NEW YORK – As a Western Conference contender disassembled out of frugality and panic on Wednesday, Miami Heat star LeBron James should've been recalibrating the realities of the free-agent frenzy awaiting him in 2014. For him, the economics of the sport keep reaffirming that three's a crowd now, that James will have to choose a partnership with one superstar teammate.
The Super Friends scenarios are gone, replaced with the NBA's vision of talent spreading out to the have-nots. James Harden leaves Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for Houston. And months before it was necessary to do so, before the Memphis Grizzlies could make a run in the Western Conference playoffs, they moved Rudy Gay to Toronto and out of Zach Randolph's and Marc Gasol's lives.
James has helped to make it so profitable to be an NBA owner that Robert Pera bought the Grizzlies, hired a front office of novices, ran out a successful scouting staff and began to unload genuine assets for pennies on the dollar. Just recently, James tweeted, "What the hell we have lockout for?" upon learning of the $525 million selling price of the Sacramento Kings.
Why? Simple: The NBA's owners wanted to break up the super teams and create a system that'll assure Pera can mismanage the Grizzlies into oblivion and still make money on the enterprise. The max contract system makes James the most underpaid athlete on the planet, and soon it will do something else, too: It makes most precarious his future with the Miami Heat.
James' agent and childhood friend, Rich Paul, born and raised and still living in Cleveland, has been privately telling people for two years of his intrigue with bringing the prodigal son back as the conquering hero in Cleveland. James will ultimately make the call to return – just like he made it to leave – rest assured that the most important voices in his ear will be partial to Cleveland again.
Klutch Sports – Paul's new agency – calls Cleveland home. And its client, Tristian Thompson, would assuredly benefit with an eventual rich contract extension should Paul deliver James back to the Cavaliers.
"Riley has never given them the run of the place in Miami," one high-level associate of James' inner-circle said, "and they could all be back in business together in Cleveland. For Rich and [business manager] Maverick [Carter], they all see the benefits of getting the credit for bringing LeBron home again."
As significant as sentiment could play into the possibility of James returning to the Cavaliers, there's an understanding that as Dwyane Wade pushes into his 30s, past his prime, Cleveland's Kyrie Irving will emerge as the planet's preeminent point guard in two years.
. . .
To return to the Cavaliers, James has to believe that general manager Chris Grant can construct a champion around him. Irving is fabulous, but that wouldn't be enough. As much as anything, that's the biggest thing that Heat will have going for them. In the end, Riley and Miami owner Micky Arison will make it hard to walk away, because there will forever be a commitment, a competency, in South Beach. How long Riley will stay on the job is a different matter, and that uncertainty will play a part, too.
James has been thinking about a return to Cleveland for most of his time with the Heat, including the night of his cable TV special. He had second-guessed himself that night, but once Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert released that vitriolic letter, James understood: There was no turning back.
Rich Paul has stayed back in Cleveland to run his business and now represents Thompson, the Cavaliers' young forward. As Yahoo! Sports reported last February, James' associates had been feeling out members of the Cavaliers organization on a possible return in 2014.
For now, though, James understands that he'll get two more chances at a championship with Wade and Bosh, and that's precious in this evolving NBA landscape. These Heat aren't perfect, but they're well-constructed, well-coached, and there are never mixed messages from their ownership and management. It's all about winning, all the time.
Whatever James does in 2014, he'll make a decision with the highest of basketball IQs on what will work and what won't. Once again, the breaking down of this Grizzlies roster is a reminder that every NBA star had better make sure he understands the track records of the owners and executives with whom he's turning over his future.