A Perfect Storm and a Perfect Ending: LeBron’s Going Back to Cleveland

It happened. This started a few weeks ago with questions like, “Can you even imagine if he went back to Cleveland?” Then we had rumors. Then we had waiting. So much waiting. The entire NBA went into a holding pattern, and we spent our time driving ourselves insane tracking planes, auto transport trucks, betting odds, cupcake companies breaking news, website decoding, Instagram clues, and everything else. Then it happened. LeBron really did it.

“I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there,” LeBron wrote in his announcement for Sports Illustrated. “After the season, free agency wasn’t even a thought. But I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right.”

This was the perfect ending to free agency. The dream scenario might actually be falling into place here. Whatever you think of LeBron, it makes the entire NBA more exciting.

Click here for more on 2014 NBA free agency.

The only thing that could’ve been crazier than the way LeBron left Cleveland in 2010 was LeBron going back. And now we’re here. Somehow this move actually made sense.

That’s the craziest part of this decision; it’s not actually that crazy. It makes sense from a basketball standpoint. It took a perfect storm in two cities to get here, and that’s probably the best way to appreciate how incredible this is.

Let’s run through it quickly. It all started last offseason.

1. Spring-Summer 2013. Mike Brown had been rehired, and the Cavs had just won the NBA lottery for the second time in three years. Then came the draft, when some combination of Dan Gilbert and Chris Grant decided to use the no. 1 pick on Anthony Bennett. Then they splurged on Jarrett Jack and Andrew Bynum in free agency, Dan Gilbert started talking about a playoff run, and the city of Cleveland was all in on a new era for the Cavs.

Meanwhile, in Miami, the Heat were coming off back-to-back titles, they’d struck gold with Chris Andersen and Ray Allen, and LeBron was 28 years old with four trips to the Finals, two titles, and basically no weaknesses. The Heat were capped out, though, and after paying the luxury tax the year before, Micky Arison and Pat Riley weren’t going that route again. This is why they amnestied Mike Miller (who’d just come up huge in the Finals), and it’s why they decided not to use their midlevel exception on any of that summer’s free agents. The best team in basketball thought the best player in basketball would be good enough to keep them winning anyway.

2. The Cavs’ Season From Hell. Go back and reread that Cavs paragraph above and think about how stupid every single one of those decisions was. The team was a disaster from the start last year, it fired Mike Brown and GM Chris Grant, it gave up on Bynum, and it sputtered away God knows how many winnable games.

I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but, purely by accident and aggressive incompetence, the Cavs put themselves in a situation where they had to clean house entirely this summer. This left them with a couple of good young players, one young superstar, and a blank slate otherwise. In other words, the best possible basketball situation for a superstar looking to switch teams.

Oh, and there was also …

3. The 2014 Lottery. Three no. 1 picks in four years. This was the biggest break the Cavs got this summer, and it’s the biggest reason they wound up with LeBron more than seven weeks later.

2014 NBA Draft Lottery

And look, I’m happy that LeBron’s coming back to Cleveland, but by any objective measure, this was total bullshit.

4. The Finals. The Heat management were mostly right about Miami having enough to win without going over the luxury tax to fill out the roster. LeBron was more than dominant enough to run scorched earth through the East, Dwyane Wade helped put away the Pacers, and they played the Spurs to a draw through two games.

Then the Spurs finished the series by winning three straight games by an average margin of 19 points, and the decisions last summer started to look a lot more damning.

The Heat didn’t just lose to the team they’d beaten the year before, they were destroyed so completely that you couldn’t help but wonder about the future. Wade turned into the Amar’e Stoudemire of 2-guards, Chris Bosh disappeared entirely after every first quarter, and except for the occasional Ray Allen 3, the supporting cast no-showed. This while LeBron, who’d led the team in minutes all year, averaged 28 points per game in the Finals, along with eight rebounds and 57 percent shooting.

5. Pat Riley. I wrote this a few weeks ago, but Pat Riley’s post-Finals press conference was the first time I thought that LeBron might leave. For all the talk about the Heat family and the close-knit culture in Miami, this was the president of the team telling LeBron to suck it up, because winning isn’t supposed to be easy. This after LeBron had taken pay cuts, made God knows how much money for the team, and then watched management decide not to spend extra money to give him help.

We may never know what impact that press conference actually had, but even if it didn’t push LeBron out the door, it clearly didn’t help him stay. Within a week, LeBron opted out earlier than anyone expected, giving other teams a chance to prepare. This is how his free agency went from a formality to a full-on frenzy.

