After days of speculation, hesitation, rumors, and preemptive assumptions, LeBron James announced today through a first-person piece in Sports Illustrated that he will return to Cleveland to play for the Cavaliers.
James, a native of Akron, Ohio, began his career in Cleveland, after being drafted out of high school, going first overall to his hometown team in the 2003 NBA Draft. He was part of a class that included Miami Heat teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and fellow free agent Carmelo Anthony. After seven seasons in Cleveland, with only one NBA Finals appearance and no titles to show for it, James departed to join Bosh and Wade in Miami, becoming part of the so-called “Big Three”.
That “Big Three” were together for the past four seasons, appearing in the NBA Finals all four years and winning the Finals twice, in 2012 and 2013. The 2012 title was both expected and nearly painless, winning the best-of-seven series in five games over the Oklahoma City Thunder. A year later, it took a miraculous and legendary comeback to stay alive in Game Six, before winning it all in another close game in the series finale against the San Antonio Spurs. As it would turn out, LeBron’s last game in a Heat uniform was also against the Spurs, as San Antonio avenged the heartbreak of the previous June, beating the Heat in five games this time around.
At the start of the summer, many observers, including myself, didn’t see James leaving Miami as any kind of possibility. I didn’t think he would be willing to leave what he has built in Miami, with his friends and teammates, under the direction of a Hall-of-Famer in Pat Riley. Additionally, there had to be a sour taste in the mouths of everyone in the Heat organization after the humiliation of three straight blowout losses, with two coming at home, to fall in the Finals.
My initial theory when James opted out of his Heat contract, which had included, from the start, an “early termination option” for this summer, after his fourth season in Miami, was that he was simply planning to sign a new, restructured contract, along with Wade and Bosh, which would allow the Heat to pick up other supporting players in various roles, and make them better than ever. As other teams, including Cleveland, began making roster moves to clear up money for a potential run at signing James, I thought that it was even a possibility that James had opted out simply to give other teams the hope they could sign him, leading them to weaken themselves trying to make room for him, and thus making the potential competition for James and the Heat weaker.
Then the Cavaliers were said to be believing James was listening to their recruiting pitch. And suddenly, the sports media world (particularly ESPN) was thrust into a frenzy, asking “Where will he go?” and “When will he decide?”
Everyone was looking for potential clues as to where James would decide to play. Every move made by LeBron, or anyone within his inner circle, was scrutinized without end. For instance, large moving trucks appeared outside James’s Miami home to move his cars, which many took as a sign he was moving to Cleveland, until a reporter pointed out on Twitter that he moves his cars every summer (he has kept an offseason home in Ohio even while playing in Miami). Also, a web developer pointed out that several pages on lebronjames.com, James’s official website, had been developed without content, and were waiting to be posted, with the Cavaliers colors of scarlet, gold, and dark blue. This claim may have been accurate, but at the time many were skeptical of if the discovery had any meaning.
As the first days of July (also the first days on NBA free agency) unfolded, I gradually came to believe that he was, in fact, at least considering a return to Cleveland. By Wednesday, ESPN seemed to be hinting that the return was certainly possible, and maybe even likely. ESPN’s Chris Broussard even indicated there was, in his estimation, an “85% chance” James would sign with Cleveland.
As the tide shifted in Cleveland’s favor, many experts expected a decision to be announced before LeBron’s trip to the World Cup Final this Sunday in Brazil. After James met with Heat executives, including Riley, on Wednesday, I had a feeling that an announcement was imminent by Thursday night or Friday morning. Thursday morning, more than one reporter claimed that the police outside James’s Ohio house were expecting a 3:30 pm announcement, although that rumor was later denied.
Suddenly, Friday morning, instead of ESPN’s reporters and their “multiple sources” announcing James’s decision, one way or the other, it came out in an article published by James and journalist Lee Jenkins on SI.com, the website of Sports Illustrated.
Four years ago, James announced his landing spot after an equally wild free agency period in a highly criticized hour-long special on ESPN, known as “The Decision”. This time, having learned from his mistakes, James’s latest decision was given to his fans, as well as his haters, in the form of an open essay, which you can read here.
LeBron began by speaking of his relationship with northeastern Ohio, and continued by chronicling how difficult a decision he had to make to leave Cleveland for Miami in 2010, defending the move, and thanking his Heat teammates as well as coach Erik Spoelstra and Riley for helping to make his four years in Miami such a success.
He continued by saying he left Cleveland to win championships, with the intention of eventually retiring a Cavalier. In returning to Cleveland, he said, his goal is still to win championships, although he admits he is realistic and realizes that with the young roster the Cavs have, winning titles will require patience.
