Let me be clear: I don't think LeBron James will leave the Miami Heat in the summer of 2014, when he'll be eligible to opt out of his current contract. Nor do I think James would return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, against whom he'll play on Wednesday, if he were to cut ties with the Heat come July 1.
Try as Cavs fans might to convince LeBron to "Come Home," per Marla Ridenour of The Akron Beacon-Journal, no T-shirt-induced rallies can quite overcome Cleveland's catastrophic start to the 2013-14 season.
The Cavs, currently at 4-10, have already been ravaged by injuries (Jarrett Jack, C.J. Miles and Tyler Zeller), internal strife (leading to a closed-door, air-it-out meeting), poor play from recent lottery picks (Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett) and lapses in effort and focus on both ends of the floor.
That being said, allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment. I may not believe in the efficacy or the reality of LeBron playing for Mike Brown and Dan Gilbert again, but that doesn't mean I can't come up with a convincing argument for his return to Rock City.
And not just because the Cavs could have ample cap space with which to sign LeBron, depending on what the front office decides to do about its two Andys (i.e. Andrew Bynum and Anderson Varejao).
Not Just a Number
If LeBron wants to compete for championships ad infinitum, he'd do well to attach himself to a team replete with young, up-and-coming talent for whom the other side of the proverbial hill is out of sight and out of mind.
That hardly describes the Heat. According to hispanosnba.com, Miami's roster is both the oldest and the most experienced in the NBA, with an average age of 30.7 years and experience of just under nine seasons per player.
The Heat's haul of geriatrics includes Rashard Lewis (34), Chris Andersen (35), Shane Battier (35) and Ray Allen, who, at 38 years and just over three months, is the fourth-oldest player in the league right now.
The effects of Father Time aren't limited to Miami's role players, either. Dwyane Wade, who'll turn 32 in January, is already on the "Tim Duncan Workout Plan" (i.e. DNPs, early and often), due in large part to the decade of wear and tear accumulated on his surgically repaired knees.
Compare that to the Cavs, who, though rife with "injury-prone" players, aren't nearly as old as their South Beach brethren. Cleveland's squad is the second-youngest in the NBA today, with an average age of 24 years.
Only two Cavs (Varejao and Jarrett Jack) have left their 20s behind. As it happens, Cleveland has featured nearly twice as many 1990s babies (10) as it has players born in the 1980s (six).
That group of '90s youngsters includes Kyrie Irving. The 21-year-old point guard stole the spotlight during All-Star weekend this past February and certainly has the talent to be LeBron's next superstar sidekick.
Irving (20.7 points, 38.9 percent from three for his career) is more of a scoring guard than he is a pure passer (5.8 assists, 3.2 turnovers). As such, he should fit nicely next to LeBron as a shooter, slasher and ball-handler.
Though, in all honesty, James is chameleon enough to succeed alongside just about any star, transcendent or otherwise.
Continuity is Key
More importantly, Kyrie is currently under contract with the Cavs through 2014-15. Irving will be eligible for a max-level contract extension following the conclusion of the current campaign, and he will likely sign to stay in Cleveland until (wait for it) 2020.
(Somewhere, Barbara Walters is attempting to crack a smile through all the work she's had done over the years.)
Tristan Thompson is due to become a restricted free agent in 2016, though he doesn't figure to command nearly as much money as Irving will. The same goes for the recently drafted duos of Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller (2017) and Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev (2018).
As for Cleveland's veteran role players, general manager Chris Grant could decline to guarantee some (or even all) of the contracts of Bynum, Varejao, Alonzo Gee and Earl Clark for next season and use the resultant cap space to stock up on other, LeBron-approved assets. Either way, he'll have Jack on hand to back up Irving at the point until at least 2016, with the final season of his contract not guaranteed.
As for the Heat, they have just one player (Norris Cole) who's currently locked in beyond this season. Each member of Miami's "Big Three" can opt out this summer, as can Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony and "Birdman."
Granted, the latter three aren't likely to leave South Beach, if only because there probably won't be more money waiting for them elsewhere. But if they do choose free agency over player options, they'd join Mario Chalmers, James Jones, Michael Beasley and Roger Mason Jr. on the open market.
Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis and Greg Oden could all be available, as well, though each may well enter the offseason with thoughts of retirement at the fore.
Which is to say, even if James were to return to Miami after this season, he'd likely be doing so with a brand-new team, one that might need another year or two to come together.
Assuming the talent acquired is even of that caliber in the first place.
