- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

LeBron James has spared Cleveland and Ohio the nightmare scenario of playing out his contract in deference to Nike and eventually bolting to one of the mega-markets on either coast, principally New York or Los Angeles.

The Akron, Ohio, native apparently is intent on bringing an NBA championship to Cleveland, the heartbreak city of professional sports no better symbolized than in the oft-shown highlight of Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot over Craig Ehlo in the 1989 playoffs.

The 21-year-old James often has spoken of leading the city to its first sports championship since the Browns won the NFL title in 1964.

This contract agreement confirms there is conviction in his words.

He would not have been the first professional athlete to reassess his professed love of a city during contract negotiations, which no doubt had fans of the Cavaliers in the throes of anxiety until the good news was released over the weekend.

Now comes the hard part.

The Cavaliers are not a legitimate championship contender with this cast.

They are mostly a one-man band, as became so clear in the playoffs.

There is ample evidence that shows the limitations of a one-man team, whether it is Paul Pierce in Boston, Allen Iverson in Philadelphia, Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles or Tracy McGrady when he was in Orlando.

The supporting cast around James is either misused in the case of Larry Hughes, physically questionable in the case of Zydrunas Ilgauskas or marginally serviceable in the case of Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall, Anderson Varejao and Eric Snow.

The Cavaliers eliminated the Wizards in the playoffs on the basis of three one-point victories, which is apt to give the franchise a false sense of assurance.

The Wizards know all too well how a playoff conquest can be misleading.

The Wizards eliminated a depleted Bulls team from the playoffs in 2005. That starting point for the team’s core group led Gilbert Arenas to say the team took a step back in the playoffs in 2006, which is to ignore the fundamental facts.

The 2006 Cavaliers were a more capable team than the 2005 Bulls team that was missing two of its top four scorers. Plus, the Bulls had no one in the manner of James, which is to say no one who could command the preferential treatment of the referees.

The Cavaliers, barring a major personnel move between now and the start of the season, possibly have wrested as much as they can from a roster with pronounced deficiencies.

Aside from James, no other player of consequence on the roster is in the upward phase of his career.

Hughes, who has been beset with injuries throughout his career, has the ability to be a useful complementary part to James.

But he does not have a place in Mike Brown’s system, which basically keeps the ball in the hands of James and reduces the effectiveness of a dribble-penetrate player.

Danny Ferry made a number of bold moves last summer that ended the franchise’s playoff drought. But now those moves restrict his ability to do much more than tinker with the roster, assuming no one is eager to pick up the weighty contracts of Ilgauskas and Hughes.

Here is the reality before James and the Cavaliers:

The Bulls have been empowered with the addition of Ben Wallace. The Pistons, though weakened, are not going to drop off the table. As long as Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal are together, the Heat will be in the hunt.

Even the Wizards could move to the 50-win vicinity in three possible ways: the growth of the core players, fewer heartbreaking losses next season or the addition of a 12-8 type in the frontcourt.

James has embraced the challenge of ending Cleveland’s championship famine, which is a worthy aspiration for someone who was weaned on the city’s sports teams as a youth.

But James is going to need a lot more help to make good on his championship commitment.

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