The discourse around LeBron James has never been all that rational. It was stupid four years ago to build a one-hour television show around one sentence, and it revealed a baffling cluelessness from LeBron and his team about how “The Decision” would torture the NBA’s saddest fan base.
But it wasn’t some unforgivable, evil sin. It didn’t make him a bad person. He was just a 25-year-old with green advisers working through the toughest choice of his life. James didn’t want to leave Cleveland. He wanted to win, and he correctly concluded that joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami would give him the best chance to do that. Primes go by in a blink. Take Carmelo Anthony: 30, scrambling to find a team that might get out of the first round before his considerable skills erode.
James melted down in the Finals against Dallas a year later. It was a legitimately disturbing performance, and it colored the NBA world’s collective perception of its best player. He was a choker who shrank from the moment, unwilling to “impose his will” during the most important games on the league’s grandest stage.
In reality, James’s playoff résumé was strong aside from two strange series — the 2011 Finals and the 2010 conference semifinals against Boston, when he shot poorly amid rumors of an elbow injury. But the paralysis against Dallas and the vitriol from “The Decision” gathered into a wave of gleeful mockery that crashed over all of the other playoffs in which LeBron excelled — the 25 consecutive points against Detroit, the near-upset of the 2008 Celtics, the colossal crunch-time plays that propelled James to an insane 38-8-8 line against Orlando in 2009. They vanished from collective memory. The NBA world was largely incapable of talking about James in a deep way. It was all black-and-white.
LeBron’s essay in Sports Illustrated announcing his return to Cleveland was touching, mature, and confident. He got what he had gone to Miami to get: championship rings. But he also got the experience of playing with two superstar friends, living in a beautiful climate, raising a family, working with a creative coaching staff that unleashed him as a small-ball power forward, and living a rock-star life. It was a good professional choice, and bolting in 2010, when all three of the stars were free agents and Wade’s team had cap room, might have been LeBron’s only chance to make it.
And now he’s ready to head home, to deliver a title to a long-suffering sports region, live in a place he has always loved, and establish himself as a community builder there. It’s a wonderful story.
But LeBron doesn’t need redemption or approval. He never did anything wrong. He has played his hardest, risen up in giant games, and pursued fulfilling professional experiences. Returning to Cleveland is just another one of those fulfilling professional experiences, the one for which he is ready now. It will be hard for him to ever switch teams again, having written so lovingly about lifting up Ohio and how he had always planned to return there later in his career.
Yeah, James held up NBA business for 11 days while he decided his future. Teams were angry. Some had assets that evaporated during the wait, including the Warriors, who considered Brandon Bass and other names in exchange for a trade exception that expired yesterday at midnight. But everyone takes time to mull hard professional decisions. Those are times to be careful, to bounce ideas off of everyone in your inner circle. LeBron inconvenienced the league, but it was just that — an inconvenience — and smart teams did whatever business they could in the interim. Not everything has to be a referendum on LeBron James’s personality.
This is a triumph for the Cavaliers, who never gave up, executed some deft last-minute cap-clearing moves, and brought the world’s greatest player home. Of course, they needed some luck along the way. They lucked into three no. 1 overall picks in four years, including one they scored via the Clippers and a second that saw them leap miraculously from the no. 9 slot in the draft. And they might have missed out on that lottery altogether had their free-agency signings from last summer, Jarrett Jack and Andrew Bynum, not gone bust. And they also needed Wade to break down in June, again and again, because James would not have left had Wade remained a top-10 overall player.
(Miami’s front office was surprised that James left, by the way. They did not imagine this would happen so soon, even after the Spurs eviscerated them in the Finals, and they are reeling today.)
The Cavs needed the league to enact an ultrapunitive luxury tax, the sort of thing that Dan Gilbert championed during the lockout and the primary reason that Micky Arison, the Heat’s owner, voted against the collective bargaining agreement in 2011. Arison released Mike Miller to cut his tax bill last season, and now James is reportedly luring Miller, a close friend, to join him in Cleveland. The cap-and-tax system left Miami no resources to sign impact players this summer, even after Wade and Udonis Haslem opted out of overpriced contracts to give Pat Riley wiggle room.
And so now the team-building begins in Cleveland, where the Cavaliers enter next season as the favorite to make the Finals. One player can mean that much, especially when his departure leaves the incumbent conference champion lying in rubble.