6. Andrew Wiggins. A week after Riley’s press conference, Cleveland was being mentioned as a possibility, and all of it was terrifying. The Cavs were juggling trade offers, the front office apparently liked Jabari Parker, Gilbert liked Wiggins, and for a team with the opportunity to change everything in one summer, there was just as good a chance they’d screw it up. Because it’s Cleveland.

andrew-wiggins

They didn’t. They chose Wiggins over Jabari (who plays the same position as LeBron, for one thing) and instead of trading down and taking on more salary. In retrospect, even the Joel Embiid injury worked to their advantage. Instead of banking their future on a project of a center with injury questions, they landed Wiggins, a wing with unlimited potential, particularly if he’s playing with LeBron and getting easy looks for his first few years.

The Cavs still haven’t signed Wiggins, which makes him eligible to be traded immediately, and I think he’s going to Minnesota for Kevin Love. Part of this is because I think Love and LeBron would be more fun to watch than any two players in basketball, and it’s destiny. But it’s also because Minnesota isn’t going to do any better than Wiggins (and maybe Anthony Bennett) from Cleveland. And Love has said he would sign an extension if he were playing with LeBron. In that case, the Cavs can’t turn down the chance to be title favorites right away with Love, LeBron, and Kyrie. It makes sense for everyone involved.

Either way, picking Wiggins was the simplest way to make Cleveland twice as attractive to LeBron.

7. David Blatt. The Cavs were chasing John Calipari, reportedly offering between $60 million and $80 million to lure him to Cleveland. This would’ve been a horrible idea. Instead they got David Blatt, a coach who’s universally respected in NBA circles, with decades of pro coaching experience overseas. When his name first got floated for the job, there were reports that LeBron wasn’t impressed and the hiring would hurt the Cavs’ chances.

That clearly didn’t happen.

In a weird way, I think we might actually be underplaying Blatt’s role in all of this. If you look at the Cavs’ recent history, every level of the organization has been a total mess. Any player would be right to think twice about joining that team. Blatt’s the one guy who’s not connected to any of it. All he’s ever done is win, everyone in the basketball world respects him, and he even coached against one of LeBron’s best friends in Israel.

To our knowledge, LeBron never even met with Blatt this summer, so this is 100 percent speculation. But he’s one of the smartest basketball players on the planet. He knew that Blatt runs a motion offense that relies on precision cutting and passing — exactly the sort of system LeBron had success with in Miami. There’s just no way LeBron would have ever gotten this interested in the Cavs if they’d hired Mark Jackson or Vinny Del Negro.

If you’re wondering how LeBron could ever take the Cavs franchise seriously after the last five years, some sudden respect for Dan Gilbert’s management skills is not your answer. But David Blatt might be.

8. The NBPA. The biggest shock of free agency was finding out that LeBron James wanted a max salary. All along, we’d expected him to opt out and take less so that the Heat could get more help. At first glance, demanding the max doesn’t make much sense.

I understand that he wants to get paid, but when people say that “star X” could make more money long term by taking less and winning titles, LeBron is probably the only case in which that’s actually true. He has to know that, too. It’s why he took a pay cut to end up in Miami in the first place.

He demanded the max because of the National Basketball Players Association, which realized it sets a bad precedent for the league to have the best players taking less money in exchange for better teams. If LeBron’s doing that, suddenly that’s just the standard for everyone, and in addition to taking hundreds of millions of dollars from players in the last lockout, owners could also pressure superstars across the league to take less money for the good of the team. LeBron demanding the max helps stop that trend.

It makes no sense when writers wonder whether going back to Gilbert in Cleveland means LeBron is capitulating to owners. He demanded the max, and he left a broken-down Heat team that didn’t use its money more wisely. His entire offseason has been dedicated to setting precedents for the players.

On a purely practical level, this also meant that Riley had less money to work with, two superstars who may have been blindsided by LeBron’s max demands, and …

9. The Insane Free-Agent Market. I don’t know if there’s ever been an offseason in which everyone’s like, “You know what? All these deals look pretty fair and reasonable; this makes a lot of sense.”

Every summer, people lose their minds at the numbers that free agents are getting. In every sport. It’s just tradition. Guys get paid more every year, and we freak out accordingly.

But it kept the Heat from having a chance to add anyone who might actually make a difference for LeBron. Riley just didn’t have the money to chase guys like Kyle Lowry, Luol Deng, Trevor Ariza, or Marcin Gortat. It didn’t help that LeBron wouldn’t commit to Miami to help recruit these guys, but the money was always the biggest problem. Everyone who was “realistic” quickly became a pipe dream once other teams started driving the market up, and it left the Heat with …

10. Dwyane Wade. Here’s the thing. There’s only so much that Riley and the Heat could’ve done this summer. There are limits to how much any team can spend in free agency, even if it’s going over the luxury tax. When you have three superstars who won’t take massive pay cuts, the rest of the roster suffers. That’s the whole point of a salary cap.

