Clearly, LeBron pulled strings this summer. Cleveland's acquisition of James Jones and Mike Miller is proof enough of that, even if their decisions to join the Cavs had more to do with LBJ's free-agent gravity than his stated directive to pursue them.
And if Ray Allen decides to lace 'em up for one more year and join the Cavaliers, we'll know exactly who talked him into it.
James' influence over the Cavs' decisions is also evident in the team's ongoing pursuit of Kevin Love. So great is his current power that Cleveland changed its stance on dealing No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, per Chris Broussard of ESPN The Magazine.
Adrian Wojnarowski and Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports reported on July 17 that James was behind the push for Love: "LeBron James has reached out to Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star forward Kevin Love and expressed a desire for them to play together in Cleveland."
There's little doubt the Cavs are listening to LeBron. But what happens when King James doesn't get his way? How much leverage will he really have when push comes to shove?
Less than you might think.
In explaining his return to the Cavs, announced via a first-person letter with Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, James cited reasons outside of basketball as his primary motivation:
I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up.
There's no criticizing those sentiments. They feel wholly genuine, and they seem to come from a guy who has his priorities in order.
By committing himself in this fashion, James became an even bigger hero in the Rust Belt than he was before he left it in 2010—and that's saying something.
James has immense power to affect change in Cleveland, the city. But if you think about it, the commendable words that accompanied his return might have created a situation in which he has less power than he'd like over Cleveland, the team.
James' ultimate trump card, the one used by star players in every sport forever, is gone. He can't lay down the "Do what I say or I'm gone" ultimatum anymore because he made his commitment to the Cavaliers about so much more than basketball.
Just try to imagine a scenario in which LeBron, perhaps unsatisfied with the moves the Cavs are making or the franchise's direction, actually leaves Cleveland again.
You can't do it. It's impossible.
So be sure to disregard the opt-out after the first year of James' contract. That's strictly a financial tool; not a means of escape he truly plans to use.
So if LeBron is irked by Cleveland signing Wiggins to his rookie contract, an act that will make it impossible to trade the No. 1 overall pick for 30 days, too bad. James might be upset about that, but if he is, it's not like he can force the Cavs' hand.
A second exit by James would create an unprecedented career arc, while at the same time destroying everything we know about salvation narratives. The savior isn't supposed to show up, fix everything, leave, return and then leave again. It just doesn't compute.
We know now how deeply James and his family felt the pain of Cleveland's backlash when he left the first time (because he told us about it explicitly in his letter with Jenkins). He doesn't want that kind of hate again, and he'd certainly prefer to shield his family from another stint as pariahs.
Who knows how much more bitter the vitriol would be if James tried to walk away from Cleveland a second time?
Plus, by pledging to help the community and region first, James has set himself up to look like a hypocrite if he were to leave because of something that wasn't working out with a relatively insignificant (by his own admission) basketball team.
Realistically, we won't see James or the Cavaliers reach a point where another divorce becomes a possibility. Cleveland's roster is solid, if somewhat lacking in playoff experience at key positions. Loaded up with young talents like Kyrie Irving, Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and yes, even the mercurial Dion Waiters, the Cavs are vastly more promising than any version James has previously known.
And the team has every incentive to continue keeping its best player happy.
If everything goes according to plan, we won't ever have to find out how a disgruntled James might react to a disappointing roster and poor coaching. Hopefully, we'll never see what happens when James tries to exercise leverage he doesn't have.
It's not right to say James is stuck in Cleveland because he obviously loves the city, and the decision to return was entirely up to him. He wants to be there—for all the right reasons.
But the reality now is that James, whether you want to say he's stuck or not, can't leave.
And it'll be fascinating to see what happens if he ever wants to.
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