There isn’t quite as much rubble after Bosh shocked the NBA by spurning a four-year max offer from Houston to stay in Miami under a five-year max contract worth nearly $120 million — essentially the same choice that Anthony is facing in New York. The Heat will likely re-sign Wade, and depending on exact contract numbers for Wade and Haslem, the Heat could wring out in the neighborhood of $14 million in cap space to sign a third major cog. That money won’t be enough on its own to persuade Anthony, but the Heat could nab a nice complementary player — Luol Deng, Trevor Ariza, or perhaps even Lance Stephenson.
They could also try to find a traditional center, an element they never really nailed down with LeBron around. Miami made up for its lack of size by playing a frenzied trapping defense, but they began toning it down last season, and they may undergo a complete overhaul into a more conservative defense now that James is gone. Having a rim protector on the back line would be nice.
Regardless, Wade is almost a lock to come back now that Bosh is sticking around. That removes a bit of the sudden free-agent intrigue that rippled out from LeBron’s choice today. Chicago was looking at Wade, per Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, though their cap situation is fluid. The Thunder might have poked around with the midlevel exception, and with Wade gone, the mutual interest between Oklahoma City and Pau Gasol may be consummated.
The Heat have incentive to be good next season, since they still owe a first-round pick to Cleveland left over from the original LeBron sign-and-trade in 2010. That’ll hurt a lot less if it’s outside the lottery. That pick is top-10 protected, meaning the Heat keep it if it falls within the top 10. That gives the Heat a strong incentive in the other direction — to tank and begin an earnest rebuild. Pat Riley is choosing to fight instead, and though that’s the right moral stand, the Heat need to be careful about trapping themselves in mediocrity. Wade and Bosh are both in their early thirties, and though Bosh’s shooting should help him withstand the aging process better than Wade, both of their contracts could look ugly in three or four years. But a lot can happen between now and then.
Miami refusing to cave also creates one net extra playoff team in the East, bad news for that bundle of teams in the middle — Detroit, Toronto, Brooklyn, New York, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Washington. Someone is going unhappily into the lottery next season. Not Philly. Philly will skip there, whistling a tune.
Bosh’s choice is a disaster for Houston, which gave away Jeremy Lin and a first-round pick to the Lakers to lustily open up the final chunk of cap space for Bosh. He would have fit perfectly alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden, but Bosh likes life in Miami, and he has surely seen the YouTube videos of Harden’s defense. At least Houston nabbed an extra pick, one that could fall in the lottery, in their other cap-clearing move — the trade of Omer Asik to New Orleans.
The Rockets will be sitting on max-level cap space for about 36 more hours, when the deadline arrives by which they must match Dallas’s monster three-year, $45 million offer sheet on Chandler Parsons. Houston allowed Parsons to become a free agent one year earlier than necessary, a move that had the whole league assuming the Rockets and Parsons had an unofficial agreement in how Parsons would navigate free agency. That doesn’t appear to have been the case, and it’s possible that Houston has badly misplayed its hand here, even if letting Parsons into the market a year early was a wink-wink reward for helping Houston land Dwight Howard; Parsons and Howard have the same agent.
You can bet Daryl Morey will work his ass off to sign someone into that space while it lasts, even if he has to overpay a bit. He’s in desperation mode now, having tossed away time, players, and draft picks in the Bosh chase. Nabbing Bosh would have put Houston right alongside San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the Western Conference hierarchy. They’ll still be a very good team without him, and they could still have a chunk of cap space even if they don’t manage to sign a free agent before matching Parsons’s $15 million deal.
But the West is a bloodbath. Bosh could have put them over the top.
Cleveland, of course, plays in the East, which is a nice bonus for LeBron. He even gets flak for staying East, as if avoiding the West is a sign of weakness. News flash: Any player chasing a ring should avoid the West. Players know about the imbalance, and it factors into their decisions when they have comparable options in front of them. Winning the whole thing remains a challenge either way. James and the Heat trampled through the East for four years, faced seven-game series against both Indiana and Boston, and came a whisker away from going 1-3 in the Finals.
