MIAMI — It was an offhand comment and barely audible over the din of party-goers who were trying to get the attention, or capture the image, of LeBron James.
It came late last September, a few hours after James had returned from a European vacation, on the roof of a South Beach garage where Audemars Piguet was unveiling his new limited edition, outrageously expensive watch.
A James associate told him that a reporter had left one outlet for another but would still be covering the Miami Heat.
"Yeah, for a year, anyway," he said with a smile before hustling away.
Well, let me rephrase: I think that's what he said.
Maybe I missed a word. Maybe I misinterpreted another. Maybe I'd had a few too many sips of the soiree's signature blue drink. Maybe, probably, he was just kidding, even if he said exactly what I thought I heard.
I've never been entirely sure.
But you can bet that I've replayed the brief encounter a few times in the past few days, reprocessing it as one of countless, even if also likely meaningless, potential clues as to what James may choose to do since telling the Heat he was opting out of his contract to become a free agent.
That interaction may have meant nothing more than other supposed signs that have been widely debunked in the past few days.
The private plane that supposedly flew Cavaliers officials to meet him in South Florida, even though Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has other business interests in South Florida. The welcome-back billboards that Nike was supposedly putting up in Cleveland, even though industry sources shot that down. The moving trucks that were supposedly taking his cars and possessions from his house to Bath, Ohio, for good, even though that summer transport is actually his regular custom.
And, of course, there have been numerous cryptic Instagram posts from his friends and family, all of which may or may not be sending some sort of subliminal message that he's soon returning to his Ohio roots.
On the other side, Heat fans have tried to find hope anywhere they can, even if some of those seemingly encouraging discoveries can also be easily explained away.
Yes, James is investing in a pizza chain in Palm Beach and Broward counties, just as his wife Savannah has opened The Juice Spot in Miami, but the couple needs not be present full time to manage either. Yes, James dined and partied with Dwyane Wade in Las Vegas on Monday night, but even if there's a chance they won't be remaining teammates, that doesn't mean they stop being friends.
This guessing game wouldn't be continuing if we actually knew something concrete, but the truth is we don't. Not even after James and his agent Rich Paul met with Heat president Pat Riley and general manager/cap guru Andy Elisburg in Las Vegas at roughly 6 p.m. ET Wednesday. Not even as the NBA's moratorium period ended at midnight.
We still don't know, because that meeting concluded without resolution before James returned to hosting his Skills Academy. He's not scheduled to take any meetings with other teams and is planning to discuss his options with his family.
We still don't know if Riley and Elisburg convinced him that they could still—even in a seemingly cap-strapped state—sufficiently upgrade the roster at every position as he requested after falling in the NBA Finals to the San Antonio Spurs.
We know only this: The Heat were supposed to know more by now.
Sure, they always knew that James could exercise his early-termination option, the one he included in his original contract to grant himself some future flexibility. But they also believed that, by now, he'd know them well enough that he wouldn't seriously consider leaving.
Not after four NBA Finals appearances and two titles. Not to return to an organization in which he experienced one, and none, respectively in seven seasons. Not to an owner in Gilbert who, in a public letter, labeled him a "former hero" who had committed a "cowardly betrayal." Not to a place where his jersey was burned by some fans, and a picture of his wide-open mouth was caked to the urinals of Harry Buffalo's bar bathroom.
So, yes, this is a surprise and is a sign that, at the very least, the Heat—who have exuded confidence throughout the process—may have overestimated their position.
They also may have underestimated the pull of James' past, as well as the pull of the associates he lovingly calls La Familia, to say nothing of his actual family. Savannah, an expectant mother of the couple's third child, openly adores Akron, and James is very fond of using the phrase "happy wife, happy life."
Miami's approach with James has been respectful to the point of reverential, while stopping short of coddling. James had appeared to respond well to the team's culture, embracing more leadership responsibility with each passing year. Most importantly, he improved as a player, especially in terms of his efficiency.
But he also showed some signs of discomfort and even discontent this season. He wasn't able to hide his frustration with Micky Arison's decision to use the amnesty clause on his friend Mike Miller. Nor with Wade's frequent absences, made worse by Miller not being around to offset them. Nor with some of Erik Spoelstra's strategic decisions, especially during the NBA Finals.
Nor, according to multiple sources, did he receive Riley's "get a grip" end-of-season press conference (the one that challenged the Heat stars not to run from a challenge) especially well.
So, perhaps the Heat overplayed their hand some.
Then came the underwhelming start to free agency. Even after four Heat players (James, Wade, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem) opted out to grant Riley more maneuverability, the Heat president found himself restricted by their cap holds, expected new salary figures and a market that ran hotter than, truthfully, anyone expected.
Players were asking for nearly twice as much as the Heat could, within the rules, reasonably afford, and none of consequence appeared to be itching to take a loss. So, instead of pulling a rabbit out of his hat, such as Luol Deng or Pau Gasol or even Trevor Ariza, the Heat's personnel magician pulled out a McRoberts for the full mid-level exception of $23 million over four years.
And while that player, first name Josh, is a functional forward who will likely fit well as a complementary stretch 4 in the Heat's system, and while Danny Granger is worth a flier at the price ($4.2 million for two years), neither acquisition seemed likely to blow James away.
That was confirmed with a laugh by one of James' NBA friends, who characterized James as a "big-picture guy" not swayed by subtle, small-time moves.
That friend even asserted that Riley would have been better off not signing anyone before meeting with James, rather than the guys he did. That way, with a blank slate, Riley could still attempt to sell James on some grander possibility with all of the assets Miami had.
"You can't put all your cards on the table, when those are your cards," the friend said.
That was an appropriate analogy for the occasion, considering the site of the meeting.
Perhaps Riley and Elisburg still had some aces up their sleeves for their Las Vegas sitdown, showing James not only how they would add more talent but how that talent could be utilized to ease some of his burden.
Perhaps James proves the Heat's confidence correct and agrees in writing to remain for one, two, three, four or five years, to attempt to add to a Miami legacy that was off to a mostly strong start.
But at this point, that, and only that, will counter all the Cleveland clues that won't stop coming.
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