Since LBJ walked away from the Cavs in 2010, it's been impossible to discuss any topic relating to him or his former team without building some kind of link between the two. The gymnastics of spinning narratives have never been complicated in this regard. It isn't hard to imagine how any Cleveland roster move or personnel rumor could either attract or drive away James.
Hire Mike Brown? What will LeBron think of that?
Fire Mike Brown? Same question.
Draft Andrew Wiggins? Max out Kyrie Irving? Tab David Blatt as head coach?
The ultimate question was always the same: Did the Cavaliers make a James-Cleveland reunion more or less plausible?
By some accounts, they've already made significant headway.
I'm told, by multiple sources now, LeBron agent Rich Paul told Cavs he's impressed w what they've done and what they can still do to roster.— Sam Amico (@SamAmicoFSO) July 7, 2014
And they're reportedly working to make even more.
In pursuit of max slot for LeBron James, Cavs searching for team to take Nets' Marcus Thornton in deal to unload Jarrett Jack, sources say.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 7, 2014
The progress has led to Chris Broussard's latest hunch.
Cleveland has replaced Miami as my frontrunner to land LeBron James...— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) July 7, 2014
In some ways, this is a pretty unhealthy way to analyze the Cavaliers. But it was an even unhealthier way for them to do business.
The jilted-lover refrain is a common one to use when talking about the Cavs after James dumped them. It's a hackneyed, tired comparison to employ, but it's still the most applicable.
The best thing for the Cavs, the metaphor says, would have been to get themselves into better shape, focus on taking a little "me time" and hitting the open market for somebody to fill the void James left. Cleveland needed a new paramour to make the city forget about its old one.
On to the next, as the kids say. (I don't know if the kids say that.)
While it's reasonable to argue Cleveland should be focusing on its future without working to rekindle its past, it's flat-out crazy to give up hope on James returning. He's the best player on the planet, and his presence on a team automatically creates a contender where there was only rubble before.
And the Cavs, to their credit, are looking better than rubble these days.
There have been fits and starts in the rebuilding process, marked by dubious draft reaches like Tristan Thompson and especially Anthony Bennett. The decision to give Brown another go as head coach was, is and always will be logically indefensible.
And, of course, everything the Cavaliers have done over the past four years has existed under the cloud of owner Dan Gilbert and his infamous letter to fans—a childish gesture that provided the counterargument for any positive development people thought would lure James back in the future.
"Not after the way Gilbert dogged him out," people would say. "No way James ever goes back."
Maybe that's true.
The Cavs are in good shape now, though—fitter than they've been in years. Irving is paid and happy; Blatt is an intriguing mind who is most definitely not a boring retread; and Wiggins, who has a superstar ceiling, should contribute immediately.
Plus, the Cavs could collect first-round picks from both the Memphis Grizzlies and, ironically, the Miami Heat in 2015. Though it should be mentioned they owe their own first-rounder to the Chicago Bulls if it falls outside the top 14, a realistic possibility with the improvements Cleveland has made.
General manager David Griffin spoke to reporters about the franchise's positive steps on draft night, via Cleveland.com's Karen Deran.
"This is a night where the Cavaliers got appreciably better," Griffin said. "The kind of night that you really look forward to in our business when you can go home and know that things are going to get a lot brighter from here."
For the first time in a while, it didn't feel like a Cleveland executive was blowing smoke. It felt like the optimism was justifiable. After all, in the East you don't have to be world-beaters to be successful. Griffin spoke like a guy who knew his team could win 40 games and punch its ticket to the postseason dance.
The Cavs also have cash, and they're looking to spend it—within reason.
Cleveland's belief that Utah will match any Hayward offer sheet is strongly discouraging Cavs from extending one, league sources tell Yahoo.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 3, 2014
This is where the spin comes back, invariably, to James. There are two explanations for Cleveland's hesitation to make the max offer their finances allow. The first is exactly what Wojnarowski said: They know the Utah Jazz will just match. So extending a big offer that ties up the Cavs' cap space for at least three days is a dangerous move, especially if it turns out to be fruitless.
The second explanation has to do with LeBron, per Sam Amick of USA Today:
Had the Cavaliers put a maximum-salary offer sheet on the table, it would have been the strongest signal yet that teams in the running for free agent LeBron James were giving up on that pursuit. Cleveland has approximately $16 million in salary cap space, and an offer sheet of that magnitude would have been prohibitive in the pursuit of the former Cavaliers star who left his home state so unceremoniously in the summer of 2010.
Part of this inescapable connection between James and the Cavs is our fault. We're hungry to link the two because the narrative is so compelling. We want that triumphant homecoming, and if we can't get it, we'll take the juicy second spurning if James shrugs off the Cavaliers' advances again.
Either way, we're getting good theater.
There's something else in play that makes the James-Cavs links even more interesting right now: Cleveland's interest is real, and it's taking actual steps to convey that fact.
The exact number of teams to secure face-to-face meetings with Cleveland-based agent Rich Paul was not immediately known, but sources told ESPN.com that the Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and James' home state Cavaliers have had the opportunity to make presentations to Paul in recent days.
The Cavs are in the mix—at least to the extent that anyone besides the Heat is.
James hasn't come close to committing anywhere yet, which is why the buzz that Cleveland has a shot will only continue to grow. And even when James eventually returns to Miami or picks another destination, he'll likely do it on a flexible, short-term deal, which means there will be no break from talking about another future James-Cavs marriage.
Really, when you think about it, there's only one thing that will ever stop us from wondering if every move the Cavs make is somehow related to James.
They can sign him.