The Cleveland Cavaliers were awarded the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft Lottery for the third time in the last four years Tuesday, and the beleaguered franchise’s string of good fortune could help signal the return of prodigal son LeBron James.
It’s been four years and two championships since James spurned the Cavs in a messy divorce that ended with him joining the Miami Heat in 2010, but with the 29-year-old in the heart of his prime and Cleveland desperate to get back on a winning track, the team and city might preach a “forgive-and-forget” mantra this summer.
James can build on his legacy and fortune simultaneously, by continuing to win championships. After years of accumulating high draft choices, the Cavs may have better pieces in play than Miami.
In terms of his earnings and legacy, it may also be in James’s best interest to jettison the Heat in favor of a younger, more on-the-rise team like the Cavs. According to Forbes rankings from a year ago, James was the fourth highest-earning athlete in the world last year with $59.8 million in salary and endorsements.
Cries for James to return to Cleveland have remained steady ever since he left, and his highly contentious departure in 2010 is the only thing NBA fans have held against him during his 11-year career. James can opt-out of his current deal with the Heat on July 1, and Cleveland will have the cap space this summer to sign him to a maximum level deal.
In an interview on ESPN Radio, Charles Barkley took a swipe at Miami fans while pushing for James to rejoin the team he spurned in 2010.
"I've always thought he was going to go back to Cleveland," Barkley said. "Nobody dislikes LeBron. I think LeBron made a huge mistake with that 'Decision' crap. He's come back and since admitted that. That's the only thing people hold against LeBron.
"He's a great player, a great person. I hope he goes back to Cleveland. Those fans in Miami are not real fans, those fans in Cleveland are real fans. I've always hoped he would go back to Cleveland. That would be a great way to finish his career."
From a basketball and championship-winning perspective, Cleveland had little to offer James when compared to the Heat in 2010. Miami’s squad already sported superstar guard Dwyane Wade, and the promise of forward Chris Bosh holding down the frontcourt. Cleveland had Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison and well-past-his-prime Shaquille O’Neal.
Aside from his obvious dominance on the court, James has meant guaranteed dollars for any team he joins.
The Heat’s valuation increased by 17 percent in 2010 to $425 million after James’s first season in South Beach, compared to a 26-percent plunge to $355 million for the Cavs after the King's departure.
Miami’s value has surged to $770 million, the seventh-highest in the NBA, and an 81 percent increase over four years. The Cavs are now No. 19 with a current value of $515 million, showing significant growth of 35 percent since James left but it could have been substantially larger if he had stayed.
Now James could decide to spend the rest of his prime with Cleveland’s young stars, rather than watch Wade’s knees debilitate even more. Wade’s scoring numbers were expected to drop when James arrived in 2010, but nagging knee injuries limited him to 54 total games and 19 points per game this season, and at 32 Wade’s reached the point of his career when shooting guards begin an inauspicious decline. Bosh has been durable and a steady provider down low since arriving in South Beach, but his presence alone won’t be enough to assure James the chance of equaling greats like Michael Jordan (6) or Kobe Bryant (5) in career titles.
The Cavs on the other hand have top young point guard Kyrie Irving, a talented, albeit inconsistent, guard in Dion Waiters, and the chance to add the likes of Kansas’s Andrew Wiggins or seven-footer Joel Embiid, or Duke’s Jabari Parker with the top overall selection in June. That is of course if the Cavs don’t trade the No. 1 pick, which is considered the most coveted since James’s draft class in 2003.
Cleveland also has $32 million devoted to salaries next season and only $6 million for the 2014-15 season, which could make them major players in free agency when Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge are expected to hit the open market. Much of that would be eaten up by James should he sign, but he could take a more team friendly contract like he did in Miami in order to secure more talent around him to make the Cavs a contender for years to come.
A player’s career is largely measured by their total number of titles, not individual accolades like the NBA’s MVP award. James immeasurably improved his legacy after capturing his first title in Miami in 2012, and jumped to rarefied air when he won a second straight last season. A third straight title this season would link James to the players he’s most often compared to, Jordan and Bryant, who have arguably the strongest brands in sports.
Most experts believe James's main reason for leaving Cleveland was to win championships, and at the time it appeared he had done everything he could for the Cavs. During his final five years in Cleveland, James took a patchwork team to the playoffs each season, making the Eastern Conference Finals twice and the NBA Finals once. Not to mention the increased media presence and recognition James brought to a franchise and market that had only made the playoffs once in the previous seven seasons before James arrived out of high school.
Of course, fences will also have to mend between James and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert.
Gilbert lambasted James in a public letter that claimed James “betrayed” the city, and guaranteed that Cleveland would win a title before Miami. Gilbert was obviously hurt by James’s actions, maybe as much as fans were, but he’ll likely understand that bringing James back into the fold as the Cavs' best chance of winning its first championship, and the first for the city of Cleveland since 1964 when the Browns won the NFL Championship.
It also may be James’s best chance at redemption.