This isn’t going to be a cakewalk for Cleveland, though there are still so many moving parts as we head into the weekend, especially surrounding a certain 3-point bombing forward who is miserable in Minnesota. The Cavaliers’ roster is young and untested, with a new coach in David Blatt, who has never worked in the NBA. Rebuilding things around LeBron will be a challenge; it took a year and a fluke playoff injury to Bosh for a veteran Heat team to figure out the optimal use for him.
LeBron was basically a high pick-and-roll player the last time he was in Ohio, working within the shaky spacing of Mike Brown’s uncreative offense. (Pour one out for Brown and Chris Grant, fired just months before the Cavs accomplished things they could just as easily have done with that duo at the helm: miss the playoffs, preposterously win the lottery, and make the brainiac decision to clear space for LeBron James.)
James has become so much more since. He might be the league’s most vicious post-up player, too strong for wing defenders and unguardable when his big-man teammates aren’t mucking up the paint. He attacks from all angles now. He learned to be an off-ball cutter in Miami, and he remains one of the greatest passers ever.
That variety will serve him well in Blatt’s offense, which will incorporate lots of motion and Princeton-style sets. Kyrie Irving will have to learn to work off the ball more, and Dion Waiters, if he’s still around, will really have to learn to work off the ball more. Irving was a mediocre spot-up guy last season, shooting a can’t-believe-your-eyes 31 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, per Synergy Sports, but anyone who can hit off-the-bounce triples like he can will figure out how to nail open catch-and-shoot looks.
Irving is a fine lead ball handler, better in that respect now than Wade, and that should allow James to both conserve energy and flex all the other aspects of his game. Waiters and Irving could run second units while James sits.
Sussing out the big-man rotation will be the real challenge. James and the Heat thrived playing with Bosh as the only true big man on the floor, clearing the lane for James and Wade. Bosh learned to shoot 3s, and Shane Battier served as the nominal power forward, guarding the league’s bullies on one end and nailing corner triples on the other.
It’s unclear how the Cavs will replicate that, though nabbing Kevin Love would change everything. For now, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao are the starting big men, and that won’t cut it from a spacing perspective — especially as Andrew Wiggins works to prove his NBA 3-point shot, provided the Cavs don’t cave and put Wiggins into the Love trade talks. Varejao has developed a nice midranger and has long partnered well in the pick-and-roll with James, but he can’t step out beyond 18 feet or so.
Thompson’s hand switch made no real difference in his shooting beyond free throws, and his overall game plateaued last season. The Cavs face a tough decision with his potential contract extension, since every bit of cap flexibility will be crucial going forward, with at least two max deals on the books and a bundle of high-priced lottery picks.
Anthony Bennett could work as a Big Battier in a front-line tandem with Varejao, and he showed up to summer league this week in shape. But he’s 21 and coming off a lost rookie season, and no one has any clue what he can do at this level. The Cavs could also just roll out super-small lineups with LeBron as the true power forward — groups like Irving, Waiters, Wiggins, James, and Varejao/Thompson. The Heat went that route only selectively, since James in those kinds of alignments has to bang with big boys on defense. Preserving James’s body will only get more important as he gets older, with nearly 40,000 minutes and five trips to the Finals already on the odometer.
Getting Love would flip the whole equation. He has developed into perhaps the league’s premier high-volume big-man shooter, and playing with LeBron and Irving would limit the kind of closely contested 3s he had to take in Minnesota. He’s not a small-ball power forward, but the Heat only played small ball with Battier, a wing masquerading as a power forward, because they didn’t have a second big guy who could shoot like Bosh. The spacing is all that matters, and bringing in a legit power forward like Love to defend opposing bigs would give Cleveland more flexibility in moving LeBron around on defense.
Love played a decent amount of center in Minnesota, but those lineups mostly hemorrhaged points. Perhaps the Cavs could revisit that if they can find another strong perimeter defender to plug leaks up high.
Defense will be an issue here regardless of whether the Cavs can land Love. And they’ll have competition for him, especially if they are reluctant to include Wiggins in trade talks. The Warriors are still dithering about Klay Thompson, and the Bulls are primed as a potential suitor if their Carmelo Anthony free-agency dreams fall through. Houston could still be in the Love derby now that they’ve lost out on Bosh, and the Celtics, armed with yet another pick via the Jarrett Jack deal that allowed Cleveland to sign LeBron, have never stopped chasing him.
