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Jeff Eisenberg

LeBron's playoff exit means John Calipari watch has begun

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If John Calipari truly wanted to quiet the rampant speculation that he's interested in leaving Kentucky to coach LeBron James in the NBA next season, there's a simple approach he could take.

Instead of repeating that he's got "the best job" in college basketball or that he's "happy at Kentucky," Calipari would refute the speculation directly by definitively saying he wouldn't accept an NBA job if one were offered to him.

Don't sit around refreshing Calipari's Twitter page waiting for such a direct denial because there's a good chance one won't come. In fact, in the wake of Cleveland's stunning playoff exit on Thursday night, whether Calipari would leave for the NBA is less in doubt than the two other pertinent questions hanging over the Kentucky program.

1. Is LeBron's friendship with Calipari so strong that the Kentucky coach is the man he wants as his coach for the duration of his next contract?

2. Are the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavs or New Jersey Nets so desperate to lure the NBA's biggest free-agent prize that they would allow him to handpick a coach whose only previous foray into pro basketball was a failure?

It's too soon to know for sure about either of those questions, but clearly some high-ranking basketball officials believe the answer to both may be yes. Two NBA general managers contacted ESPN.com's Chad Ford within minutes of the Cavs' loss to Boston on Thursday night to say that they expect LeBron to end up in Chicago and Calipari to be his coach. And a source close to Calipari told Yahoo! Sports that the Kentucky coach has "got to listen" if the Bulls and Cavaliers come calling as expected.

Former Adidas and Reebok chieftain Sonny Vaccaro echoed those thoughts in an interview with Chicago's "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on Thursday, suggesting that he could see Calipari bolting for Chicago to coach LeBron and former pupil Derrick Rose.

"This would be the only scenario in my mind -- I can't speak for John in an official capacity -- that he would leave for," Vaccarro said. "And it would also be tangible because of LeBron.

"There's a very close, wonderful relationship there, and the seeds have been sown over a period of time now."

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For those who don't believe that Calipari would even consider leaving Kentucky after just one season, here's a quick summary of the evidence suggesting otherwise.

• Calipari has yet to directly refute reports that began surfacing last week suggesting he was interested in an NBA job.

• He's shown he can't be taken at face value in these situations after telling a group of reporters last spring, Memphis is "where I want to coach" even after beginning negotiations with Kentucky.

• If Calipari ever wants to coach in the NBA again, this is the year to do it because his friendship with LeBron is his prime selling point.

• Even Calipari's top incoming recruit at Kentucky, guard Brandon Knight, signed a financial aid agreement instead of a letter of intent, giving himself more freedom to break the agreement in case the coach leaves.

When reporters caught up with Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart on Thursday afternoon, he told them he's "very confident" Calipari will be in Lexington "a long time."

It's a nice sentiment and all, but his actions suggest otherwise. If Barnhart doesn't believe the threat of Calipari bolting for the NBA is credible, why was he restructuring the coach's already-lucrative contract last week within hours of the first report linking him to the Chicago Bulls?

The truth is that if Calipari ever wants to coach in the NBA again, LeBron is his ticket. They've orchestrated a scenario where James can create a market for Calipari if he chooses: Either the Kentucky coach would be what lures free agency's biggest prize back to Cleveland or he's the trump card that snatches him away.

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