LeBron James will stop by his old stomping grounds on Saturday when the Miami Heat take on the Cleveland Cavaliers. The last time these two teams met at Quicken Loans Arena, LeBron was asked about the plausibility of a return to his "hometown" team. His answer (via ESPN's Brian Windhorst):
"I think it would be great, it would be fun to play in front of these fans again.
"I had a lot of fun times here. You can't predict the future. Hopefully you continue to stay healthy. I'm here as a Miami player and I'm happy where I am now but I don't rule that out in any sense. If I decide to come back, hopefully the fans will accept me."
At the time, LeBron's comments seemed like part of a cursory attempt to assuage the fans who once loved him but came to revile him after "The Decision." He still lives in Akron, Ohio, so it would behoove him to at least make nice with the locals again.
But other than that, why would James even entertain a return to Rock City? His Heat had played in the NBA Finals the season prior and were well on their way to taking home the title and establishing the league's latest dynasty.
Or seemed to be, anyway. LeBron has his ring now, but the thought of a Cleveland homecoming might not be so ludicrous after all.
The Heat have had some success with the perpetuation of their small-ball experiment, though they're not exactly dominating the NBA as everyone expected they would. LeBron is once again playing like an MVP, Chris Bosh is enjoying his best season since skipping out on the Toronto Raptors and Ray Allen has been a shooting revelation off the bench.
But Dwyane Wade has been in and out of the lineup with a foot injury and his pre-eminence on the wing has waxed and waned as a result. And as elite as Miami's small-ball arrangement has been offensively, it's taken a severe toll on what once was a smothering defense.
Not to mention the way it's worn down those players (i.e. LeBron, Bosh and Shane Battier) stuck guarding bigger, stronger opponents.
Which leaves a wandering mind to wonder, for how long can this Heat team contend for titles, especially given D-Wade's imminent decline? And if Miami's proverbial window isn't as wide-open as once thought, can the team count on LeBron's commitment over the long haul?
James can opt out of his current contract in the summer of 2014, as can Bosh and Wade theirs, though LeBron would have the greatest incentive to take his talents elsewhere again. The rest of the Heat roster may well be crumbling by then and won't have much (if any) leeway with which to reload. According to Basketball Reference, Miami has approximately $78.4 million in salaries on the books for 2014-15, including upwards of $61 million combined for its Big Three.
As such, the Heat will be well into luxury-tax territory with just seven players under contract. Pat Riley may be a miracle worker in his own right, but can he hope to fill out a "contender" with second-round draft picks, veteran's minimum contracts and junkyard scraps?
It's no wonder, then, that there'd already been some talk of LeBron bolting for greener pastures after the 2013-14 season. Last month, ESPN's Brian Windhorst went so far as to suggest that the Los Angeles Lakers, flush with cap space in two years, could look to lure the NBA's biggest star to Hollywood.
But who, exactly, would be there to help LeBron compete for titles? Dwight Howard will be free to bolt this summer. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol will both be free agents when James is. The former may well retire at that point, while the latter might find it most prudent to make his way with an organization that doesn't disregard his value so flippantly and so frequently.
The only player slated to still be on LA's payroll by July of 2014 is Steve Nash. He's played all of 50 minutes this season, on account of a fractured fibula, and will be 40 in two years' time.
As for the Cavs, they figure to be a young team on the rise by then, with plenty of financial flexibility to spare. At present, Cleveland's commitments for 2014-15 number just north of $30 million for six players. If Cavs GM Chris Grant plays his cards properly, he could have more than enough room under the cap with which to offer a max contract to a top-tier player like LeBron.
It'll take more than money to bring LeBron back home, though. The Cavs will need a wellspring of talent to entice their once-and-former King.
Which, as it happens, shouldn't be too problematic. Kyrie Irving was playing at an All-Star level prior to breaking his finger in mid-November. He'll be all of 22 when James entertains free agency again, with plenty of upside still to be exploited.
LeBron has never played with a point guard of Kyrie's caliber, though he's long wanted to. His close friendship with Los Angeles Clippers superstar Chris Paul has been well-documented, as has his desire to join forces with the fellow 2003 high school grad.
And seeing as how Irving has, at times, been likened to CP3, a Kyrie-LeBron combination in Cleveland would seem all too fitting.
Kyrie won't be by lonesome along the Cuyahoga River, though. He'll be joined by Dion Waiters, a promising wing with Wade-like potential, and a trio of complementary big men in Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson and rookie Tyler Zeller.
Oh, and Alonzo Gee will be on the books, too. Methinks he'd have to cede just a few of his minutes on the wing to LeBron.
Just a few.
It's possible, then, that LeBron's appearances in Cleveland will soon be much more frequent than the two a year he now makes with Miami. Why would LeBron go to LA and share a building with Chris Paul when he could share a backcourt with Paul's younger counterpart? Why stay in Miami to play with an aging Dwyane Wade when his twentysomething doppelganger calls Cleveland home? Why not sprint to where the pastures are greener and the prospects for long-term success more appealing?
We've seen this act before, you know. LeBron's Cavs reached their ceiling in 2009, failed to advance to the Finals, lacked the flexibility to improve their roster and flamed out of the playoffs against the Boston Celtics in 2010.
The following summer, LeBron took his talents to South Beach, leaving the cap-clogged Cavs behind. Will LeBron apply the same logic in 2014, when the Heat and the Cavs may have essentially switched spots in the NBA's circle of life?
Doesn't seem so crazy now, does it?