This is kind of a big deal.
Whenever LeBron James leads his Miami Heat into battle against the Cleveland Cavaliers, speculation surges and visions of the prodigal son's return home run rampant. To no one's surprise, nothing's changed.
Free agency remains more than six months away. We don't even know if LeBron will make himself available. In the middle of all this hoopla, there's a basketball game to be played. A victory on the line.
But that won't stop the longing or dreaming.
Courting LeBron Part II begins Wednesday, when the Cavs host the Heat. All of Cleveland will have one eye on Kyrie Irving, as he looks to grab his struggling team a much-needed victory. A necessary sign of hope.
Another eye will be on LeBron, not out of curiosity for how he'll perform—his dominance is like clockwork these days—but out of want for insight. For a sign of his own.
For an indication that he hasn't left Cleveland completely behind.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and are accurate as of Nov. 27, 2013 unless otherwise noted.
This isn't your normal head-to-head matchup.
Usually, positions define these battles. In LeBron's case, designated roles are utterly useless. He can play anywhere and defend anyone. If you think the Heat will have anyone other than him on Kyrie Irving, think again.
Irving has struggled to remain efficient from the floor this season (41 percent shooting), and going up against LeBron doesn't figure to help. Look at these per-game numbers the two have registered against one another:
LeBron is 4-0 against Irving, a span of dominance unlikely to end in the midst of Miami's seven-game winning streak. Cleveland, meanwhile, finds itself losers of three straight and six of the last seven. Remedying those woes won't start while facing a team like the Heat, led by the killer instincts of LeBron.
Irving's Cavs find themselves nesting near the bottom of the standings once again. It wasn't supposed to be like this. The All-Star point guard should be leading a playoff-worthy cause. A winning campaign. Playing as if to say "eat your heart out, King James."
But it's LeBron who is rolling and Irving who is struggling. Though Wednesday affords him an opportunity to show LeBron what he's missing out on months before he enters free agency, The Chosen One is having the type of season—60.9 percent shooting, say what?—that could allow him to forget about the Cavs altogether.
Here's hoping that Irving plays spectacular basketball, otherwise an army of James Blairs will have to suffice.
LeBron doesn't have to prove anything. We know he's the best. And that the Heat are good. And that Dwyane Wade, decrepit knees and all, can do some wicked-awesome cartwheels. It's Cleveland that has some 'splainin' to do.
You're nuts if you think LeBron would leave the Heat for a cellar-dweller. Doesn't matter if Miami wins a title this season or not, if he leaves during free agency—or even enters free agency at all—it's going to be for a team with promise.
Early on, the Cavs are only promising to remain irrelevant. At 4-10, they're tied for the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference, and rank 28th and 22nd in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively.
With potential courtship roughly a half-year away, now would be the time for Cleveland to rise. Handing out shirts, storming the court and sending hypothetical chest bumps LeBron's way will only go so far. This city needs to step up its game, beginning with the players.
Winning doesn't guarantee anything other than a cool story to tell at Thanksgiving dinner, but it does send a message: The Cavs are here, LeBron. They're here and they're not going anywhere. Remember that come July.
Remember that the Cavs have the ability to be something better than they are right now.
Not everyone is healthy leading into this hyped matchup, because the injury bug has never been one for courtesy.
Knowing how thin the Cavs are at point guard, they'll need his playmaking if they wish to compete. Or, you know, take any kind of pressure off Irving.
C.J. Miles (calf): Head coach Mike Brown told the media that Miles went through "half " the contact drills at practice on Tuesday and he remains unsure if he will play against the Heat.
Anyone who's seen Miles play knows he can fill it up in a hurry when he's on. So the Cavs must hope that he's healthy. And then, on.
Mario Chalmers (groin): Chalmers sat out for Miami's win over the Phoenix Suns on Monday with a groin injury, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel's Shandel Richardson, so he should be considered questionable on Wednesday.
Norris Cole struggled as the starting point guard against Phoenix, going 1-of-6 from the floor in 34 minutes. It takes a special kind of point man to play off LeBron, so a healthy Chalmers would provide a huge tactical boost for the Heat.
*Certain injury information obtained from CBS Sports.
One game provides more than enough fantasy prospects worth taking a look at—especially this one.
Emotions will be running high for players like LeBron and Irving, while Wade and Chris Bosh, among others, could put forth a little extra something, just to show they're still the King's 'mates.
The Cavs may be young, but they're feisty. And while the Heat are seasoned pros, they're no fools. This matchup is huge, and big games set the stage for incredible performances.
LeBron is averaging 26.3 points and 7.2 assists per game against his former team, but this is a different bout entirely. Questions will flock his way; reporters will beg him to provide insight into his free-agency plans. He won't of course, but that won't stop the speculation. It will actually fuel it.
So LeBron will do what LeBron does in these kinds of situations—take over. He's 9-1 against the Cavs, and while he's topped 30 points just twice in those 10 contests, I'm sensing an offensive explosion out of him in this one.
Think of it as a friendly reminder, or his way of telling Cleveland, "Hey, I'm still awesome."
King James' successor knows what's at stake here.
This is more than just one game on the schedule, more than just a single outing in a strand of many. This is his chance to show LeBron how far the Cavs, how far the city has come without him. It's the chance to show LeBron just how much of a superstar he is.
When LeBron sits down this summer and makes a decision, he'll look at all his options. Among them could be the Cavaliers, who will always be tied to their former star and he to them.
Looking back, he'll remember aspects of his various returns. The wins. The loss(es). The performances. He'll remember Irving and how he played, making this the first opportunity he has on the year to leave a lasting impression. Expect him to make the most of it.
A few years ago, calling Andrew Bynum a "sleeper" would've been out of line. Now, it's among the highest of praises he can receive.
The Heat are better equipped to defend big men this year with Chris Andersen, but they're not perfect. Greg Oden has yet to make an appearance, and Bosh often finds himself overmatched on the defensive end. This could be another one of those times.
Bynum is coming off a season-high 16 points against the Spurs. Granted, the Cavs were annihilated, but his 8-of-15 effort from the floor was an encouraging sign.
Against the Heat, Bynum will look for more. Still far from the player he was, his size and available strength alone make him a problem for the continuously center-challenged Miami. Don't be surprised if his performance in San Antonio proves contagious.
This game matters.
It matters to the Cavs, who not only must impress LeBron, but need a victory. They continue to search for an identity, a quest that has proved futile until now.
It matters to the Heat, who aside from blocking out talk of LeBron's free agency, must keep their crazy train rolling if they wish to catch up with the Indiana Pacers.
It matters to the fans of Cleveland, who despite being slighted in 2010, will pull out all the stops in hopes of reaching LeBron.
It matters. It just matters. And it's the Heat who will make the most of this situation.
"Heard about it," LeBron, who remains steadfast in his refusal to discuss free agency, said of the planned rallies on his behalf, per the Associated Press (via ESPN). "Heard about it."
More value will be placed in what happens off the court—the rallies and red carpets laid out for LeBronthan what happens on it. But winning is what will matter most to LeBron and the Heatles. So win is what they'll do.
Prediction: Heat 106, Cavs 97