Has LeBron James played his last home game in Cleveland?

Hell yeah, baby!

The exceedingly long odds that are LeBron James being lured to South Beach just got a major shot in the arm when the Boston Celtics dismantled the Cavaliers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. It was the worst home playoff loss in team history.

Kiss him goodbye, Cleveland?

Not just yet. LeBron and his soldiers have already taken a game off the Celtics at TD Garden. He’s still the best player on the planet – certainly capable of willing his team to two straight victories.

I’m quite interested to see what the Vegas odds will be for Game 6 on Thursday night. Let’s assume the Celtics hold serve on their home floor and dispatch the Cavs earlier on in the playoffs than anyone could possibly have projected.

You’ve got to figure LeBron James will leave. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert has unlocked the vault and at least tried to surround LeBron James with the talent to earn the king a ring. But the team has had trouble winning any game that he did not dominate. There doesn’t appear to be much of a core in place for the future either.

The February trade for Antawn Jamison was billed as the last piece to a title contender. Now it looks like the questionable acquisition of a 33-year old forward who is still owed a whopping $24.8 million over the next two seasons on the downside of his career. Shaquille O’Neal certainly isn’t getting any younger, and is clearly not much of a difference maker anyway. And the team is out of money with which to improve.

The Cavaliers are reportedly projected to post a financial loss between $10 million and $15 million this season. The club lost nearly $20 million per season over the previous two seasons.

Even if Gilbert is willing to shell out the big bucks in an effort to persuade LeBron that home is where his heart should be, the salary cap simply doesn’t allow him to. If James signs on, the Cavs would have a total payroll of $66.6 million going into next season. That puts the team way over the projected $56.1 million salary cap, and right up against the $68 million projected tax threshold. Having already used up their bi-annual exception (which is available every other year) to sign Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the Cavs would be left with nothing other than the mid-level exception (which I am projecting at approximately $6.0 million) and trades.

And the East isn’t getting any easier.

The Celtics core is largely expected to stay intact. Though they are aging, two or more seasons of excellence could shave just that many years from LeBron’s chances to establish his legacy as the best player in the history of the sport.

In Orlando, Rashard Lewis, Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson are all locked into long-term contracts that run through the 2012/13 season. A new 20,000-seat arena – part of a $1.05-billion plan to redo the Orlando Centroplex with a new arena, a new $375-million performing arts center, and a $175-million expansion of the Citrus Bowl, dubbed the “Triple Crown for Downtown” – is expected to be completed prior to the 2010/11 season.

And, of course, the Heat and Bulls have the cap space to make themselves formidable competitors.

Make no mistake about it. The end is near for LeBron James.

LeBron’s pending free agency has consumed Pat Riley and the Heat organization since team president Pat Riley began freeing up cap space for the upcoming offseason more than two years ago. Riley has taken a big risk in not putting championship-caliber pieces around Wade in any of the past several seasons, all in the hope of landing the biggest free agent in league history. He has been much maligned in his approach, but the payoff could be less than two months away.

The Celtics won tonight’s contest, but the bigger winners here are all the teams pursuing LeBron, the Knicks and Heat among them.

New York has a strong pitch. James wants to be the man. He wants to be a billion dollar athlete. He likes challenges and bright lights. The Knicks could offer him all that. But, and this is a huge but, the Heat offers him the best chance at winning multiple championships. Couple that with his friendship with Wade and the lure of South Beach and it will make for an interesting 58 days of rampant speculation, before the world finally starts to get some answers on July 8.

IF the Celtics hold serve in Game 6.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *