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LeBron isn't the NBA's top free agent. Phil is
By Scott Soshnick | Bloomberg News

Phil Jackson


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Published: 5/16/2010 9:36 PM

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Realistically it's a three-team race for the services of LeBron James, who, as I've written before, will most likely remain with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Just a hunch.

But if I'm Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who has got to be petrified at the prospect of his superstar bolting and his franchise value plummeting, I'm not leaving anything to chance. I'm not counting on hometown loyalty, not with the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls waiting anxiously for 12:01 a.m. on July 1 to unleash years of pent-up adoration. The big-market behemoths are going to fawn all over James, who, as any smart businessman would do, will welcome all suitors with open ears.

The other guys are going to wine and dine and woo the National Basketball Association's two-time Most Valuable Player, selling the self-described kid from Akron, Ohio, on big city resurrections and championship coronations with storied backdrops like the Canyon of Heroes and Grant Park.

This is one of the rare times in professional sports when dollars won't be the deciding factor. If James decides to go, it won't be the money that mattered most. In the NBA, where the commissioner disdains nomadic superstars, the labor contract incentivizes the league's best to stay put. James can make more, and sign a longer-term contract, by staying with the Cavaliers.

What, then, if not mountains of cash, can Cleveland's ownership and management do to ensure that James doesn't take his talent elsewhere?

Bring the Best

Easy. Bring in the marquee free agent available.

Contrary to what you've been hearing for some time now, that person isn't the basketball wunderkind James. Nor is it Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh.

It's Phil Jackson.

Gilbert has got to do something bold to convince James, 25 and already a seven-year veteran with zero rings to his name, that the Cavaliers can win the National Basketball Association championship. Now. Losing to the Boston Celtics in the second round of this season's playoffs has got to make James think twice, or thrice, about committing to hard-luck Cleveland for the long term.

Cleveland sports fans survived The Shot, The Drive and The Fumble. Not sure they can handle The Departure.

"Worst than any of this is just thinking about the people here and seeing them go, 'Here we go again,'" Gilbert said the other day. "That's a nightmare, and we have to get through it."

The problem is the Cavaliers, at least roster-wise, are stuck. They're over the salary cap, meaning it's all but impossible to change the players in any meaningful way.

In other words, this season's team, the one that won the most regular-season games before flopping, will be next season's team.

Another Free Agent

Ah, but Jackson is also a free agent. His contract with the defending champion Lakers expires at the end of the season. James might want to take note that the Lakers are, once again, still playing. They're in the Western Conference final, where they will face the Phoenix Suns beginning tonight in Los Angeles.

Never before have I lobbied for a coach to lose his job, which Mike Brown hasn't. Not yet, anyway. Everyone in the organization is being evaluated, said Gilbert, who added that, in his opinion, the Cavs had enough talent the past two seasons to raise a championship banner.

The Cavaliers have the chance to replace Brown -- holder of, let me count them, zero championships -- with Jackson, who knows a thing or two or 10 about what it takes to win it all.

Pay Cut

Gilbert spoke of an exhaustive process to determine what counts in the playoffs. He can ask Jackson, who just might be available. Lakers owner Jerry Buss has made no secret of his desire to cut Jackson's $12 million salary.

"I'd say it's 90 percent that if I'm coaching it'll be here," Jackson said earlier this month, referring to the Lakers.

If I'm Gilbert, the minute Jackson's season ends, that very minute, I'm on the telephone to the coach's agent with a $20 million a year offer -- contingent, of course, on his being able to persuade James to stay.

Imagine a still-depressed James hibernating, blackout- curtain drawn, all alone in his 11-bedroom, 35,000-square-foot home and getting a telephone call from the raspy voiced Jackson, who won six titles with the Chicago Bulls and four with the Lakers.

Ultimate Winners

Here's the coach who molded Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant into the ultimate winners, and who extracted championship-caliber execution from role players. Jackson has a track record of making really good teams great. The Cavaliers are a really good team.

No knock against Brown, but come on. It's a match made in hardwood heaven. There's simply no way James turns down the chance to play for Jackson, who coached Jordan, James's basketball idol.

Lakers executive Jeanie Buss, the owner's daughter and the coach's girlfriend, says she expects Jackson on the sidelines next season. Exactly where she couldn't say.

"There's going to be a lot of good jobs that come up this summer," was her take.

None better than coaching the King.