Casual basketball fans would probably chuckle at the though of LeBron James playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers again. After what he did to the fans and the city with the spectacle of The Decision, it seems unfathomable. But people who know stuff think the possibility is real, and could come as soon as the 2014–2015 season1
Why Would LeBron Leave?
First and foremost, LeBron James has an early termination (ETO) clause in his contract that he can exercise after either of the next two seasons. It’s pretty much 100% guaranteed that he will do it one of those two years barring a major injury. That doesn’t mean he will for sure leave the Heat, since he could just do it to sign a new long term deal with as much leverage as possible. The simple point to retain from this though, is that LeBron is essentially a free agent, if he wants to be, anytime after the upcoming season.
As of right now, LeBron is 28, Chris Bosh is 29 and Dwyane Wade is 31. The Heat are the easy favorites to win the title again next season, but this time next year every one of those guys will be a year older. Wade has battled injuries and has only played at least 75 games 3 of the last 7 seasons. It would also seem unlikely that Wade would leave the Heat on his own accord at this point since he is essentially the franchise’s all-time best player. Bosh’s problem is more that he just isn’t reliable, and if his skills start to decline fast he will be very overpaid for the type of big man he is. The takeaway here is that the supporting cast the Heat can provide over the next few seasons have some big question marks.
The one guarantee is that if the Heat win their third title this season, LeBron isn’t going anywhere. He won’t walk away from a streak like that, and plus if they are winning, the guys around him are obviously good enough. If the Heat were to not win the title this year, all bets are off. The likelihood of winning one in 2015–2016 would be much less, and LeBron’s interest in moving on might be increased.
If LeBron James were to decide to leave the Heat, all 29 other teams would be interested. Every. Single. One. But LeBron isn’t just going to go anywhere. Because of the way the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) works now, no team can offer more dollars per year (unless they are low on cap space) than another. The Heat have the slight advantage of being able to offer LeBron an extra year, but for someone of his caliber at this stage of his career, that is unlikely to be the deal breaker.
Miami is no doubt a great place to live, and I am sure that LeBron likes it there. But I am fairly certain he has said that he plans to retire back to Ohio at some point, and that indicates he wants to live there2. Why not get a jump on moving back?
Then there’s the legacy thing. LeBron would never have left Cleveland if the prospects of winning a championship were better there at that time. The consensus always has been that was the only reason he left. The Heat are a newer franchise (started in the late ’80s) and were Dwyane Wade’s team (and might still be). If LeBron wins 5 more rings, it doesn’t matter where he does it, his legacy is cemented at an basketball level. But nothing would feel better to him than winning a title with his hometown team, and righting the “wrong” from 2010. One would have to think that Cleveland or Miami are 99% the most likely scenarios3
The biggest reason though, might be the team. Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving is one of the best young players in the NBA and on his way to being an elite point guard. He could be the 2nd best player on a championship team in a couple of years. The team signed Andrew Bynum to a contract that was universally panned. But it’s worth noting that only the first year of that contract is guaranteed, which means if he sucks they cut him loose, and if he’s the Bynum of old you just nabbed a potential top 20 player with the best player in the world looking for a new place to land.
Add in recent draft picks Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller and 2013 #1 overall pick Anthony Bennett and this team has potential. Everyone one of those guys (plus Irving) are under team control through at least the summer of 2016 (read: 3 more seasons) meaning that they will be cheap and locked in. The team’s only other guaranteed contract beyond this season is Earl Clark, who has two years left.
The Cavs are a super young team with enough cap space to chase two max guys next summer. Presumably LeBron could recruit almost anyone he wanted to play with him, Meaning, if he wanted to, he could bring Chris Bosh with him. Or he could grab a veteran like Pau Gasol or Danny Granger. Or he could go grab any number of role players or secondary guys. Really just one of the Thompson/Waiters/Zeller/Bennett group needs to emerge as the “third best guy on a championship team” with one other one emerging as “defense stopper and/or rebounder” and this team has a massive foundation.
It may seem crazy to picture LeBron back in a Cavs uniform, but if Wade starts to decline and the Heat don’t win a championship this year, the door is definitely open. And there probably isn’t a better young team in the NBA with the cap space to make a movie. Factor in it being James’ hometown, and it’s kind of a slam dunk.