As the clock ticks toward the Miami Dream Three’s potential free agency in July 2014, many have not so quietly started to wonder…
On some levels, it’s a move that could make some sense.
But ultimately, it’s not something that has a realistic chance of happening.
Such a move would be unprecedented, and believing that it could happen flies in the face of conventional wisdom. One of the more important relationships in pro sports is that between the front office and a team’s superstar.
All indications are—both publicly and privately—that the bridge between Dan Gilbert, LeBron James and his camp has been torched beyond recognition. And we should continue to believe that’s the case, despite James’ agent’s good working relationship with the Cavaliers organization.
It should be pointed out, though, that those that believe such a reunion would be possible are not without merit.
Before July 8, 2010, the thought of the league’s reigning MVP leaving a franchise that had given him the keys and fleeing to join arguably the only other player in his peer group that could reasonably call him a rival flew in the face of conventional wisdom, as well.
And we all know how that turned out.
As we await the dawn of the NBA’s new economic era and discuss how teams such as the Miami Heat could face astronomical luxury tax penalties, the thought of the Heat breaking up its “Big 3” seems reasonable and realistic.
If Micky Arison were to decide to break up his triumvirate, though, Chris Bosh would be the likeliest candidate to go. But let’s put that thought aside for now.
If James did indeed opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014, logically, there is at least some reasonable basis for thinking that Cleveland could present James with an enticing situation.
There are undeniable ties to the city, area and team. Moreover, the Cavaliers currently have something they severely lacked when James was helping the team reign as one of the Eastern Conference’s elites: young talent.
With Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers have a point guard who is one of the best sophomore floor generals the league has seen in quite some time. Already, Irving has shown superb point guard instincts and is clearly an all-star-caliber talent.
Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller are three youngsters whose ceilings are not yet known, but when one considers the likely lottery pick that the Cavaliers will have in the 2013 draft, the Cavs will likely have five youngsters on the roster that would enamor any number of free agents looking for some young running mates.
As it stands, the Cavaliers have no salary committed for the 2014-15 season. However, between now and then, Anderson Varejao ($9.8 million), Irving ($7.5 million), Thompson ($5.4 million), Waiters ($4 million), Alonzo Gee ($3.3 million) and Tyler Zeller ($1.7 million) all have contract options which must be decided upon.
The Cavaliers will also probably have two additional lottery picks on their roster, and those will probably account for another $8 million worth of payroll.
That would give the Cavs about $40 million on the books.
With an expected cap of $61 million for the 2014-15 season, the Cavaliers could easily offer James a maximum deal of four years, $86 million.
If things got tight, the Cavaliers could easily decline the options of either Varejao (who will be 32 years old) or Gee.
So the Cavs can be in a position to have a max free agent come July 2014. The team should also boast a healthy nucleus of talent that should be attractive.
So, logically, the James-Cavaliers reunion could make some sense.
And that’s true despite the fact that if James were to opt out of his contract and become a free agent, the Miami Heat’s maximum offer to him would make the Cavs offer look meager.
By rule, the Heat could offer him an extra year and about $30 million more in guaranteed money. But for the sake of argument, assume that James was willing to turn down the Heat’s five-year maximum offer of $116 million.
The million-dollar question should be whether Cavs fans welcome him back with open arms.
Leaving the Cavaliers was James’ right. But the callous disregard he showed for the franchise and the fanbase with how he left has probably done irreparable damage.
For the team’s ownership group, it’d probably be easier to get over that than it would be for the fanbase. The owners, after all, make boatloads of money off of their superstars. Fans, for the most part, spend boatloads of money supporting them.
Would Cavs fans be able to forgive and forget? If they could not, who could blame them?
Moreover, if James returned to the Cavaliers and failed to win a championship for the franchise, would the fans celebrate his effort the same way they would have if he’d never left and ultimately retired—fighting with and for them to the end—ringless?
Of course not.
The fact that James, by that point, will have won at least one—maybe two or three—championship with Dwyane Wade and the Heat would serve as a constant reminder of his decision to seek and earn his glory and immortality elsewhere.
If he would be able to replicate similar success with the likes of Irving, maybe all would be forgiven with Cavs fans, but it’s a risk James probably would not be willing to take.
As a three-time MVP, James joins Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell as individuals to win the award at least three times.
Of them, Malone is the only one to win just one championship. Chamberlain won two, and Bird won three. But when it’s all said and done, James wants to be in Magic’s class, and a fistful of rings is what it will take to get there.
Would James seriously leave the confines of South Beach to return to Cleveland? And would he do so after promising Heat fans seven championships?
That’s doubtful, at the very least.
Would be return to Cleveland after Gilbert called his decision to leave an act of "cowardly betrayal"?
Again, that’s doubtful.
Whether we want to admit it or not, there’s a persistent double-standard in the NBA. The moment teams believe they can benefit from trading a player, it’s adios.
Ray Allen learned that the hard way, and that’s one of the major reasons he also decided to take his talents to South Beach.
But a player, in his prime, opting to leave a fanbase? It’s not something that is viewed as “acceptable,” particularly when the player leaving is an MVP who everyone believed to be “the chosen one.”
Cavs fans probably would not want James back, but he himself probably would not want to return.
This season, on March 12 and 13, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony will experience this for themselves. They’ll respectively return to Orlando and Denver for the first time since they each forced trades away from the Magic and Nuggets, respectively.
James can’t return to Cleveland, just like Anthony can’t return to Denver and Howard can’t return to Orlando.
Scorned fans—the same ones who purchase expensive tickets and buy expensive jerseys—simply would not be able to forgive “The King” for reigning elsewhere.
It’s not right, but it is reality.
When James left the Cavaliers and the fanbase there, he left them for good.
And although there are reports saying that he will give the Cavaliers a “close look” when he becomes a free agent, recall that the New Jersey Nets, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and these Cleveland Cavaliers got a close look back before The Decision, as well.
Just as James did in 2010, he will choose the situation that gives him the best opportunity of winning not one, not two and not three championships…
Unfortunately, though better days seem to be ahead in Cleveland, those days won’t feature James on the Cavaliers.
And honestly, I think this is one race Cavs fans would not mind not finishing in first.