Will Cleveland Cavaliers' Promising Future Be Enough to Lure LeBron James Back?
It was 10 years ago today that the Cleveland Cavaliers secured the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft lottery. The Cavs went on to spend that selection on an 18-year-old, Ohio-born phenom by the name of LeBron James, who, as you probably know, has gone on to fashion for himself quite the pro career.
The Cavs find themselves in a strangely similar position as the 2013 draft approaches. They own the top choice (for the second time in three years, no less) and may be able to use it to land LeBron again, albeit indirectly.
At least, that's what Twitter's reaction to Cleveland's lottery luck would have you believe.
There were plenty of parody accounts crowing about LeBron wanting to leave the Miami Heat for the cold, dingy climes of Cuyahoga County. Even Grantland's Mark Titus, known for his tongue-in-cheek basketball analysis, offered his two cents on the subject:
Cavs draft Noel. He rehabs all year. Win lottery again & get Wiggins. Oden signs. LeBron comes back. 5 #1 overall picks in '14. Done & done.— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) May 22, 2013
But the excitement and speculation regarding a Lord of the Rings-like "Return of the King" to Cleveland in 2014, when James will be free to opt out of his current contract, seeped into some of the more reputable reaches of the Twittersphere. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated came right out and said what was on everyone's minds:
Got to say it: No. 1 pick could go a long way towards enticing LeBron James back.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) May 22, 2013
Ira Winderman, who covers the Heat for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, insinuated as much:
Cavaliers with top pick in the draft, again. So Kyrie, No. 1 pick in 2013 and enough money for LeBron in 2014.— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) May 22, 2013
Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio looked ahead to what the Cavs could have in store while still maintaining some sense of restraint:
In two years, you could reasonably have a team of Lebron, Kyrie Irving and Nerlens in Cleveland— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) May 22, 2013
The sort of restraint that was seldom found in Twitter reaction from Alex Kennedy of Hoopsworld:
Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, LeBron James, Tristan Thompson and Nerlens Noel is going to be a great lineup in 2014-15.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) May 22, 2013
LeBron’s gonna love playing with three lottery picks and two No. 1s in two years.— Alan Hahn (@alanhahn) May 22, 2013
Not that anyone should be blamed for making such bold prognostications. A potential move by the best player in any sport is bound to break the Internet, the newspaper business, TV, radio and just about any other form of media you could think of.
Even more so if that player is LeBron James, whose case is of particular interest because:
1) He's well on his way to becoming the first-ever billion-dollar athlete.
2) He might be considered the greatest to ever lace 'em up in the NBA before his career is through.
3) He may well have a championship three-peat under his belt by the time the summer of 2014 rolls around, and
4) He's already broken Cleveland's collective heart in the most humiliating way imaginable (see: Decision, The).
But would the confluence of Cleveland's recent luck and Miami's aging, cap-strapped roster be enough to convince LeBron to pull off the most dramatic homecoming in the history of professional sports?
In a phrase, probably not. But before we dismiss LeBron's return entirely, let's consider the details of what might draw James back to the franchise that drafted him.
For one, the Cavs figure to have themselves an intriguing young nucleus with which to pique LeBron's interest.
Come 2014, Kyrie Irving, who clarified his path to superstardom during All-Star Weekend this year, will be entering his fourth season as a pro. He'll be joined in the backcourt by Dion Waiters, who topped the 20-point plateau 14 times as a rookie in 2013-14.
Up front, the Cavs will tout Tristan Thompson, who has already shown flashes of being a productive rebounding big man, and (probably) Nerlens Noel, who has the potential to be a rim-protecting defensive dynamo as a pro, as his injury-shortened year at Kentucky would suggest.
Not to mention Anderson Varejao, who played with LeBron for six seasons and will be under contract through the 2014-15 season.
Varejao aside, Cleveland's core players will all be in their early-to-mid-20s in 2014. That confluence of youth and talent portends longevity among the NBA's elite, so long as there's another superstar (like LeBron) in the mix.
The same can't be said of the Heat—not by a long shot.
Including LeBron, Miami will have just eight players under contract for 2014-15. Of those eight, only three (LeBron, Norris Cole and Jarvis Varnado) will be under the age of 30 before that season tips off. Among the other five, Dwyane Wade and Mike Miller both have long, troubling histories of injury, while Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony have had their own (already limited) abilities decay considerably over time.
For what it's worth, Chris Bosh's jump shot is more or less impermeable to the deleterious effects of time.
More importantly, that incomplete squad will cost the Heat approximately $78.4 million according to ShamSports. Assuming the luxury tax line doesn't move up drastically between now and then, Miami will be severely limited in its ability to restock and refresh a roster that could see Mario Chalmers calling for a raise and Ray Allen and Shane Battier courting retirement.
That is, unless Pat Riley can convince James, Wade and Bosh to all opt out and re-sign at even steeper discounts next summer. All three have early termination options built into their current contracts.
Which could grant the Heat flexibility enough to reload...or leave them short a superstar or two for 2014-15.
And if the Big Three show any signs of breaking by then, you can be sure that LeBron will once again be on the lookout for a situation that better suits his desire to rack up rings.
The Cavs could be in the mix in that regard, especially with the gobs of cap space they'll have at their disposal. Cleveland could have upwards of $20 million in flexibility to spare by then, depending on how much this year's top pick ends up earning and whether or not Varejao has been shipped out (per ShamSports).
As encouraging as all of that sounds to still-jilted Cavs fans, there remain a few reasons to doubt that LeBron would walk away from the Heat to make good on his as-yet-unfulfilled promise to bring a championship to Cleveland.
To start, the Cavs won't likely be anywhere near playoff contention by the time LeBron might come around to check out his old stomping grounds. Cleveland's offense improved somewhat last season, but its defense has ranked among the bottom five in efficiency in each of the three years since James skipped town.
Where should LeBron be in 2014-15?
And it wouldn't yet appear to have the proper personnel in place to develop enough to compete at the highest level.
The rehiring of Mike Brown could change that, though. He's long been regarded as something of a defensive guru—a designation that his Cavs only bolstered during his successful run in Cleveland.
But does Brown's presence make the Cavs look better or worse in LeBron's eyes? That's tough to say. He expressed a measure of approval when word first broke that Cleveland had brought Brown back into the fold, according to Matt Moore of CBSSports.com.
Then again, the Cavs fired Brown back in 2010 in an ill-fated attempt to persuade LeBron to stay. Who's to say James would want to play for his old coach now, especially after seeing how overmatched Brown was during his short stint with the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers?
Or is Brown truly a championship-caliber coach?
Beyond that, there's the not-so-small matter of LeBron's quality of life. By all accounts, he's enjoyed living in Miami, with his wife and kids basking in the spoils of their mansion overlooking Biscayne Bay. Playing alongside two of his close friends in Wade and Bosh has probably made James' life that much more pleasant, too.
Would LeBron really leave all that behind to replant his roots in Ohio with a Cavs team that could still be a ways off from title contention?
Again, probably not.
But who knows? Maybe LeBron's circumstances will shift considerably over the next 14 months. Maybe the Heat will more closely resemble a fading empire than they do a burgeoning dynasty. Maybe the Cavs will shock the world and mature into a competitive club under the guidance of Mike Brown.
Stranger things have happened...like, say, the same team winning the lottery twice in the span of 24 months.
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