- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
I read all the reasons my man Bill Simmons trotted out to explain why LeBron James very well could have turned down a five-year, $80 million contract extension from the Cleveland Cavaliers and actually started second-guessing my recent pronouncement that LeBron was a lock to stay put.
The Sports Guy was right. If anyone on Earth could let that kind of money sit on the table and wait two years for unrestricted free agency, it's LeBron.
I quickly remembered the two crucial LBJ truths to offset the reality that, yes, he really could have played out two more seasons on his piddling rookie wages, signed a contract starting at the $5 million mid-level exception with the Knicks or Nets in the summer of 2008 even if they couldn't manufacture any salary-cap space to chase him and still make more money in endorsements than anyone in the league.
Truth No. 1: As scared and reluctant as the long-suffering fans on Lake Erie were to believe this, after every sporting tragedy to befall them over the years, LeBron is a proud Ohioan. He gives back tons of money to his community as an All-Star philanthropist. I've said it before and I'll say it again: LeBron grew up in nearby Akron and DOES NOT WANT TO LEAVE. What he really wants is to be the guy -- the first modern-day athlete in any sport -- who beats the Cleveland curse.
That would be pretty rich and meaningful, wouldn't it?
Truth No. 2: LeBron has to live with the fact that 2003 draft classmate Dwyane Wade led his team to a championship before James did. That will never change. But let's face it, Wade couldn't have won a ring in Miami in his third season unless he had Shaquille O'Neal as a sidekick, no matter how brilliant Wade was. LeBron doesn't have anyone close to Shaq's stature as a Cavs teammate and isn't likely to see one any time soon.
The only way to one-up Wade is doing what LeBron started to do Saturday: Commit to sign the Cavs' extension offer and then lead the Cavs -- the Cavs -- to a championship. Preferably while Shaq is still playing.
Of course, it's not like this is going to be easy. The Cavs don't have the cap space to pursue a helpful free agent like Al Harrington or Bonzi Wells, after last summer's free-agent splashes on Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones and the re-signing of Zydrunas Ilgauskas. They've also had no luck yet this offseason shopping Ilgauskas and Jones in hopes of making significant alterations to the current mix.
That's why many pundits would rate Chicago ahead of Cleveland in the East if the season started today. The Bulls signed Ben Wallace away from Detroit and drafted Tyrus Thomas to join an on-the-rise young mix. The only improvement that the Cavs can count on, at present, is the progress James makes in his fourth season.
Yet that's a bigger booster shot than most teams can count on.
Don't forget what he did last season seemingly by himself at times. James powered the Cavs to 50 wins after the injury loss of Hughes ... and then helped trigger the unraveling of the Pistons as we knew them by overturning a 2-0 series deficit to drag them to seven games in the second round.
Since Wade is only going to get better, too, Cleveland will have to be proactive and fortunate. Maybe the James-Hughes tag team blossoms after a full season together, uninterrupted by injury. Maybe Cavs general manager Danny Ferry eventually finds a better sidekick for James by trading Hughes. Maybe they get lucky and a deal materializes for Ilgauskas that provides the injection of frontcourt athleticism and versatility that the Cavs need.
What we know for sure, and officially so now, is that James is willing to give Ferry and aggressive Cavs owner Dan Gilbert time to assemble a title-worthy supporting cast. Reason being: LeBron wants to bring a parade to Cleveland more than he wants the extra Nike bucks allegedly waiting for him as a Knick or a Net or a Laker.
He'll play one more season on his rookie contract and then won't have an opportunity to be a free agent until after the fourth season of his extension, in the summer of 2011. Winning a championship by then will be a massive challenge, but what if the 21-year-old pulls it off?
To Ohio's own LeBron James? The payoff from lifting all those curses and winning it all, in the land where Browns, Indians and Cavs disciples know only heartbreak, is fatter than anything those big-city teams could have ever thrown at him.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
13hMatt Walks, ESPN.com