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May 22nd
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Lebron no longer a Knick slam dunk

lebronht041309_optBY DAVID WALDSTEIN

About four months ago, in the aftermath of the Knicks trades that created most of the salary cap space they will need to pursue the top-flight free agents in 2010, there was a prevailing perception that the great LeBron James was automatically coming to the Knicks.

It basically wasn't even up for debate. James, who visited Madison Square Garden a few days later, was all but signed up and measured in his new orange and blue No. 23 uniform.

But four months later, the Knicks might not even be the second favorite to land James a year from this summer, with Cleveland and perhaps Miami the top two destinations right now.  Boy, things can change so quickly in the NBA, especially when the original notion that it was preordained LeBron would become a Knick, was so skewed.

A lot of that misperception was fueled by James, who seems to relish in the speculation and refuses to shut any of it down. It seems as if James is just playing with folks, and many of those folks are ready to be played with.

For instance, on that night he came to New York, on Nov. 25, LeBron was asked about Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, with whom he worked on the Olympic team last summer. James's comments about D'Antoni made everyone in New York go giddy in anticipation.

James called D'Antoni an "offensive mastermind," and said the two were close during the Olympics when D'Antoni was an assistant coach. Ok, done deal. He's a Knick, right?

Slow down. During the same interview, James made another comment which was a lot more revealing, but hardly reported at all. Someone asked James if he felt that championships are won through defense and he made it clear that back end of the floor is indeed paramount.

"In the playoffs, exactly," he said. "In the playoffs every possession counts and you have to want to play defense first. It has to be stressed in the locker room, It has to be stressed and out on the court, It has to be stressed in games in order to be successful in the playoffs."

In case anyone hasn't noticed, the Knicks don't stress defense very much, do they? In fact, they are roughly the worst defensive team in the league, and that's basically by choice. Defense isn't considered D'Antoni's forte, to say the least. He likes to push the ball, take quick shots and simply outscore opponents.

If James is intent on winning as many championship rings as possible so that he can be compared favorably to Michael Jordan - and people who know him well say that is an overriding goal of his - and he believes defense is the key to it, why on earth would he go to a team that treats defense as if it's the basketball equivalent to cleaning out the garage?

And there are other reasons why James would be more likely to remain in Cleveland, which is so close to his home town of Akron. First of all, as James pointed out last week when he was in East Rutherford to play the Nets, he's happy with the way the Cavaliers organization has done the things he's asked. He wanted a good point guard, and they got him Mo Williams. He wanted Joe Smith back to help compete with the Celtics, and the Cavs signed him, too.

Now the Cavs are the best team in the league with a great chance to win their first championship. Why mess with that to go join a team that has had had eight consecutive losing seasons, with a ninth on the way.

"Our front office did a great job in terms of going out and getting some pieces for this team," he said on Wednesday at the Meadowlands. "I think it speaks for itself at this point."

Another factor could be the uncertain state of the economy and the future of the NBA labor agreement, in that James could sign for more money to stay in Cleveland. So don't be stunned if he signs an extension as soon as this summer.

The Cavs state-of-the-art practice facility, just a few miles southwest of Cleveland, is right in James's neighborhood. It's all so set up for him.

"It would be tough to give all that up," Larry Hughes, James's former teammate said Friday night. "right now, things are looking good in Cleveland."

Hughes noted that James's commitment to defense has risen to a new level this year, and could help determine what he does in the offseason.

"I don't know if it will completely sway his decision," Hughes said, "But it's going to be a factor. The man believes strongly in defense."

Oh, and if Knicks fans are starting to realize the difficulty in convincing James to leave a good set up for a bad one, they might also be turning their sights on a pretty good No. 2 choice: Dwyane Wade. But James had a frightening zinger for that idea. Asked his thoughts about competing against his good friend Wade in the future, James said,  "It doesn't matter, whatever happens we'll go against each other," he said. "Maybe we'll go against each other in practice. I don't know. That would be fine."


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