When you are the most powerful figure in your sport, you are afforded luxuries others can only dream about.
That was the case for LeBron James in the summer of 2014. Lucrative offers came rolling in from the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, and Phoenix Suns. James had the choice of any of the cities with each team offering the highest possible salary they could afford, and all making pitches as to how James could win titles with their organization.
But James decided to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that drafted him in 2003 and the city that was not far from where he was raised. To some, the decision to leave Miami for the Midwest city came as a major shock after his very public “Decision” to take his talents to South Beach in 2010. Cleveland fans burned his jersey in effigy, and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote a scathing letter denouncing the superstar.
The very idea of James returning to Cleveland after such vitriol seemed preposterous, considering the advantages of Miami. The Heat could offer him more years on his contract in a state that doesn’t have income tax. James would also get to play with friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in a sunny beach city and under the guide of legendary basketball mind Pat Riley and affable head coach Erik Spoelstra.
So why did James choose Cleveland? It was actually a more obvious decision that one might think.
New talent around him
Since James left, the Cavs have rebuilt their roster through lottery picks. The team has landed five Top 4 selections in recent years, including three No.1 overall picks, to form perhaps the best collection of young players in the NBA. With point guard Kyrie Irving, shooting guard Dion Waiters, power forwards Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett, and recent No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, the Cavs would enter the 2014-2015 season with a great deal of optimism, even before James signed.
What Cleveland was lacking was a seasoned leader and a go-to guy. Now they have one in James. He will immediately become the top scoring option, and the supporting cast will happily play complimentary roles to the most talented player in the NBA.
The Cavs also have plenty of draft picks and lots of trade bait to acquire a veteran. Star big man Kevin Love could be dealt to the Cavs as early as this weekend.
Smart Public Relations Move
James took a great deal of public criticism for leaving a hard-luck sports town like Cleveland. The city has never won a Super Bowl or an NBA Finals, and the last time they won a World Series was in 1948.
In 2010, James not only left the Cavs, but teamed up with established superstars in a warm-weather town because of the difficulty in luring a free agent to Cleveland. Pundits like Charles Barkley were quick to put down James for joining forces with stars Wade and Bosh as opposed to winning a title as “the man.”
By returning to Cleveland for unfinished business, James can be a hero for a city sorely lacking in star power in recent years. He will also be viewed as the savior for a city with a tradition of coming up short. Unlike Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant, James can lead a small-market team to glory. James also comes off as more of down-to-earth star for choosing blue-collar Cleveland over glitzy Miami.
Heat Cooling Off
While James won two titles with Miami, the prospects for the Heat to return to the Finals didn’t look as promising as in recent years. Wade, 32, and Bosh, 30, have logged a great deal of minutes since James arrived, with the Heat reaching the Finals four straight times. Wade suffered through injuries and saw his scoring dip considerably in recent years, while Bosh has seen his rebounding average plummet from 10.8 per game in 2009-2010 to 6.6 in 2013-2014.
Both Wade and Bosh are still quality players, but James was looking beyond next season and it seemed clear that Wade and Bosh’s best years were behind them. The Heat also seemed to lack the right role players to lift James to another title.
The Heat may have also become predictable. After four seasons together and few notable changes, opponents seemed to better figure out ways to beat Miami. The Heat’s win total dipped from 66 in 2012-2013, to 54 in 2013-2014, and Miami was defeated in five games in the 2014 NBA Finals by the San Antonio Spurs.
Why Not The Lakers, Mavs Or Suns?
The decision to stay in the Eastern Conference was simple: it’s easier to reach the Finals. Had James decided to go out West, not only would he have to deal with the Spurs again, but also the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have reigning MVP Kevin Durant.
In the East, the only real competition the Cavs will have is the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. Neither is expected to give Cleveland a harder time than the Spurs or Thunder. By playing in the East, James has a better shot of at least going to the Finals. James has made five appearances in the Finals while playing in the East, and he no doubt feels more comfortable competing in a conference that only had two 50-win teams in 2013-2014.
James’s departure for Miami in 2010 was a smart business decision. He chose to play with Wade and Bosh over the talent he had around him in Cleveland. Now that he has won two rings, he can return to his home.
There is a great deal of pressure on sports superstars to win. Now that the scrutiny is off James to win titles, he can enjoy his life around his family. James’s wife recently posted an Instagram photo of Akron with the caption: “Home sweet home!! The countdown is real! #330.″
James noted that importance of other things than basketball in his first-person essay in Sports Illustrated.
"My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball," James wrote in SI.com. "I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."