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LeBron James Opting out Means It's Time for Cleveland Cavaliers to Move on

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 12:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat looks on against the San Antonio Spurs during Game Four of the 2014 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena on June 12, 2014 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 24, 2014

While it appears The Decision: Part Two may well emerge as the biggest blockbuster of the 2014 NBA offseason, don't expect it to include the feel-good, Hollywood ending so many have envisioned.

LeBron James has the option to take his talents anywhere across the basketball landscape. The dream-big Cleveland Cavaliers should remember how that same scenario treated them just four years ago.

The four-time MVP, according to ESPN's Chris Broussard, has informed the Miami Heat he will exercise the early termination option built into his contract:

James has options now, including restructuring his deal with South Beach's finest, meaning all 30 NBA franchises have reasons to monitor his movements.

What good would it do for the Cavaliers, though, to go barking up the same tree they watched James chop down in 2010?

A well-versed student of the sport, James will view his situation through the lens of his lasting legacy. He needs rings to convince the league's Mount Rushmore to save him a spot as he said they should. That's what drove him out of Cleveland initially, and it's what will keep him from calling his home state home again in the near future.

Economically, the Cavs could make something work. They have just $47 million committed to next season's payroll, via ShamSports.com, and could create more space by waiving Alonzo Gee and shedding Anderson Varejao's partially guaranteed $9.7 million salary.

However, this will not be a financially driven decision. Not when James will likely easily surpass his next salary in endorsement money, as Forbes reported he did this year.

If money is really on his mind, then his main focus should be securing an easy path to the championship podium. Where is the slightest bit of evidence that Cleveland could lay out such a road to relevance?

The Cavs have averaged 24 victories per season since James made his infamous exit. How's that for a recruiting tool? They have a shot at improving their talent base with the top overall pick in Thursday's draft, but that's not the type of immediate assistance James will likely seek.

He'll be looking for proven commodities, and the Cavaliers have next to nothing to offer in that regard. The top two players on their roster, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, dominate the ball and are far better at creating for themselves than for others. Think James is really looking to share the floor with a pair of volume scorers?

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 04:  Kyrie Irving #2 and Dion Waiters #3 of the Cleveland Cavaliers walk off the court between free throws in their 117-98 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on April 4, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly a
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Look at the other landing spots he'll have available.

League sources told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck the Houston Rockets are "preparing to make an all-out push to land James." That's a team that rattled off 54 wins without James this past season, all while attempting to strike a balance between superstars James Harden and Dwight Howard.

Houston, the youngest of all 16 playoff teams, is primed to experience significant internal growth. The Rockets rank among the NBA's elites without James. Imagine what they could do with him on board:

The Chicago Bulls, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, are expected "to get involved" should James make himself available to the highest bidder. The Bulls would have to cut some costs, potentially through the amnesty of Carlos Boozer and a salary-dump trade of Taj Gibson, but they could still surround James with a former MVP (Derrick Rose) and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year (Joakim Noah).

James would still be playing in the path of least resistance known as the Eastern Conference. He'd also have one of the finest coaching minds in the business with Tom Thibodeau. Climate aside, James would have a number of reasons to consider the Windy City as his next destination.

DEERFIELD, IL - SEPTEMBER 27:  Derrick Rose #1, Joakim Noah #13 and and Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls poses for a portrait during media day on September27, 2013 at Berto Center in Deerfield, Illinois. NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and ag
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The Los Angeles Clippers could also be in play, although they'd need help from the Heat in form of a sign-and-trade.

League sources, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, called the possibility "the most intriguing move on the mind of James and his camp." That would allow him to suit up alongside Chris Paul and play for Doc Rivers, who Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix previously reported James "once tried to recruit" in Cleveland.

Of course, James doesn't have to go anywhere.

"Opting out gives him the chance to see what the Heat can do to remake the roster in a way that finally takes some of that pressure off of his shoulders, giving way to a new dynamic where he’s still in control of things for the Heat but without the burden of being the workhorse he has been," NBA.com's Sekou Smith observed.

James had already hinted at keeping his options open for the offseason.

"Being able to have flexibility as a professional, that's what we all would like," he told reporters at his exit interview. "I understand what this team, this franchise, brings to the table."

Either he made this move to increase Miami's buying power, or he did it to find a better shot at adding to his jewelry collection elsewhere.

He has a number of desirable destinations in front of him, including the one he hasn't officially left behind. What could possibly lead him to conclude that a return to Cleveland is the best move he could make?

Irving is a nice piece, but James already has nice pieces around him in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The King will need more.

That unnamed rookie could help, but not to the level the Cavaliers need.

NEW YORK - MAY 20: NBA Draft Prospects Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart,  Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Ennis, Joel Embiid, Noah Vonleh, and Doug McDermott poses for a photo during to the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery on May 20, 2014 at the ABC News' 'Good Morning America' Ti
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

If the stress fracture suffered by center Joel Embiid takes the big man out of the running, Cleveland might not even get the player atop its draft board. Before Embiid's latest injury, ESPN Insider Chad Ford (subscription required) heard from multiple sources that "Embiid was the strong favorite to be drafted by the Cavs."

Now, it seems Cleveland could be forced to settle. Joining the franchise could also be seen as a settle for James, but his hands are far from tied.

He could easily see his current situation as being superior to that of the Cavaliers. That's an issue, because some see his suitors as being superior to the Heat:

Maybethe Cavs would have been a realistic option had James delayed his free-agency foray by a year. At least then he could have seen that top pick in action, the further development of Cleveland's young players and heard the franchise's plans for the massive cap space slated to come its way in 2015.

Now, though, Cleveland looks like nothing more than a clingy ex unable to move on from the thought of what once was.

There are no flames to rekindle, yet the Cavaliers are chopping all the firewood they can find in pursuit of this pipe dream.

"The Cavaliers are expected to aggressively pursue James," Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal reported. "They’ll have the cap space to pursue him and potentially other free agents and still retain Kyrie Irving."

That's the extent of the Cavs' recruiting pitch: Irving and cap space James had no use for the last time around. James tried to get Bosh to join him in Cleveland during the 2010 offseason, but the versatile big man opted for Miami instead.

If James wanted to join the Cavaliers, he'd do so because of the pieces currently in place. The ones who just enjoyed their best year in the post-James era—by winning 33 games and finishing five games out of the playoff picture.

The Cavs have to start thinking about tomorrow. They have a rising star in Irving and the chance to add another at the draft.

Their future looks bright, as soon as they stop dealing in the past. James is focused on the present, and he presently has a number of more attractive options.

He's smart enough to recognize that fact. It's time for the Cavaliers to do the same.

 

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