NEW YORK -- Not even Michael Jordan teased and tantalized Knicks fans this cruelly.
LeBron James walked into Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, lavished praise on the city and its fans, called the coach of the Knicks an "offensive mastermind," and then cooled on the bench for the entire fourth quarter when his own offensive mastery was no longer needed.
The stars all came out -- Jay-Z and Beyonce, Q-Tip and Kanye -- but they came to see nothing of interest. They might as well have waited until November 2010.
"I don't know if it's going to happen," said James, luxuriating in the attention generated by the Knicks' all-out maneuvering for his services. "I'm so focused on this season and what we have at task with the Cavs that it's hard to think about that date. But at the same time, you have to stay open minded if you're a Knicks fan."
As the final two minutes of the third quarter slipped away, No. 23 had 23 points. If LeBron had stayed in his hotel room and not scored any, the Cavaliers would still have been leading the Knicks by 11. Even with LeBron sitting on the bench with 26 points for the final 12 minutes, Cleveland still won, 119-101.
The Garden crowd, unaware of LeBron's pregame flirtation, gave him a decent ovation -- nothing extraordinary -- during introductions. And yet he still said afterward, "Much respect to the Knick fans."
"Every time I come here, it's a warm feeling," James said. "Just because you know the history; it's not just basketball. It's everything that's ever gone on -- concerts, boxing, everything that ever went on at Madison Square Garden. And being a basketball junkie like myself, how could you not love being in this building? So I can't sit up here and say that it's not great to be here and play here."
Then he paused and added with a playful smile, "And I'm saying playing here as a Cavalier, not being here all the time."
There would be no 50-point game like last March in this building, no drama at the end. But as much as James enjoyed all the attention -- and boy, is he starting to enjoy it -- he was only able to hint at the story behind the story.
James has been dodging questions for so long about where he might go if he left Cleveland that a nuance to his speech has gone unnoticed. He has begun describing the idea of declining his player option on July 1, 2010 not as a possibility, but a certainty.
"If you guys want to sleep right now and don't wake up until July 2010, then go ahead," James said. "Because it's going to be a big day. ... I think July 1 of 2010 is a very big day. It's probably going to be one of the biggest days in free agent history in the NBA."
He's right about that. It doesn't mean he's leaving, but it means that he's flat-out declining the player option and testing the market. And he won't be the only one.
"There's going to be a lot of free agents out there in 2010," he said.
|LeBron James is the center of attention in New York -- just the way he likes it. (AP)|
Many of them signed their current deals specifically so they can opt out during the current collective bargaining agreement, which owners complained at the recent Board of Governors meeting is "too sweet," according to a person familiar with the situation. The vast majority of them are going to exercise those rights and become free agents, because they don't know how much money will be there later.
Billy Hunter, executive director of the NBA Players Association, warned last night that any potential free agent who waits around for a new CBA will do so at his own peril. Owners almost certainly won't extend the CBA through the 2011-12 season, so it is set to expire on June 30, 2011.
"We're going to make every effort to get a deal," Hunter said. "But I have to plan as if there will be an eventual lockout."
Another factor: By the time the owners and players start negotiating around the All-Star break, the league may be looking at some very grim revenue projections because of the economic downturn. About half the money that goes to player salaries is safe because it comes from the TV networks. The other half -- tickets, concessions, etc. -- is going down.
Not even Tiger Woods' endorsement deal with General Motors was safe, and that development was not lost on James.
So while LeBron mentioned Tim Duncan as someone he admires because he took shorter contracts and less money so the Spurs could pay complementary talent and win titles, that doesn't mean he'd do the same.
"I didn't say that," he said. "I like the talent part, bringing the talent in, but I didn't say I was going to take less."
He can get the most money from the Cavs, either by re-signing with them or in a sign-and-trade. He is already on record as saying he will go where he can win the most championships. At this point, all that is certain is that he'll decline the player option and take it from there.
"He's not telling the team anything different than he's telling the media," a person with knowledge of the Cavs' situation said. "I don't think he knows."
Clearly, the Knicks know what they want. They want LeBron so badly that on Tuesday team president Donnie Walsh turned down a chance to nullify Friday's trade with the Clippers despite concerns over Cuttino Mobley's heart condition. Walsh tried to work the situation for a better deal, but the only option was to take back Zach Randolph and his $17.3 million due in 2010-11.
"Not an option," a person familiar with the Knicks' strategy said.
The fans who filed to the exits -– trains to catch, paint to watch dry –- in the third quarter Tuesday night didn't think this was much of an event. They were looking at the glass half empty. Those who see the Knicks' salary cap less than half full in 2010 couldn't be happier.
"It's important for everybody for that team to be good," a Western Conference general manager said. "I've got to think that the league is happy with what's going on. I'm not saying conspiracy theory, but let's be real."