- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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Once the assignment of blame for the Cavaliers' calamity is over and a nation of career counselors and sports psychologists return to their day jobs, LeBron James will make the most important decision of his career -- where to peddle his basketball wares for the next several years.
James shares some culpability for Cleveland's embarrassing Eastern Conference semifinals loss to Boston, but James didn't fail a test of character nor did he fall victim to a civic curse. The loss to Boston was a basketball failure. If James wants to remedy that, he'll look at the candidates for his services and make a quantitative basketball decision based with a single question in mind: Which team has the best supporting cast to maximize his talents?
The New York Knicks have oodles of cap space and can offer the biggest stage for James' ongoing branding exercise.
The fabulously wealthy new owner of the New Jersey Nets likes to party with European models and will be moving the team to Brooklyn, a borough that leads the world in cultural cachet at the moment.
If the Los Angeles Lakers falter over the next few weeks, rumblings of a sign and trade for James will surface again.
For reasons that range from the historical to the theoretical, the Los Angeles Clippers have been removed from the list by most observers. Yet, the Clippers' primary assets -- a strong foundation at four positions and the financial flexibility -- have never been more relevant to the discussion of James' future. We've learned that James is human, that if surrounded by mediocre talent, his team will produce less-than-desired results. For James to win a championship, a few essential ingredients on the floor are required. From a basketball standpoint, the Clippers can give James what he needs.
A savvy point guard
Baron Davis has been savaged since his arrival from Golden State, but when you break down the components of Davis' games, the strengths and weaknesses come into clear focus.
Davis' shortcomings can be boiled down to a single factor: He launches too many long jumpers off the dribble. Examine the rest of Davis' résumé and you'll find a point guard who is still a plus defender, a good rebounder, a solid post-up option and, most important, knows how to deliver the basketball.
How dynamic is Davis as a distributor? In March, Tom Haberstroh looked at which guards generated the best assists -- the ones who put teammates in the best position to score. Davis topped that list.
Anyone who watched Cleveland's flameout saw a team that couldn't get James good looks. When sizing up his next collection of teammates, James can stick with Mo Williams, or cast his lot with Toney Douglas, Devin Harris, Mario Chalmers or Rose (who ranked 56th out of 67 eligible point guards in assist rate). Or he can go with one of the best pure passers in the game whose most glaring weakness -- too many jump shots -- is certain to diminish playing alongside a guy who will put the ball up 25 times a game.
A dance partner
The pick-and-roll makes up a sizeable chunk of James' offensive game. Other than Wade, no non-point guard was involved in more pick-and-roll situations as a ball-handler than James -- and he was ninth in the league overall.
Anyone who caught a glimpse of redshirt rookie forward Blake Griffin at the 2009 Summer League in the exhibition season last October saw the most explosive roll man to land in the NBA since Amare Stoudemire. Griffin's ability to paste defenders on screens with his hard frame, catch the ball on the move with his sticky mitts and finish at will would create the most devastating pick-and-roll tandem in the game.
You can indict a franchise for its ownership and lackluster history -- but all the ridicule in the world won't help you defend that. As a second option, you can do a lot worse than Chris Kaman, who can screen, then pop or roll with proficiency.
A dependable scorer on the kickout
The prevailing defensive strategy against James is to throw a battalion of defenders at him, something the Celtics did effectively against the Cavs.
LeBron's counter to that pressure is his supernatural court vision and the precision of his passing game. Those skills are squandered, though, if there isn't a recipient on the weak side who can catch that pass and make the most of the opportunity.
Enter Eric Gordon, top five in the league among starting 2-guards in true shooting percentage. Gordon isn't without flaws, but he has three attributes you want as James' wing counterpart.
First, Gordon can fill it up from beyond the arc, where he drained 250 shots during his first two seasons in the league. If a defender closes too quickly on the catch, Gordon will use a ferocious first step to attack the rim, usually finishing or drawing contact.
Finally, Gordon can defend the marquee wings, something we saw when he contained Brandon Roy, Kobe Bryant, then Wade in three consecutive Clippers wins to start 2010. Apart from Wade in Miami, neither James' existing team nor any of the other suitors can offer James a better two-way guard as a wingmate.
A team that fulfills every role
No other team in pursuit of James has a better 2-through-5 set at the four other spots on the floor.
James' four teammates would include two guys younger than him in Griffin and Gordon, and two older veterans in Davis and Kaman. James would be the true fulcrum of a complete starting unit that can dominate on the glass, guard the perimeter (and excel defensively overall under the right coach), run in transition and pick defenses apart in the half court both inside and out.
Behind that starting five, the Clippers will have another top-10 draft pick and curio DeAndre Jordan in development, along with a few vets who will happily accept the minimum to play in Los Angeles behind James.
The most important question a Clippers team composed of James, Davis, Gordon, Griffin and Kaman will pose to opposing coaches is this: Who are you going to leave to help on LeBron?
James' addition would allow Kaman to return to the low block, where he's most efficient. Opponents have to guard James so tightly on the perimeter that Kaman will pick up a couple of opportunities per game just by being under the glass or along the baseline inside of 15 feet.
Gordon won't have to force the issue, as he started doing when the Clips desperately needed a bucket last season, which was often. Instead, the third-year guard can settle into being a lethal weak side threat alongside two phenomenal passers who know where to find him.
Griffin is a natural force and a much better option for James than a stretch-4 who can't stretch or guard. Stoudemire was the right fit for the Cavs at the deadline. James would get many of Stoudemire's assets with Griffin, a dedicated kid who will be eager and willing to sculpt his game around James and defend as if his life depends on it.
Skeptics might ask what about Davis? Is he willing to sublimate his ego to become the second (or even third) banana? Davis has already tacitly recognized that, on the other side of 30, he's no longer a No. 1 option for a successful NBA team. He moderated his shot selection somewhat in 2009-10, an adjustment that lifted his efficiency numbers even as his usage rate dropped to its lowest level since 2002-03. He'd love nothing more than to graduate into a Jason Kidd-like role provided he has a closer he can pass to.
The loss to Boston taught James and the rest of us that breadth and depth of talent are far more important to a team's success than anything else. That doesn't mean James and his advisors are wrong to consider things like endorsement potential, livability, the voraciousness of the local press corps, proximity to Akron, ownership or a franchise's historical legacy in the decision-making process.
But if James is truly interested in surrounding himself with four teammates who have a full range of talents to complement his game and embody a smart mix of youth and experience, he'd be short-sighted not to give the Clippers a very, very close look.
Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com and is the author of the TrueHoop Network's ClipperBlog.
8dEthan Sherwood Strauss