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What will LeBron do?
It seems the question has been in the air for years, and the potential answers appear to be shaping the strategies of at least three franchises: the Cleveland Cavaliers, the New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks. That's because LeBron James isn't revealing his intentions for the summer of 2010, when he can opt out of his contract with the Cavs.
We put the question to 25 ESPN writers, editors and contributors, and you can find their responses below, along with a collection of info and opinion on the future of King James.
Since LBJ isn't talking, we took a tour of the Web to see what others are saying:
LeBron to remain with the Cavs?
LeBron's status as a home state hero has made him an especially treasured Ohio player -- and increased the local anxiety that he might someday seek a bigger stage.
Talk about LeBron's potential departure increased when he took a shorter-than-expected contract extension and added an opt-out clause that would allow him to leave Cleveland in 2010. The speculation had started almost as soon as James was drafted in 2003 and was fed by unconfirmed reports that some companies -- including Nike, perhaps -- would pay him more to play in a bigger market.
Ballerblogger explained one of the incentives for James to stay in Cleveland: "If LeBron James goes to N.Y. and wins a title -- he will be worshipped, King James, to be sure. ... If LeBron wins a title in Cleveland -- he will be worshipped as a god. Cleveland is the most championship-starved, tortured sports city in America, and with its continued economic problems, sports is about the only thing Clevelanders can get excited about. Even if it was just one -- nothing would ever be the same for Cleveland, or for LeBron."
In his blog, LeBron biographer Brian Windhorst, the Cavs beat reporter for the Akron Beacon-Journal, writes that no matter what happens on the court, the LeBron-leaving-Cleveland speculation will continue:
"It doesn't matter about opt out clauses, endorsement bonuses, max contracts, someone will always believe No. 23 will want to leave. ... It will be impossible to stop everyone from talking about New York or Brooklyn or Paris. Accept it will always be there and move on."
Longtime NBA writer Terry Pluto, who co-authored "The Franchise" with Windhorst, insists the speculation is overheated:
"Some media types insist they've heard 'from those close to James' that the Cavs star will head east the moment his contract expires in 2010. They point to how the Knicks and Nets are cleaning up their salary cap situations, creating room to bid for James in 2010.
"How about this scoop? James is now hanging around with SpongeBob SquarePants, and the two were spotted chomping crabby patties at the Krusty Krab. He must be ticketed for Bikini Bottom in 2010, not just making a cartoon for kids that stresses the need to exercise. "
LeBron to the Nets?
Eight members of our panel selected the Nets as the next destination for James. Besides his well-documented friendship with Shawn Carter (aka Jay-Z) and the fact that the Nets are practically part of the New York City market, why would he want to suit up with Vince Carter & Co.?
The Nets are clearly rebuilding, and if James wants to play on a Devin Harris and Yi Jianlian-type roster, he may as well keep suiting up with Mo Williams and the boys in Cleveland (although playing next to Yi is another path to "global icon" status, especially in China).
LeBron is rich, and so is Jay-Z. Surely they can come up with creative ways to get together for laughs and to spend lots of money without James playing for the team that Jay-Z owns a small part of.
But Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports wonders if Cleveland has enough glitz and glamour to prevent James from bolting to the Nets:
"LeBron doesn't want to just win titles. His stated wants include becoming sport's first billionaire athlete. Among his advisors, he counts Warren Buffett. Jay-Z has helped James focus his mind on chasing something bigger than basketball. The question will be this: For the kid out of Akron, will his hometown -- will even winning -- be enough to hold onto LeBron James?"
And the Nets' expected move to Brooklyn could be the clincher for LeBron, if we are to take seriously his proclaimed love for the Nets' borough-to-be, as reported by Chris Sheridan:
"My favorite borough? Brooklyn. Brooklyn is definitely a great place here in New York City, and some of my best friends are from Brooklyn."
LeBron to the Knicks?
Does LeBron need New York? He is already an iconic figure with endorsements galore, and fans around the league idolize him. On the other hand, Madison Avenue and the brighter spotlights of Manhattan are beckoning.
If new president Donnie Walsh can clear the cap space and new coach Mike D'Antoni can create a LeBron-friendly style of play, the Knicks' plan might work, writes Chris Sheridan:
"The New York Knicks are all about the summer of 2010, when James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all can become unrestricted free agents. Anything good that happens between now and then is gravy. But priority No. 1 is getting into position to go after those players, and there's an extremely viable backup plan of going after James in 2011 if he plays out the final season of his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers."
Certainly, Knicks fans have to be encouraged when they see LeBron in a Yankees hat or check out his Yankee-inspired shoes. And the web site nycforlebron.com is already trying to lay the groundwork: "Show your support -- fill out our petition that will be forwarded to the NYK front office on July 1, 2010."
But the Knicks won only 23 games last season, are far from having the cap space available to sign James to a max contract, and have a murky future. So no matter how much LeBron might talk about the allure of Madison Square Garden, the LBJ-to-NYC movement might be based mostly on speculation and wishful thinking right now.
LeBron to Europe?
Obviously playing for $50 million a season while building his international portfolio sounds attractive, but would LeBron really make the leap across the pond?
Despite the speculation that ran hot and heavy earlier in the summer, not one of our panelists bought into the idea that James would pack his bags and head overseas.
Of course, it was LeBron himself who fed the speculation, as reported by Chris Broussard on ESPN.com:
"A person close to James said that the Cavaliers' superstar would strongly consider playing overseas if he was offered a salary of around '$50 million a year.'"
But ESPN.com contributor Ian Whittell doesn't think European owners will truly shell out for the NBA's biggest stars:
"If, as people close to James have been claiming, an annual wage of $50 million would tempt the Cleveland Cavalier to move to Europe when he becomes a free agent in 2010, that would require Olympiacos to pay him around $80 million gross (i.e., before tax) -- assuming the $50 million is a net figure.
"That is a colossal amount of money, even for billionaire shipping owners such as Panagiotis and George Angelopoulos, the brothers who own 50 percent of Olympiacos and are bank-rolling the [Josh] Childress deal."
So where does that leave us? Back in the present: the summer of 2008. That means we're two long years -- or just two short years -- away from LeBron's decision.
Predictions compiled from the forecasts of 25 ESPN writers, editors and contributors: Henry Abbott, J.A. Adande, Kevin Arnovitz, Jon Barry, Jordan Brenner, Maurice Brooks, Chris Broussard, Ric Bucher, Chad Ford, Jemele Hill, John Hollinger, Mark Jackson, Scoop Jackson, Tim Legler, Jackie MacMullan, Chris Palmer, Chris Ramsay, Dr. Jack Ramsay, Jalen Rose, Chris Sheridan, Marc Stein, David Thorpe, Royce Webb, Brian Windhorst and Matt Wong.