Look at what’s riding on Game 6…

With Boston’s impressive win in Game 5 on Tuesday night, the series has once again swung the Celtics’ way, and they have a chance to close out the Cavs in Game 6 on Thursday.

Has there ever been more riding on a conference semifinal playoff game?

While there are those that believe LeBron James is more likely to leave Cleveland if the Cavs were to win the title, the general consensus is just opposite. If the Cavs suffer another pre-Finals flame out, most NBA fans believe that LeBron will sign elsewhere this summer.

But it’s not like LeBron had one of his monster near-triple-double games and his teammates let him down. The other Cavs shot 46% from the field, 45% from 3PT and hit 18-of-22 free throws. Shaquille O’Neal posted 21-4 (hitting 7-of-10 free throws) along with four blocks.

Meanwhile, LeBron shot 3-of-14 from the field (0-4 from 3PT) and scored just 15 points. For the first three quarters, he settled for long jumper after long jumper and missed most of them. Once again, his unwillingness to go in the post limited his options in a game when his jumper just wasn’t falling. Two of the game’s great wings — Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant — made/make a living on the block, especially when they were having trouble scoring elsewhere.

Defensively for the Cavs, it was another story.

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The Top 10 NBA Free Agents of 2010

Originally published December 11, 2008.
Updated November 12, 2009.

The phrase “Summer of 2010” has become part of the NBA lexicon. Teams have been tripping over each other trying to clear cap space for next summer so that they can sign an impact free agent (or two). With that in mind, let’s take a look ahead at the free agent crop of 2010.

Below is a list of the top 10 players that are likely to be free agents next summer. I’m ranking them based mostly on talent, but it’s also important to note each player’s age in July of 2010, as that will affect his value and skill. For example, a 31 year-old Paul Pierce holds much more value than a 33 year-old Paul Pierce. Get the drift?

1. LeBron James, SF (26 years-old)
James is the golden boy of this free agent class and is the player that every franchise would love to land next summer. He will have just turned 26 and whatever team is lucky enough to sign him will – barring injury – enjoy four or five years of the best basketball of his career. The Cavs have gone “all in” this season, signing Shaq, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon, and re-signing Anderson Varejao. In the process, they gave up whatever cap space they would have enjoyed next summer. If Cleveland’s season ends in disappointment once again, it wouldn’t be surprising if LeBron decides to take his game elsewhere. Three teams — the Knicks, Bulls and Nets — jump out as good fits. LeBron has stated that his top priority is to become a “global icon” and playing in Manhattan would serve that purpose. If the Knicks are able to unload Eddy Curry or Jared Jeffries before the trade deadline, then they’ll have the projected cap space to sign two top players on this list, and that might be enough to convince LeBron to sign on the dotted line. Plus, he’s familiar with Mike D’Antoni (via the duo’s work with Team USA) and the Knicks’ up-tempo system would be a near-perfect fit for LeBron’s skill set. The Nets offer a better supporting cast (led by Devin Harris and Brook Lopez) and the (impending?) move to Brooklyn would boost the franchise’s profile. Chicago has a number of pieces already in place (Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich) and is bigger market than Cleveland. But would LeBron want to go to the franchise that Michael Jordan built?
Note: Player option (PO)

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LeBron to…Minnesota?!?

John Hollinger writes in his latest PER Diem (Insider subscription required) that LeBron’s best bet for long term success may not be in Cleveland…or New York…or New Jersey/Brooklyn…

And it’s especially worth noting that if the Cavs are back in the 45-50 win range this season, King James might be a much more portable commodity this coming summer. If he’s looking at a Cleveland lineup with one majestically talented player and several spare parts, one would think the comparison to such arrangements in New York or New Jersey wouldn’t be dramatically different.

But those aren’t close to being the most palatable changes of uniform available. For instance, it bears mentioning that joining the Chicago squad LeBron’s team lost to Thursday night would be dramatically different. With a young star point guard, quality big men and lots of secondary help, the Bulls — who could get as much as $20 million under the cap if John Salmons opts out of his contract, conveniently opening a spot in the lineup for LeBron at the same time — would offer a more clear opportunity for long-term success.

Let me throw out an even crazier proposition — Minnesota. The Wolves will have the cap space to make a run at LeBron, depending on a few variables — or at the very least can get there fairly easily if they know there’s a chance for a player of this caliber. (Declining an option on Ryan Gomes, for instance, is done much more easily if it allows you to replace him with the best player in the league.)

