of tourists from the deck of a ship the team chartered for a photo shoot in New York Harbor with the Statue of Liberty as the backdrop.
"I never thought about doing it, but once you get out there I'm a big kid personally, I got two young sons at home and I know what they like, so anytime I get around a group of kids it's like a kid in the candy store for me. So, I'm happy I was able to put smiles on those kids' faces," James said. "It made my day, totally."
The crowd ate up his act, as did his teammates.
"Was that New York-driven? No, I think it was James-driven. That's who he is," Jason Kidd said. "He's a kid, he's full of energy, he has a lot of personality LeBron just has a lot of personality -- you see it in the commercials -- and that's him, and for him to interact with the kids, it might put a little stress on security, but for the kids to be able to touch him and see him in that light, you can't ask anything more than that."
Chris Sheridan is an ESPN.com Insider. He has covered the U.S. senior national team since the 1996 Olympics.