"These past four years helped raise me into who I am," James wrote for Sports Illustrated.
During that time, the Miami Heat raised two championship banners. So they will never regret admitting him.
Still, they're seriously stung now, and not just because he's gone. A number of choices have cruelly come back to boomerang on the Heat, in ways they never could have anticipated, as was emphasized again by Mike Miller's late-stage negotiations with the Cavaliers.
Generally, it's the student who is stuck with ongoing obligations, in the form of burdensome loans, after attending an institution of higher learning. In this case, though, it's the Heat who are continuing to pay after their prized student has "graduated."
Here's a rundown of the oddities and ironies that put the Heat in this predicament:
In 2010, the Heat had the option to acquire Chris Bosh from Toronto and LeBron James from Cleveland as direct signings under their ample cap space. But their new acquisitions, along with returning superstar Dwyane Wade, wanted to add Miller and retain Udonis Haslem. So, in exchange for lower starting salaries, they sought a sixth year on their contracts and higher annual raises. To achieve that, the Heat had to consummate sign-and-trade deals with Toronto for Bosh and Cleveland for James, sending two first-round selections to Toronto and two first-round and two second-round selections to Cleveland.
Pat Riley doesn't value the draft, and especially not when he's not picking in a premium slot, as everyone knew he wouldn't be as long as the Big Three were playing for Miami. So there's no way to know if he would have added useful young talent to the roster. But without those selections, and without any unexpected discoveries in the discard bin, 2011 first-rounder Norris Cole provided the only fresh legs in the rotation during the four years of the Big Three. Riley did add several proud professionals, and a couple, Shane Battier and Ray Allen, proved to be key contributors.
But he couldn't even keep all of his veterans, including one of James' favorites, in part because of the league's new punitive tax measures. Those measures, strongly supported by spurned Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, were directed at least in part at breaking up Big Three-type rosters, or at least making them extraordinarily expensive to maintain and bolster. And after three injury-plagued seasons, Miller was sacrificed, with Micky Arison using the amnesty provision to save roughly $17 million in luxury taxes for the 2013-14 season and create some future flexibility.
That decision backfired, and not just because Miller miraculously played all 82 games for Memphis, shooting 45 percent from three-point range. James started the season irritated by Miller's departure, played the season irritated that Miller wasn't available to fill in for Wade and finished the season irritated that the veterans left behind—without useful youthful reinforcements—had broken down. It's impossible to know how much that played into his decision to return to Cleveland, or at least to return earlier than he anticipated, since he wrote in the essay that he always planned to someday.
But it certainly didn't help.
Now James is gone, never needing the extra year that the Heat gave him through that 2010 sign-and-trade. He's signed a deal nearly identical to the one he opted out of in Miami—two years, with an option after the first, for a total of roughly $42 million. This time, with such a short contract, there was no need for a sign-and-trade (it's not allowed for anything under three years), and Miami didn't receive any assets in return.
And the hurt keeps coming.
Miami's '10 sign-and-trade commitment to Toronto is complete, but it still owes Cleveland one first-round selection. The pick is top-10 protected in '15 and, if it isn't transferred to the Cavaliers then, will be top-10 protected in '16 as well, before being entirely unprotected in '17. With Riley aiming to keep the Heat competitive, a '15 transfer is the most likely scenario, which means James will get an additional prospect to mentor early in what, even with a short contract, is expected to be a long Cleveland tenure.
And then there's the Miller thing.
When he was amnestied last July, he had absolutely no desire to join the rebuilding Cavaliers, and they were aware of that—and his back issues—when he was available to them in amnesty waivers. Once he cleared that process, he chose Memphis as a free agent rather than suitors Oklahoma City, Houston, Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers. This offseason, he was free again, looking to cash in on a solid season, and couldn't sign back with Miami because his initial contract ran through the '14-15 season. But he could play with James if the four-time MVP relocated. And after initial reluctance to come to Cleveland—and serious talks with Denver and Memphis—James has convinced him to reconsider, enough that he's negotiating numbers.
So, it's now conceivable that Arison would be subsidizing Miller (due to the amnesty rules) to play for an owner who pushed for policies that helped to break up the Big Three, and alongside the best of that trio, the one who just fled Arison's franchise. And Arison will be doing so while knowing that, at some point, Gilbert is promised another draft asset from him in one of the next three years.
For Cleveland, a certain word may come to mind:
That's the word that Gilbert used in his infamous letter, spitting that until James did "right by Cleveland and Ohio, James [and the town where he plays] will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma."
That word is also one of James' favorites, as he noted in his book Dream Team, and as was apparent when he tweeted this after Gilbert's Cavaliers lost by 55 to the Lakers in January 2011: "Crazy. Karma is a b****. Gets you every time. It's not good to wish bad on anybody. God sees everything!"
But now Gilbert's Cavaliers are also James' Cavaliers again.
And the Heat?
Lately, they seem to be paying for everything.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Miami Heat for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @EthanJSkolnick.