- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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There's one thing and one thing only that must happen this year in the NBA. The Cavaliers need to win the championship so LeBron James can hang a "Mission Accomplished" banner in downtown Cleveland and leave with a clear conscience to start the ultimate reclamation project with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Before James came along, Cleveland was typified by this guy, and its recent sports history consisted of always being on the wrong side of the capitalized moments such as The Drive and The Shot and The Fumble. Even with James in town, the best viral thing to come out of Cleveland has been a self-deprecating fake tourism video.
The Clippers haven't even done anything worth commemorating in their own building, let alone in the annals of L.A. history. The only thing they've given to the city is a steady steam of late-night monologue fodder (back before the hosts' material consisted strictly of shots at one another). Since moving from San Diego in 1984, they have won exactly one playoff series.
If James could win a championship for Cleveland and win a championship for the Clippers, it would rocket him up the ranks of the all-time greatest. One ring with each of those franchises would equal three championships with the Bulls or Lakers.
Even if LeBron doesn't bring the Larry O'Brien Trophy to Cleveland, he made that franchise relevant again. National TV games, rivals, all the things the real teams have. Think how far they tower above the major-market Clippers in status.
Only LeBron has the power to shift the balance all by himself. It would be the most significant free-agent move since Shaquille O'Neal left Orlando to come to the Lakers, and that was only the most significant free-agent move in sports history. (Three championships and a Most Valuable Player season = best signing ever).
Plus the Staples Center co-tenancy could set up the most unique dynamic in the league, with LeBron and Kobe Bryant actually battling for L.A. supremacy instead of their puppet representatives dishing wisecracks in commercials.
Last summer, I believed rookie Blake Griffin could change the Clippers, but I was mistaken. Clearly this task is too monumental to be left to mere mortals. (Although James did seek out Griffin before Saturday's game at Staples Center to offer words of encouragement.)
Send the beacon signal across the country to request James.
The natural, historical, inevitable United States tradition is to move west. Presidents do it after they leave the White House. The King should do it after a lifetime of living in Ohio.
How could it happen?
The Clippers are committed to $39 million in salary for next season, and would be willing to clear up a little more room under the salary cap to offer James a contract worth about $100 million over five years. That's about the same amount he could get with any of the other cap-space-clearing teams such as New York, Miami and Chicago.
What none of them could provide is as talented and deep a surrounding lineup as the Clippers, who could send out Baron Davis, Chris Kaman, Eric Gordon and Griffin for the opening tip alongside LeBron. There would be All-Stars, former All-Stars or potential All-Stars at every position.
For James to leave Cleveland and go anywhere without a sign-and-trade deal would mean he'd forsake the additional year and higher raises the hometown Cavaliers could offer him, which works out to about $25 million more.
But what if James didn't want the sixth year? That was the way he handled his current contract, when he took one year fewer than the maximum extension from his rookie deal (four years instead of five, with an opt-out after three years). He wanted a crack at free agency at a younger age, and if he topped out his next deal at five years it would position him to be a free agent again at age 30, right in his prime. That would also place other teams closer to the Cavs' neighborhood when it came to total salary. (The strongest argument against James doing that is most people expect the next collective bargaining agreement to be less favorable to players, so they're advised to get as much money as possible under the current agreement).
So much for the financials. The bottom line is James will get paid a lot of money to play basketball no matter where he does it. The true variables are talent and market, and L.A. offers as good as he can hope for in both cases.
I asked him if given the Clippers' cap space, market size and warm-weather location he had any thoughts about joining them.
"No thoughts," James said.
I asked him if he knew the words to the song "I Love L.A." He said, "No. I know the words to 'I Love Akron.'"
I actually believe he hasn't given any serious consideration to joining the Clippers. It's up to them to show him they deserve it, that they're more than just a wayward team owned by a guy who's easily mocked even by opposing coaches.
It could be an easy fit.
James has been enjoying the L.A. scene since he was hanging at the ESPY Awards the summer he graduated from high school. This city already loves him. He pulled more than 19,000 fans into Staples Center on Saturday night, a number only Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade have been able to match this season. There were all varieties of LeBron James jerseys (the Cavaliers have more outfits than Lady Gaga) in the stands.
James has the showmanship Los Angeles craves. He was flipping shots in over his head in pregame warm-ups; he's ready to break out that huge grin at a moment's notice, or scowl for effect after a fear-inducing dunk.
As he walked down the sideline the entire section behind the scorer's table stood up, cameras ready to capture his pregame powder cloud routine. When he was introduced there wasn't a single boo, and when he had to come out in the first quarter there weren't the usual cheers that accompany the forced removal of the opponent's best player.
And then he showed why he's on his way to winning another MVP award. He scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to bring the Cavaliers back from a seven-point deficit to a one-point victory.
Next year instead of doing it to the Clippers, he should do it for the Clippers.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.
1hBy Ian O'Connor