Which brings us to Wade. It’s unclear how much money he was willing to give up in the short term, but after opting out of $41 million over two years, he was still going to make a ton of money. Whether LeBron took the max or less, Wade’s salary was going to keep the Heat from going after any players who might actually change things. That was the biggest factor working against the Heat. Whether it was the Finals or this summer, Wade killed them.

Superteams can work, even with the current CBA. The potential of Bosh in Houston is proof enough.

But the lesson of the Heat in those Finals and the Heat this summer is that superteams can work only if all the stars are actually worth the money they’re taking away from the rest of the roster. Wade wasn’t, and he wasn’t going to be. Even Bosh wasn’t worth what he’s primed to get this summer; he turned into a glorified Sam Perkins the last few playoff runs, and he didn’t fit the Heat roster nearly as well as he would fit next to Dwight Howard and James Harden in Houston.

LeBron’s not stupid. He saw all of this happening in Miami. Then he also saw a young team with plenty of cap space, a great new coach, a spot in the easier Eastern Conference, a budding superstar who’s already signed with his management team, the no. 1 pick, decent young big men … you couldn’t have come up with a better fit than Cleveland.

Maybe he was pulled in by the chance to come home and be a hero, and winning a title with the Cavs would enhance his legacy more than any other Heat win ever could, but when you put together all the pieces from the last 12 months, somehow we got to a point where Cleveland made a lot more sense for LeBron as a basketball player.

Cavaliers vs. Heat

Just to be clear, I still can’t believe we’re really here. None of the rational explanations for how this happened make it any less ridiculous that it’s actually happening.

There are plenty of legitimate questions about how good this makes the Cavs. On the one hand, LeBron’s like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. He makes good players look great, he makes decent players look good, and everything gets easier for the players around him. It stopped working in Miami because the roster just got too old and too beaten-up. Cleveland won’t have that problem.

On the other hand, Miami probably gave him a better chance to win next year. If the Cavs don’t land Love, this team’s just as inexperienced and raw as Miami was old. There’s no automatic title here, or even Finals trip.

“I’m not promising a championship,” LeBron said in his announcement. “I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.”

Some people will try to make this about Gilbert, and that part is fair. It’s awful that he’s getting rewarded for running a horrible business the past five years. What’s more, he was one of the most relentless owners pushing to screw the players in the 2011 lockout. The new CBA he helped create is a big reason the Heat fell apart, allowing this to happen. It’s pretty gross to think about it that way. You could also bring up his psychotic Comic Sans letter, his predatory loans company, or even just his shit-eating grin. Nobody wants to think about how happy he must be right now.

But you know what? I don’t care about any of that. We can worry about the logistics of the Cavs roster in a few months. It doesn’t really matter to me whose sources broke this story — must credit Matt Borcas for all cupcake-related rumors — or when it happened. I don’t even care about Dan Gilbert. Let’s just focus on the basics here. This is all very cool.

It’s the best possible ending for LeBron’s free agency. This is 10,000 times more interesting than watching him go back to Miami to try to drag Wade to another title. Now we get to watch him go home and try to be a hero, and I don’t even care how clichéd and ridiculous that sounds, because that’s what’s happening.

Dan Le Batard made this point Thursday: Everywhere LeBron goes he brings all kinds of hope with him for millions of people rooting for him. That’s why it was so cruel when he left, and that’s why it’s so cool that we get to watch him go back.

It won’t stay like this. The season will bring all the same scrutiny we saw with the Heat in 2010, and there’s a chance this ends badly. Everyone who loves this move now thought the Heat were destined to fail in 2010. It’ll definitely be tough for LeBron to leave Cleveland again, so there’s that layer, too. There’s an impending lockout in 2017, LeBron will want more money, and in a few years it could be the Cavs looking to improve the roster without any real options. There will be plenty of opportunities for him to become a villain all over again, or a choke artist, or to get hurt.

But just enjoy this for now. Don’t overthink it.

The best moments in sports are the ones that don’t totally seem real — whether it’s Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, or the helmet catch, or Alabama-Auburn last year. These are stories and endings where real life is crazier than anything you could ever make up.

That’s what the past few weeks have been like as we watched all of this fall into place. It’s going to take a few days before any of this actually feels like real life. There was no history-altering jumper, or a Super Bowl, or some stadium losing its shit. We watched it happen in slow motion instead.

The only other time we’ve experienced anything like it was in 2010. Starting with that collapse in the Celtics series, and then meetings with five teams, rumors every day … and ending with a television special that was so tone-deaf and ridiculous and cruel to Cleveland that we’ll remember it forever. Even after two titles, “The Decision” is still the first thing most people think of when they hear LeBron James’s name.

Now they’ll think of this.

Filed Under: NBA, Lebron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Andrew Sharp, David Blatt, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley, Dan Gilbert, LeBron James Free Agency, 2014 NBA Free Agency

Headshot

Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp