The earliest it can happen is 17 months from now, but local sports talk radio is already diving into the subject every time it gets tired of discussing the NFL Draft, one of 37 Browns hires, the Super Bowl or Art Modell’s Hall of Fame candidacy.
We are talking, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, love him or hate him, about LeBron James’ potential return to the Cavaliers in the summer of 2014, which is the earliest he can opt out of his contract with the Miami Heat.
James can also opt out following the 2014-15 season or play out his contract, which fully expires after the 2015-16 season. The latter would be his 13th season in the league, meaning this conjecture could go on another 3½ years, but all signs point to the 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward becoming a free agent in July 2014.
Now, if you had asked me late on the night of July 9, 2010, immediately after “The Decision,” if I thought James would ever play for the Cavs again, I would have told you that you were out of your mind.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, whose scathing letter ripping James made him a hero of sorts in Cleveland and earned him a $100,000 fine from the NBA, would have used much stronger words.
But in February 2013, a season and a half before James can elect to test the free agent market, I think his return to Cleveland is a distinct possibility. It’s not a set-in-stone reality by any means, but a distinct possibility.
Before we go any further, let me say I have no great inside information to confirm this belief, though I did hear from a friend who heard from a friend who supposedly heard from Gloria James that her son wants to play for the Cavs again.
How’s that for some quality fourth-hand info, huh?
Regardless, my still Super Bowl Sunday-filled gut tells me there’s a decent chance James will be back. A number of people around the league that I respect and trust share this gut feeling at the moment.
In addition, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence — the Cavs’ young but improving roster, the organization’s ability to sign a superstar to a maximum contract under salary cap guidelines and James’ concern with his legacy — to back up that feeling.
We’ll go into that a bit more in a minute, but right now let’s also throw this out there: There are two people who can put an end to all this speculation any time they want by uttering a few simple sentences, and neither is saying anything.
All Gilbert has to do is pull a favorite reporter aside and give him the scoop. Or write another email, since the first one went over so well.
The message would be something like this: “For seven years, this organization catered to That Player’s every need and he stabbed us in the back. Nothing has changed since July 9, 2010. He will never wear a Cavs uniform again.”
OK, so it would probably be a more eloquent statement — and it would no doubt contain a quick mention that the Cavs were in no way tampering with a player under contract to another club — but you get the point, right? If Gilbert wants to end the rumors, he can.
Ditto for James, but he’s actually fed the rumor machine by stating he’s open to playing for the Cavs again.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, of course, but James in a Cavs uniform in 2014-15 makes sense from a basketball standpoint.
One, barring a totally unforeseen move, the organization will have plenty of cap room to sign him. Most other teams will have to rid themselves of a lot of contracts.
Two, James will be 29½ years old, entering his 12th NBA season, still in the prime of his career and, in theory, exactly the kind of superstar a presumably up-and-coming Cleveland team needs.
Three, James and Kyrie Irving would form a terrific one-two punch — sure, egos might have to be stroked, but that’s nothing new in the NBA — while guys like Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller, Alonzo Gee and a few other first-round picks not yet on the roster would form a great supporting cast.
In short, if James and Gilbert want it to happen, it can happen. Heck, if James and Gilbert want it to happen, it will happen.
Sure, it would take some serious spinning by Gilbert, James and the Cavs PR department to sell this as a happy marriage and not one of convenience, but that, too, is possible.
Gilbert would face numerous questions about the venomous email he sent in July 2010, so he’d have to find a way to, if not apologize, at least explain his feelings without coming off as a hypocrite.
He’d need to say something like this: “After the events of July 9, 2010, that’s how I felt. I was hurt, angry, emotional and raw. I reacted, and I can’t change that. With the perspective of time, I can see how LeBron might have felt. But LeBron is also older and wiser than he was four years ago. We’ve both learned and grown from the situation. We aren’t perfect people, but I’m 100 percent confident we can work together, along with Kyrie Irving and all our other great players and coaches, and bring a championship to Cleveland.”
Then it would be LeBron’s turn to face the music and do something he hasn’t done too often in his life — apologize.
Way more than most people, pro athletes never like to admit failure or mistakes, so should James indeed return to Cleveland, expect something like the following: “I know I hurt a lot of people four years ago, but that was not my intention. I was 25 years old. I had spent seven seasons in Cleveland. They were great years, but I needed a change. I needed to branch out. That’s why I went to Miami. I had no idea how much it would hurt the great fans of Cleveland, Akron and all of Northeast Ohio. I also had no idea how deeply I loved the area until I left it.”
James would then have to take a deep breath and add something like this: “The one thing I truly regret is how I left. I wish I had not gone on ESPN to announce my decision. Dan Gilbert and Cavs fans deserved better. I should have been up front about my feelings and my choice. I am sorry. I hope the fans can find it in their heart to forgive me and I hope I can help bring at least one championship to a city and region that so richly deserves it.”
In a nutshell, that would be it.
The Cavs would instantly become a title contender. Talk radio would once again become almost all LeBron, almost all the time. Everyone would have an opinion, a take.
There would still be people who viewed James as total slime and unforgivable, who would think even worse of Gilbert and the Cavs for taking him back.
There would be a group, made up mostly of casual or non-sports fans, that would be largely indifferent, that would find the hoopla amusing, ridiculous or simply tiresome.
Nationally, Gilbert and James would both take some heat — oddly fitting word, huh? — but that would dissipate when the next major sports story arose, come back when and if the Cavs made a major playoff run and disappear again soon after.
That would leave the typical Northeast Ohio sports fan, if there is such a creature.
For several weeks, I’ve been conducting my own informal survey, and what I’ve found is that the majority of people — say, 60 to 65 percent — are already OK with James coming back.
My guess is that as July 2014 grows closer, that percentage will grow higher, though the anti-LeBron faction will also grow louder.
How it all will end, I do not know. I just know it’s unlikely to end anytime soon.
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or email@example.com.