New York LeBron James didn’t insult anybody by pretending that he hadn’t paid attention to the salary-cap room the Knicks just cleared with two trades Friday, same as he didn’t shy away from debuting a New Yorkthemed sneaker against the Knicks Tuesday night. Nor did he turn down a request that he hold a pregame news conference in a separate room — a departure from normal procedure — though he knew the main topic would be whether he’d jilt Cleveland two years from now to play for the Knicks.
The resulting session was like a high-stakes game of 20 questions between James and reporters about his future. No one was nearly as interested in what Cavs coach, Mike Brown had to say about James opting out of his contract in the summer of 2010, even if it made the most sense of anything anyone said all night. No matter who fancies themselves the front-runner for James now, Brown said, “A lot can happen in two years.”
“July 1, 2010 is a big day,” James agreed.
James is playing the sweepstakes like an absolute virtuoso. He doesn’t seem to have any fear the constant questions will adversely affect his game or his team. And his teammates say they’re at best amused and at worst realistic about it.
“Why would it be a distraction. We still have him,” Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said Tuesday night and laughed.
The Cavs do and they don’t have a grip on James. On the floor, James could lead Cleveland to its third straight Eastern Conference championship round or second trip to the NBA Finals in three years. His willingness to play a beautifully measured game — 26 points — in the Cavs’ 119-101 trouncing of the Knicks underscored one of the many things people love about him: James is leading the NBA in scoring but he refused to turn the game into some personal showcase despite all the hype surrounding his visit. It really was enough for him to just win the game.
What James is less committed to is shooting down the notion that he’ll leave Cleveland. He insists on keeping all of that for himself. He could simply refuse to address the topic, you know, and while the drama wouldn’t go completely away, it would still lose a lot steam.
Instead, James has chosen a strategy of full engagement. He gives nearly everyone who fancies themselves one of his suitors a little bone now and then to keep the mystery around him building. It’s just good business. Up goes his value. Up, up, up goes his profile. Up goes the boil on the hype and publicity.
It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone the guesses of where James is headed will change by Friday. Or next week. Or next month. Already, some of the early handicapping has been downright wrong, some has been patently silly — such as an ESPN.com story said someone “close to James” insisted that James might just go play in Europe for $50 million a year from some unnamed tycoon or Russian billionaire when his NBA contract is up. (A great idea . . . if you like pickled herring).
But what is already looking impossible to overstate is just how drop-dead serious and widespread the entire league is positioning for James and the rest of the free-agent class of 2010. No league — forget just the NBA — has ever seen anything like this.