November 06, 2009
Only in New York City could a basketball player do everything right -- shoot with range, play tough defense, find his teammates with pinpoint passes, working with a sense of flair and drama all along -- and still have it come off as slightly gauche and unseemly.
That's what the Cavaliers' win over the New York Knicks felt like on Friday. An attention-drawing exercise to its core, bent on pumping up the "will-he-or-won't-he?" question regarding LeBron James'(notes) impending 2010 free agency, and a Knick team that would dearly love to sign him with its also impending 2010 cap space.
Cleveland's win? It hardly mattered. The team did well to rebound fully from a tough loss to Chicago the night before, as coach Mike Brown seemed willing to tinker with new starting lineups (Anderson Varejao(notes) out, J.J. Hickson(notes) in), while the defense and offensive spacing improved.
The story was James, though. And, to a far lesser extent, a Knicks club that seems more and more dispirited by the day. Sure, these Knicks were never any good to begin with. But they've lost that sense of joie de vivre that marked the team's turnaround campaign last season. They've stopped running, stopped working and appear to have stopped caring.
These Knicks should be expected to provide maximum effort. They are professionals, after all, playing in front of some of the most expensive tickets in sports.
But human nature is a hard cloud to steer your way out of, especially when things are dark and gloomy amongst the haze. And with no Knick knowing if they'll be back next year -- next month, next week -- it's hard to shake the feeling that you're a piece of impermanent property, meant to be flipped and turned for profit once July of 2010 hits.
LeBron James could not care less about the hurt feelings of his opponents. He was jawing with fans, chatting with Yankees sitting courtside and shaking hands with spectators from the beginning. Smiling from the outset, enjoying the hell out of all the attention this spectacle brought, and destroying the Knicks from the opening tip.
With jump shots, mind you. Low-percentage looks for any player, much less James, who still is an iffy outside shooter despite very noticeable fundamental changes in the way he tosses it up.
He's so damn good that he can get away with rubbing it in during the first quarter, essentially telling the Knicks that "not only are these fans wearing my jersey and chanting my name in your house, but I'm going to destroy you with the least-effective weapon in my arsenal. My worst is still better than your best. Way better. And Jay-Z answers on the third ring every time I call. I don't even call him that much."
This isn't to slam LeBron. Even at his relative young age (24), this is all he's known for years. But he does have an ego that even this town couldn't hope to house, and if he did sign with New York this summer, it would be because James is tackier and more gauche than we once gave him credit for.
And we think he can be pretty tacky.
We also think he's the best player in the game, and it's not even close.
He totaled 33 points, seven assists, nine rebounds, three steals, a would-be block that was termed a goal-tend by the referees and seven turnovers. And though it's annoying to hear every time he pinpoints a bounce pass in the right direction, James does look for his teammates out of instinct. Not because -- in order to appease any detractors -- he feels as if he has to mix it up.
Jeff Van Gundy tried to tell us during the game that he thinks it's obvious that James already knows where he's going, that he's just being coy about his intentions. I can't see how that can be the case for any right-thinking human. And James is a right-thinking human.
The Cavs could win 70 games this season. The Cavs could peter out at .500. The Knicks could find a taker for Eddy Curry(notes) and/or Jared Jeffries(notes), and almost completely clear their cap space. Or, as presently constructed, they could roll into the offseason with about $27 million on the books next year, probably without about $25 million in cap space, most of which James would immediately eat up, with half a roster left to fill.
Point is, James can't possibly know in November what he's doing next July. There are too many variables and -- not sure if you've noticed -- several teams with loads and loads of cap space, Cleveland included. Some of them have much more cap space. One of them is owned, in part, by Jay-Z.
And as calculating and aware of his station as James is, let's give the man some credit, and assume that he hasn't assumed anything.
All those assumptions, after all, are important him. It drives up the attention, something he just can't stop helping himself to these days.