LeBron James is coming home, but his new contract is raising questions about just how long he'll stay.
As first reported by ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, "James signed a two-year, $42.1 million deal, sources familiar with the process told ESPN.com, with the goal of re-signing with the Cavs before the 2016-17 season when a new television deal is expected to create a large jump in value of the maximum contract."
It's easy enough to make sense of the contract's short length. As CBSSports.com's Zach Harper put it:
With the Collective Bargaining Agreement likely coming up in 2017 and the league's TV contract coming up in 2016, analysts expect there to be a big increase in the pie being divided up between the players and the owners. It looks like LeBron is very conscientious of this as well.
Fair enough. Heroic as the whole return-home gesture may have been, the guy is still entitled to make his millions in a (semi-)free market.
But it's this next part that's harder to explain.
Per Windhorst, "As part of the deal, James will have an option to become a free agent next summer but is fully committed to the Cavs long term, sources said."
What's that all about?
If James is "fully committed to the Cavs long term," then why does he need an opt-out clause after just one season? Neither the TV deal nor the collective bargaining agreement would seem to explain that minor detail.
Onlookers have been quick to caution that James isn't going anywhere.
USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt reports, "A person familiar with details of the deal...said this is strictly a business decision. James still is intent on finishing his career with the Cavaliers."
Zach Harper concluded, "At this point, James wouldn't dare leave Cleveland due to what the backlash would be after coming back for just two years, so the Cavs can rest pretty easy that this is strictly a financial situation for LeBron and not a way to get out if it's not going well."
NBCSports.com's Kurt Helin wrote, "LeBron isn’t leaving Cleveland — after this move to return back home and saying publicly that is why he came back he could not leave again. He knows it."
Image-conscious though James surely is, there's still one image he'll avoid at all costs: a disastrously failed family reunion.
There will always be a publicly justifiable excuse when it comes to leaving. Blame the Cavaliers' youth. Blame Dan Gilbert. Blame the new coach. If you think James hasn't thought through escape options, you underestimate this man's contingency planning.
Besides, if he were as concerned about image as some writers believe, he wouldn't have signed a two-year contract in the first place.
He knows the mere ability to opt out after just one season will fuel endless speculation going into next summer, especially if Cleveland has a disappointing campaign. He surely knew a short contract—financially motivated though it may be—would be interpreted as a warning sign to fans across Ohio (and beyond).
And the fact remains that there are a few things that matter more to James than being liked. At the very least, money would appear to be one of them. That conclusion requires zero speculation. He knew the high-leverage contract would create unease, and he signed it anyway.
Winning also ranks pretty high on the list of things that matter to James, and to some degree that's a prerequisite to being liked. So even if you believe that the best basketball player on the planet is somehow held captive to popularity contests, remember that the most popular players have winning legacies.
If the Cavaliers struggle early or prove to be an unstable enterprise, why would we expect James to wait around? Sure, his letter said, "I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested."
But that doesn't mean that patience will last indefinitely.
It may well be that James intends to finish his career in Cleveland—just like he intended to win "not one, not two, not three..." championships in Miami. But you know what they say about the pathway to hell.
Perhaps the pathway to Cleveland is paved with good intentions, too.
And so, too, would the exit strategy.
Now, none of this amounts to a prediction that James will, in fact, leave. Odds are he makes it work in Cleveland, at least well enough to stick around for a few years.
The point is, there are no guarantees—certainly not the kind of guarantees that would have come with an unequivocal four-year contract. While everyone is busy "forgiving" James (if not praising him) on account of his far more popular Decision 2.0, we should also prepare ourselves for what seems an unthinkable departure.
James has certainly prepared himself for such an eventuality, and that much is understandable. The Cavaliers are coming off a revolving door of head coaches and introducing one who's never worked in the NBA in David Blatt. Though the roster is talented and youthful, it's also unproven. And there's no telling what general manager David Griffin will accomplish over the next season or two.
The good news is James' mini contract apparently won't discourage Kevin Love's interest in joining forces.
Windhorst reports that, "One source close to the situation told ESPN.com's Marc Stein that the contract structure James agreed to is unlikely to deter Love from signing a new deal with the Cavs in the event Cleveland completes a trade for him."
But what if Minnesota Timberwolves president (and head coach) Flip Saunders opts to trade Love elsewhere? Can James afford to wait on Andrew Wiggins to develop? Will 2013 first overall draft pick Anthony Bennett ever follow suit?
This organization is rich in assets, but it's done painfully little with them so far.
One can't help but speculate that James' feel-good story could soon fall apart. And in that event, he'll have the right to become a free agent in 2015. He'll have the opportunity to reassess his options, and as unpopular as a third Decision may be, there would be countless excuses to help sell it to the masses.
Even if it never comes to that, the mere possibility will surround this season with intrigue all the same. Until James quite literally puts his contractual dollars where his mouth is, that intrigue is entirely justified.
Remember, James didn't stay home; he returned home—after having made a new one in Miami. He's already left two teams despite making assurances in both instances that he was committed to doing otherwise.
Fool Cleveland once, shame on James. Fool it again, shame on the rest of us.