As free agency entered its second week, things got noticeably more tense throughout the NBA as the league waited for LeBron James to officially agree to return to Miami. It seemed as though James was suddenly unsure about the future of the Big Three and where he should spend the next four or five years of his career, the last contract he will sign in his prime. The possibility of him going to Cleveland increased as the official signing period began throughout the league, and just after noon on Friday, Sports Illustrated and Lee Jenkins posted a story confirming James will be returning to the team where he began his career.
What made this “decision” different than the first was not only the lack of spectacle that surrounded the announcement, but the reasons behind it. He no longer wanted to play with friends to try to create an artificial-seeming dynasty; rather, this time around, he wanted to play where he grew up, contribute to his hometown community, and raise a family where he was raised. I do not want to say he is going back to make up for past mistakes, because ultimately he had the right to leave Cleveland and have the opportunity to try something new with a couple of his besties. In the end, he leaves that experience with two championships and two MVPs, and – more importantly for Cleveland – a new appreciation for what he means to Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, and what the region means to him.
It was not like LeBron decided to go back purely for charity. Due to a combination of rebuilding and incredible luck, LeBron will join three other number-one picks on a team full of young talent/assets. Cleveland has automatically gone from lottery team to contender, and with the right moves and player development, they may go from contender to dynasty in a few short years. This older, more mature LeBron seems prepared to wait a year or two for this team to take the leap, but considering the way the East looks, LeBron will not have to wait and could be in the Finals by next June.
As a testament to his talent and influence, this decision will drastically change the NBA. Miami has gone from competing for a dynasty as one of the top teams in the league to rebuilding. They almost have to sign Dwyane Wade at this point after he opted out of his current deal and left $42 million on the table to try to open up roster space to improve the Heat and keep LeBron. They are also stuck with Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger, but otherwise they will be competing for an 8-seed at best next year as they try to fill out a team and replace James and Chris Bosh, who will most likely take max money in Texas and influence the balance in the Western Conference.
Miami’s best chance moving forward is to completely blow up the team, and pay Wade back for the three championships by letting him go somewhere where he can contribute off the bench, like Chicago. Unfortunately for him, that probably means signing a contract worth, at most, half of what he gave up in Miami. Regardless, the team that represented the East in last year’s finals will now have to push reset on all their plans.
This move also puts extra pressure on the competition for the other contenders to sign the top remaining free agents, particularly Carmelo Anthony, and will ultimately lead to a cascade of player movement that ultimately changes the hierarchy among teams throughout the league. It also seems like, for the time being, collusion among players may be decreasing as this generation of stars matures and their priorities shift from playing with friends to doing what is best for their lives. Ultimately, LeBron is at an advantage since any team he goes to will be a contender, but it will continue to be interesting to see how he continues to grow as a player and a person as he brings hope back home to Ohio.