Deal or No Deal
There's no guarantee Cleveland's youngsters will be either. However, the Cavs have an abundance of something that the Heat would be hard-pressed to dig up nowadays: attractive assets.
Players on rookie contracts are more valuable in today's NBA than they've ever been. The more restrictive rules of the latest collective bargaining agreement have put front-office folks across the league on high alert for such prospects because they come equipped with both an abundance of upside and cost certainty, at least through the duration of their initial deals.
Better yet, the Cavs will have ample opportunity to add cheap pieces over the next few years.
According to Hoopsworld, Cleveland owns the Sacramento Kings' first-round pick (top-12 protected) and second-round picks from the Orlando Magic and the Memphis Grizzlies in 2014 and will have first-round picks from the Heat (top-10 protected) and the Grizzlies (top-five protected) and a second-rounder from the Portland Trail Blazers in 2015.
This, in addition to another 2016 second-rounder from Portland and, of course, Cleveland's own picks in each of those drafts.
But if the Cavs intend to lure LeBron back and build a championship contender around him, they're far more likely to use those picks as trade bait sooner rather than as actual draft slots for themselves later.
In essence, Cleveland will be ideally positioned to spring into action the next time a team is looking to offload a (potentially) departing superstar (see: Deron Williams to the Nets in 2011) or a young player whose contract demands aren't about to be met (see: James Harden to the Houston Rockets in 2012).
Deals like those can't be made without some additional measure of financial flexibility. As it happens, the Cavs should have plenty of that. According to ShamSports.com, Cleveland's payroll commitments will dwindle to $22.4 million ($7.2 million if you don't include options) in 2015-16 and $17 million in 2016-17.
To be sure, the Heat will be plenty flexible next summer or (if the Big Three opt in for 2014-15) the summer thereafter, assuming their superstars dip back into free agency before their contracts come due in 2016.
But if all three stick around, Miami will have about $61.3 million (i.e. the vast majority of the salary cap) committed to James, Wade and Bosh in 2014-15 and another $65.9 million (i.e. more than the current cap) in 2015-16.
Pat Riley may be a wizard when it comes to coalescing solid supporting casts out of thin air, but even he would have a tough time fielding a formidable contender, while butting up against the cap, in addition to relying on an aging Wade and a stagnating Bosh.
The Heat don't have many other assets with which to retool their roster either. As mentioned above, Cleveland owns Miami's 2015 first-rounder, and the 2014 first-rounder the Heat previously pried from the Philadelphia 76ers is top-12 protected. They'll be able to play around with their second-rounders and their first-rounders from 2017 on, but nothing more.
Going Through the Motions
Suppose, though, LeBron, Wade and Bosh stick around and Riles keeps the band (mostly) together for another run after this season. What are the odds this group would still be able to compete for a championship—which is pretty much all James, who's aiming to be the greatest of all time, should have his sights set on at this point?
The Heat will have a tough enough time reaching the NBA Finals for the fourth year running in 2014. It's no accident that no team has pulled off that feat since Larry Bird's Boston Celtics in the mid-1980s.
Winning at that clip, while the ultimate goal of any great player, is really, really hard. You have to labor through a lengthy regular season, taking everyone's best shot along the way. Then, you have to grind some more, through the cauldron of playoff basketball, for another two months or so once the regular season is done.
And then, of course, you have to do it all over again...four times!
That's a lot of difficult, tiring basketball to be played over such a short span of time, especially with a group of players that's as old as Miami's is. Odds are, you're going to get some nights when the team just doesn't have it, when LeBron and company rest too comfortably on their laurels, when they can't simply flip a switch and demolish the competition in front of them.
Some of those nights will come during the playoffs, as they did during the Heat's uphill pushes to each of their last two titles.
And one of these days, that night could come with Miami already on the brink of elimination, thereby stopping James short of another championship.
If James goes back to Cleveland, he wouldn't likely have to worry about his new teammates slacking off during a big game. He wouldn't have to concern himself with his teammates lacking the "hunger" needed to fight through the tough times in pursuit of the greater good.
Then again, it'll probably take precious time for James and his new teammates in Cleveland to develop the sort of chemistry, camaraderie and trust that's all but required of championship clubs. Remember, James and the Heat needed close to two years together to reach that point.
Even then, Miami might not have stumbled upon the proper rotation without Bosh's abdominal injury-related absence during the 2012 playoffs.
Why would LeBron leave, then, when he has such a good thing going with the Heat? Why would he leave behind a team and an organization for and with whom he's worked so hard to construct the fragile edifice of a potential dynasty?
Maybe I'm not so good at playing devil's advocate after all...
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