Minnesota is generally thought of as one of the NBA’s least-desirable relocation options, but let’s consider it from a winning perspective. Who would you rather play with for the next five years: Al Jefferson or Anderson Varejao? Kevin Love or Ilgauskas? Ricky Rubio or Mo Williams? Jonny Flynn or West? Ramon Sessions or Daniel Gibson? Next year’s fourth pick or next year’s 24th? It’s obvious, isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong — the T-Wolves would be a good fit for LeBron, but he’d be a pretty good fit anywhere. I just don’t see him taking his show from one cold, small-market Midwestern city to another cold, small-market Midwestern city. If he doesn’t stay in Cleveland, then there seem to be three real options:

1. Brooklyn Nets
With Devin Harris and Brook Lopez locked up for the next few years, the Nets have two All-Star caliber players already on the roster at two of the toughest positions to fill — point guard and center. Is the penetrating Harris the perfect fit alongside LeBron? Not necessarily, but if the Nets can find a sharpshooting off guard (Courtney Lee?) and face up power forward (a la Rashard Lewis), the Nets would really be in business. Plus, the move to Brooklyn would take away the stigma of playing in New Jersey.

2. Chicago Bulls
It would break the city of Cleveland’s heart if LeBron fled to the Windy City. New York or Brooklyn? Cleveland fans wouldn’t like it, but they’d understand. But if LeBron heads to Chicago, home of the team that stepped on the Cavs’ throats so many times during the Jordan era, the city might explode. From a pure basketball point of view, it’s a nice fit. They already have Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich and maybe Tyrus Thomas. Chicago is also a threat to pry Dwyane Wade out of Miami.

3. New York Knicks
This is more about MSG and the spotlight than who the Knicks have on the roster. Playing in Mike D’Antoni’s system would be nice, and if the Knicks can unload either Eddy Curry or Jared Jeffries, they’d have enough cap space to sign another free agent to max deal. This might be a case of the Knicks having to coax Chris Bosh out of Toronto or Amare Stoudemire out of Phoenix before being able to convince LeBron to sign on the dotted line.

We’re only a couple of weeks into the season and the talk is already starting. The Cavs have plenty of time to morph into a 60-win team, but right now they don’t look it. And the longer they struggle, the louder the drum beat is going to sound.

What do the Cavs do now?

This is not how it was supposed to go.

The Cavs were destined to make the Finals and face the Lakers, with LeBron turning in a fantastic Game 7 performance in front of his loyal fans at the Q to bring the city of Cleveland its first championship since 1964. With a title already under his belt, and a few more on the horizon, he would happily re-up for another four or five seasons. Or at the very worst, the Cavs would lose to the more talented Lakers, leaving fans with the feeling that “one more piece” would be all that is needed to finally bring a title to Cleveland. Under that scenario, there would be no way that LeBron could leave, right? Not when the Cavs were thisclose to a title…

Just over a year ago, I wrote that “The Cavs have failed LeBron James,” which was posted about three months before GM Danny Ferry pulled the trigger on the trade that brought Mo Williams to Cleveland. That trade, along with LeBron’s renewed focus and an improved work ethic (which was inspired by his seeing first hand how Kobe prepared during the 2008 Olympics), pushed the Cavs to a league-best 66 wins this season. Williams was named as an alternate to the All-Star Game (after grousing about not being voted in by the coaches) and all was well with the world.

The Cavs received some more good news when Kevin Garnett struggled with injuries down the stretch of the regular season and was eventually shut down for the playoffs. At the time, the Celtics were considered the Cavs’ biggest threat in the East, but KG’s injury might have allowed the Magic, one of four teams that beat the Cavs twice during the year — the Celtics, the Lakers and…um…the Wizards were the other three — to advance to the Conference Finals when they otherwise wouldn’t have survived to face the Cavs. The Magic were a very bad matchup because the Cavs simply didn’t have anyone that could cover Dwight Howard. When they didn’t double-team him, he would make a living on the post, and when they did send another guy, it would free up the Orlando sharpshooters for open jumpers.

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LeBron says he’ll consider re-signing this summer

Maybe he’s serious, or maybe he just wants to get the press off his back, but LeBron James told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that if the Cavs’ keep up their winning ways, he’ll consider re-signing this summer.

“You play out this season of course; I will consider it,” James said Saturday before the Cavs practiced at the Pepsi Center.

“The direction we are headed is everything I expected and more.”

This is the first time James has publicly talked about signing this summer instead of waiting until 2010. It is an indication of how pleased James is with the progress the Cavaliers have made this season as they are off to a 22-4 start, the second-best record in the NBA.

“I definitely want to keep an open mind, I will look at everything,” James said. “[The extension] is a good point. I think me and my group have pretty much made good decisions so far and we’ll look at the options and go from there.”

James isn’t committing to anything here other than to “consider” re-signing if the Cavs continue to win. And pledging to consider something is very nebulous thing. No one can actually proved you considered it (or didn’t consider it), so you don’t actually have to.

Regardless, the Cavs have one of the best records in the league and if they make another Finals appearance this year, it’s going to be tough for James to fly the coop in the summer of 2010. The key is not to get swept like they did against the Spurs. Those Finals showed just how far the Cavs (and the whole Eastern Conference, really) were from truly competing for a title. Now that there’s a legitimate contender (favorite?) in the East — the Celtics — a playoff matchup between the C’s and Cavs could have a major impact on the future landscape of the NBA.

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