The ring, or lack thereof, was clearly the thing for LeBron James, who last night made official his intentions to join fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a dynamic trio with the Miami Heat.
"It's going to give me an opportunity to win," said James, who is seeking his first NBA championship, "and to win for multiple years."
The reigning two-time NBA MVP announced his choice on an hour-long special titled "The Decision" that aired on ESPN. It was the culmination of a process that included meetings with six teams with the salary-cap space to sign James - the Heat, Knicks, Nets, Bulls, Clippers and Cavaliers - last week during three days of presentations in Cleveland.
Newsday reported in yesterday's late editions and on its website that James, according to multiple sources, was leaning toward choosing Miami. Orchestrated by Pat Riley, the move brings together three of the game's top talents - James and Wade certainly are among the top three, with Kobe Bryant - and all three could agree to take less than their maximum contract value (about $16.5 million) to allow the Heat to fill out a 12-man roster.
The move creates a seismic shift of power in the East, with the Heat instantly becoming a championship contender, a team that should challenge the two-time defending champion Lakers.
"I'm looking forward to it," James said of teaming with Wade, who won a championship with the Heat in 2006. James and Bosh, both from the same heralded 2003 draft class as Wade, have never won a title. All three were teammates on the United States' gold medal-winning team at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
The Heat now boasts three of last season's top 10 NBA scorers, with James (29.7 points per game), Wade (26.6) and Bosh (24.0).
The Heat was working on a deal Thursday that would send forward Michael Beasley to the Bobcats in a three-team transaction in which Miami would receive a trade exception, which would open up more space under the $58.044-million salary cap. There were reports that the Heat also had a five-year, $27-million contract offer on the table for sharpshooter Mike Miller, who had been a target of the Knicks.
After seven seasons, James leaves the Cavaliers and Cleveland's long-suffering fans crushed. There was a prevailing belief that the Akron, Ohio, native wouldn't be able to deal with the emotion of leaving the Cavaliers, but at 25, James clearly was not ready to invest any more of his career hoping the franchise could build a winner around him.
The Cavaliers reached the NBA Finals in 2007, when they were swept by the Spurs, and since then have failed to return to the championship round. This past season, the Celtics eliminated the Cavs in the second round.
Reactions to the decision in Cleveland were hostile, with fans burning James' Cavaliers jersey. But James showed little emotion.
"I can't get involved," he said.
The Knicks come away from free agency without the biggest prize, but they still feel good about signing one of the top free agents available in Amar'e Stoudemire, who was introduced Thursday afternoon in a news conference at the Garden. The Knicks had hoped Stoudemire might be added incentive for James to choose the Knicks, but it was tough to contend with the Heat.
"Probably a disappointment," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said " . . . I think it's more of a challenge, and we should get our backs up and get ready for the challenge."
The Knicks released a statement from president of basketball operations Donnie Walsh, who said the Knicks "respect his decision . . . We will continue to move forward, getting back on track to develop into a championship-contending team."
Two-time Knicks champion and longtime television analyst Walt Frazier watched the announcement with disbelief, not just at the idea of an NBA player having an entire show dedicated to himself, but also at James' decision.
"I'm surprised, man, because he idolized Jordan, and I don't see that as something Michael Jordan would have done," Frazier said. "If he was in the same scenario, I think he would have accepted the challenge rather than solidify that you can guarantee winning a championship by going to where you already have two superstars. If he wins a title, they're going to take away from that and say it's only because Wade was there and Bosh was there. He took the easy way out."
James sidestepped a question about New York as an attractive option, saying, "I was attracted to all the cities."
After this experience, he might not be so attractive to them anymore.