I get the lure of New York. It’s the Big Apple. It’s Gotham. It’s “The City That Never Sleeps.” I used to live there and I’d go back if I could. What I don’t get is this idea that LeBron James needs to go there.
There are some athletes who need New York. They need to be in a big city and play in a big market to validate their legacy and marketability. I spent part of the offseason with Tony Parker, who told me on more than one occasion that if the Spurs played in New York, he would be a bigger star and San Antonio’s current run of success would be more appreciated. “It's because we're in a small market,” he said. “If it said ‘Knicks’ across our jersey, we would be talked about all the time. We'd be everywhere.”
Needless to say, James is not Parker. He’s an international superstar on par with Tiger Woods and David Beckham and is reaching Michael Jordan status with his global appeal. James doesn’t need to have “New York” etched across his chest to become an icon. He doesn’t need play at Madison Square Garden to make more money in endorsements. He doesn’t have to live in Manhattan and be pictured on Page Six to become a bigger celebrity.
James doesn’t need New York. New York (and more specifically the Knicks) needs James.
The way people have been talking about the lure of playing for the Knicks recently, I would have thought they were talking about the Yankees. Yes, the Knicks play in Madison Square Garden, “The Word’s Most Famous Arena,” and are in New York City, one of the world’s biggest media markets. But that’s where the draw ends. If James were shopping for a penthouse or looking to start a magazine, this move would be a slam dunk, but he’s trying to win basketball games.
The Knicks haven’t had a winning record since the 2000-01 season, finishing with fewer than 40 wins for seven straight seasons, a streak that will likely stretch to nine when James becomes a free agent in 2010. They’ve only won two championships in their history, with the last one coming in 1973. Their last trip to the Finals came a decade ago. This isn’t the Yankees or the Lakers, two storied franchises in big cities littered with championships. If the Knicks didn’t play in New York, they’d be the East Coast version of the Sonics (except for the whole relocation thing), a decent team that had some success in the '70s and '90s but fell on some hard times.
Would James sign with the Sonics, er the Thunder, if they cleared cap room for him? No, and he should take the same stance with the Knicks.
Anyone who watched the Cavaliers’ 119-101 rout of the Knicks on Tuesday knows the Knicks need more than James to become contenders again. While the retooled Knicks showed how far they have to go, the Cavs showed why they have the third-best record in the league behind the Lakers and Celtics. Surrounded by the best supporting class he’s ever had, James no longer has to carry the load. James finished with 26 points as seven Cavs scored in double figures and all 12 players made a dent in the box score.
Cleveland may not be New York, but the Cavs are no small-market team. The Cavs, who made the 2007 Finals and were six points from eliminating the Celtics in last year's playoffs, have the third-highest payroll in the league behind the Knicks and Mavericks. Their owner, Dan Gilbert, has done everything in his power to make them a winner, from opening a state-of-the-art training center near James’ hometown of Akron to trading for Mo Williams, Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West in the past year. What has also gone unnoticed by most is the cap flexibility Cleveland will have in 2010, when it could be the ones in position to add a player such as Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire or Dwyane Wade to a team already contending for a championship with James.
James may love New York and New York may love him, but there will be plenty of time for him to stroll through Times Square and Central Park in the offseason. If he wants to win an NBA championship, his best bet is still to stay in Cleveland.