That roster certainly includes some very good young players. Cleveland has had the top pick in three of the last four drafts, winning the draft lottery this year despite only narrowly missing the playoffs. Kyrie Irving has already found his way to stardom, winning MVP at the most recent NBA All-Star Game in February. Irving’s two all-star appearances the last two seasons are the only times he has played as a teammate of James, although James already seems like a big brother to Irving. The most recent top pick, former Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins, is also expected to be a superstar.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for the Cavs is the coach. David Blatt was hired this offseason, with no NBA head coaching experience. The 55-year old Boston native and Princeton graduate has made a career of coaching in Europe, winning this year’s Euroleague title with Maccabi Tel Aviv, and being honored as Euroleague Coach of the Year. He also led the Russian national team to a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London. Many around the NBA believe he will be an excellent coach for a team that is, for the most part, very young, with the glaring exception of its new star, LeBron James.
This team will win titles. It may not be immediate, although some are already picking them to win the Eastern Conference this coming season. The East, however, is much weaker than the strong Western Conference, which includes at least four very legitimate title contenders (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, L.A. Clippers, Houston) and others who certainly could be very good (Portland, Dallas, Golden State, and the L.A. Lakers if they’re healthy). Over time, with the star power of James, Irving, and Wiggins, as well as the other role players already on the roster and anyone they may add in the future, this team will surely bring a championship to northeast Ohio.
Potential titles in Cleveland for LeBron could be even more gratifying, even from a purely basketball standpoint, as it would potentially show how good James is, and would surely be harder earned than anything he did with his high-profile teammates in Miami. When you add the personal standpoint for James, growing up in nearby Akron, and beginning his career with the Cavaliers, any potential title won in Cleveland would certainly be the highlight of his career.
Keep in mind that the city of Cleveland is thirsty for a championship. The Cavaliers have not won a title since their founding in 1970, with the 2007 conference championship during James’s previous stint being the highlight of their existence. The Indians haven’t won the World Series since 1954, 60 years ago, led by the starting rotation of Early Wynn, Mike Garcia, Bob Lemon, and Bob Feller. The Browns won the city’s most recent title, in 1964, 50 years ago, in the era of Jim Brown and Lou Groza. That was before the Super Bowl era of NFL play.
Interestingly enough, contrary to popular belief, Bosh re-signed with Miami just hours after James’s decision was announced. The popular theory was that Bosh would stay if James stayed, but would leave for Houston, who had offered him a 4-year, $88 million contract, if James went to Cleveland. The Heat, however, gave him a longer, richer contract, possibly after being informed they wouldn’t have James under contract anymore. Wade is widely believed to be staying in Miami, although a report surfaced today that the Chicago Bulls, Wade’s hometown team, may be trying to lure him to the Windy City.
I don’t usually write about the NBA on this blog (I’m more of a college basketball guy), but this story seemed to transcend the game of basketball. For many, this was about home, family, loyalty, the return of an icon, and even forgiveness. Cleveland can finally move on from losing their native son in 2010; from the scathing letter written about James by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert; from the jersey burnings of free agencies past; from the boos when James returned as an opponent.
But, as the fairy tales say, “they all lived happily ever after.” A title, or multiple titles, would seemingly make this story continue to have an already happy ending. The hometown player, coming back home, and leading a team and a city to one or more championships 50 years overdue? It’s almost like he signed with the Lakers or the Clippers…because that’s the type of stories you only hear in Hollywood.
LeBron James Career Statistics
2003-04 (CLE): 20.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, NBA Rookie of the Year
Cavaliers: 35-47, missed playoffs
2004-05 (CLE): 27.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 7.2 APG
Cavaliers: 42-40, missed playoffs
2005-06 (CLE): 31.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 6.6 APG
Cavaliers: 50-32, lost to Pistons in second round
2006-07 (CLE): 27.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 6.0 APG
Cavaliers: 50-32, lost to Spurs in NBA Finals
2007-08 (CLE): 30.0 PPG (led NBA), 7.9 RPG, 7.2 APG
Cavaliers: 45-37, lost to Celtics in second round
2008-09 (CLE): 28.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 7.2 APG, NBA MVP
Cavaliers: 66-16, lost to Magic in Eastern Conf. Finals
2009-10 (CLE): 29.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 8.6 APG, NBA MVP
Cavaliers: 61-21, lost to Celtics in second round
2010-11 (MIA): 26.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 7.0 APG
Heat: 58-24, lost to Mavericks in NBA Finals
2011-12 (MIA): 27.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 6.2 APG, NBA MVP
Heat: 46-20, defeated Thunder in NBA Finals
2012-13 (MIA): 26.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 7.3 APG, NBA MVP
Heat: 66-16, defeated Spurs in NBA Finals
2013-14 (MIA): 27.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 6.4 APG
Heat: 54-28, lost to Spurs in NBA Finals