The Cavs may ultimately have to put Wiggins in the Love deal, since none of their other young guys carry much trade value. That would be painful; trading the no. 1 overall pick is a historical rarity. But Love is only 25, and has barely cracked 10,000 minutes due to some fluky injuries and Minnesota’s general suckiness. Irving is only 22, meaning a LeBron-Irving-Love trio is young enough to weather the loss of Wiggins. The Cavs will fight to keep him, and it will be fascinating to watch the Love derby unfold now.
The Cavs also don’t have a real rim protector. Bosh was a good stopgap in that regard on his best days, and the Heat got by defensively because James and Wade were athletic enough to work as shot blockers from the wing. James’s defense wasn’t as springy last season, Thompson is undersize, and Varejao is in decline. He’s still a hyperactive, whip-smart defender, but he’s 31, and he has cracked 40 games just once in the last four seasons.
Irving has been awful defensively his whole career, dying on picks like they were mile-high brick walls. Waiters’s commitment on that end comes and goes. Wiggins should be a plus defender, but he’s a rookie. Blatt is a taskmaster — and by all accounts a real talent — but this is going to be a challenge.
Upgrading the roster in free agency won’t be easy, either. Cleveland will be capped out once it signs LeBron and Wiggins, leaving only the small room exception and minimum contracts to fill out the supporting cast. If Cleveland doesn’t get Love, it’s slated to have only about $10 million in cap room next summer, and that doesn’t factor in any money for Thompson or the possibility that one of the extra picks that Memphis and Miami owe the Cavs actually gets sent over.
Dealing for Love would almost certainly leave Cleveland capped out next summer, since Love will be eligible for a larger max contract reserved for players who have logged at least seven years in the league. (Next season will be Love’s seventh.) But that’s fine. They’d still have the midlevel exception, and you shouldn’t need all that much help if you have Irving, LeBron, and Love. Holy hell. They also have extra picks coming from Memphis and Miami, and that Heat pick would become unprotected in 2017 — a juicy asset. That’s unlikely, since it’s top-10 protected in both 2015 and 2016, and the Heat seem a good bet now to pick outside that range in one of those two seasons.
That pick is just an extra bit of pain for Miami — the superfluous gunshot that movie villains fire into the already dead body, just to make sure it’s dead, or maybe just to mutilate it.
The Heat had all the leverage over Toronto and Cleveland in 2010, and they did not need to engage in sign-and-trade transactions for Bosh and LeBron. They did anyway, never assuming that the picks they gave up might fall in the top part of the draft.
The Heat also sent their 2013 first-round pick to Cleveland, and two more first-rounders to the Raptors. They got one of those Toronto picks back by dealing a future asset for Norris Cole, but in a twist that people forget, the second of those picks became Jonas Valanciunas. The Heat had originally acquired that pick from the Raptors in the 2009 Shawn Marion–Jermaine O’Neal swap between the teams, a key stepping stone to Miami eventually clearing a record amount of cap space in the summer of 2010.
The Raptors asked for that pick back in the Bosh sign-and-trade, and to their surprise, Miami gave it up. The Heat would do the last half-decade again in a snap, but in their rush to put their championship team together, they coughed up assets that would prove useful now. They also failed to find any meaningful player to supplement the roster, even waiving Patrick Beverley at one point.
Shabazz Napier and Josh McRoberts would have added some relative youth, and, man, what a blow to McRoberts, who committed to the Heat under the notion that LeBron would be in Miami. Players and teams almost never back out of verbal agreements settled during the moratorium, since it sets a precedent of dishonesty that everyone remembers next time around, but you almost wouldn’t blame McRoberts for bolting back to Charlotte. The Hornets would love to have him, and the Heat would open an extra $5.3 million in cap space if the deal falls apart.
But what a moment in the NBA! LeBron shifts the entire landscape on his own, but the domino effect this time might be unprecedented — Bosh, Love, Wade, Lin, Asik, Parsons, Pau, Swaggy P, Jordan Hill, and the rest of the free agents who can now work the market. This touches every franchise.
This is a seminal day for the league, a flashbulb moment that none of us will ever forget. But it’s above all a triumph for Cleveland, and a chance for James to carve out the back half of his career the way he wants. Let’s all catch our breath and enjoy the fight for the 2015 NBA title.