Like a dream doomed to end with an alarm, the time for LeBron James to win an NBA title with the Cleveland Cavaliers is ticking toward an abrupt finish in a year, give or take, depending on how many times the young superstar pushes the snooze button.
Or James can take care of it right now, this spring, as the NBA playoffs begin with just about everyone around the league waiting for his trophy-level master challenge against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.
James will finish up a three-year deal in spring 2010, though he could pick up one more option year. A noise or two has emanated from his camp to the effect that he might bounce over the Europe for some outlandish payday like $50 million, which he could never command under NBA salary cap guidelines.
He knows that he needs a championship between now and next spring, every bit as much as the Cavs want one. With a championship, especially under his Cleveland circumstances, James can become whatever he wants — though it’s unlikely he can be everything he wants. He might be stuck with a choice.
Does James want to be the greatest basketball player of all time? If he can pack away a title this spring at age 24, he’s well on his way.
To make his top buck in the NBA, James would have to stay in Cleveland, per the league’s cap rules. But that might not be the worst outcome, for the Cleveland front office has performed well in the last couple of years.
Does James want to be a true multi-national, multi-platform billionaire media personality? This kid can be as rich and famous as he wants, especially if he jumps over to Europe for a couple or three years, takes the long green and really dominates the Euroleague just as easily as everyone knows he would. He would pay for it by losing that time against his NBA totals, but he might be so good that it won’t matter.
It almost doesn’t matter what James does or what happens around him. Seldom has a team come along like the Cavaliers, who are widely picked as the Eastern entry to the NBA Finals.
But that one player, of course, is a truly great one, and the Cavs aren’t as reliant on him as they were a year ago, when James scored 45 points in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals and still lost 97-92 to the Boston Celtics. Looking back on that series, it’s easy to see why the Cavs are the pick by most to replace the Celtics against Los Angeles.
In four games of that series played in Boston, the Celtics won all four by an average of eight points. In three games of that series played in Cleveland, the Cavs won all three by an average of 13.3 points. This time around, Cleveland claims the homecourt advantage after securing the best regular-season conference record at 66-16.
Throw in the absence of Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, out for the playoffs with knee problems, and the potential match between Cleveland and Boston turns entirely in the Cavs’ favor. But there’s more. The new Cavaliers point guard, Mo Williams, is everything they thought he would be when they picked him up from Milwaukee in a three-way trade last summer.
Before this season, James never had a Cavs teammate who averaged 17 points per game in his five years as a pro. But Williams, who averaged 17.2 points the previous two seasons with Milwaukee, produced 17.8 points per game this year for the Cavs, giving his new team a true second scoring option.
The gigantic center, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, used to be the No. 2 option and now becomes No. 3. Shooting guard Delonte West, who came to the Cavs from Seattle during the 2007-08 season, is the No. 4 scorer at 11.7 points per game.
And what would the Cavs be without Joe Smith, college basketball player of the year in 1995 and the No. 1 overall pick in that year’s draft? Since then, he’s made 12 tours with nine different franchises.
The Cavs picked up Smith from Chicago a year ago, and he performed serviceably in the playoffs. But Cavs General Manager Danny Ferry moved Smith to Oklahoma City last summer in the deal that brought Williams from Milwaukee. By the end of the season, Oklahoma City bought out Smith’s contract, and the Cavs signed him two days later.
In Game 1 of Cleveland’s opening playoff series against the once mighty Detroit Pistons, a 102-84 ripping last weekend, Smith scored 13 points in 19 minutes.
But all these players and people are merely orbiting The Great LeBron. His averages this season: 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists. He took two shots per game fewer this year than last year, when he averaged 30 points.
Remember James’ senior year at St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron, when he put high school basketball on national TV? That year, he averaged 31.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists. Six years out of high school, he dominates the pro game about as much as he dominated the high school game.
ESPN.com recently compared James this season with Oscar Robertson back in 1961-62, when the Big O averaged a triple-double for the old Cincinnati Royals. Teams put the ball up more when Robertson played. Adjusting for pace, James would have averaged 40 points, about 15 rebounds and 10 assists in 1961-62. Adjusting the Big O’s season to today’s pace, he would have averaged 21.7 points, six rebounds and 8.6 assists this season.
A fun exercise, but it matters not. The world is different all around.
Oscar Robertson lived and worked in a segregated country. LeBron James lives and works in a global marketplace in which no tender is turned away. That’s why one almost expects James to take an NBA title within a year, then take his brand worldwide — because it’s there.
The world has never seen an athlete quite like what LeBron James could become. It’s largely because the world is just now capable of producing him.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: firstname.lastname@example.org