Maybe they’ll share a laugh, order some seafood and mock all the teams that think they have a shot to steal the world’s greatest player. Or, maybe LeBron James enters his impending meeting with Pat Riley — knowing the Miami Heat have yet to sign a free agent, knowing guard Kyle Lowry re-signed in Toronto and big man Marcin Gortat re-upped in Washington — and says, “Sorry, Riles, I can’t win another championship here.’’
At this point, any scenario seems possible in the latest courtship of LeBron Inc. If The Decision actually went down four years ago and shocked the world, do we dare dismiss the possibility of LeBronageddon II?
Above all options, the man must have a chance to win. And while he can take his time and leave us hanging as long as he wants, there is no clear indication Riley and the Heat will surround him with a championship-capable roster. With news that Houston is aggressively wooing Chris Bosh, it could be James looks up next week and sees nothing in Miami but a crumbling Dwyane Wade and a raw Shabazz Napier, who struggled in his Rookie League debut. With James wanting a short-term deal for one or two years to position himself for a dramatic rise in the salary cap, it’s possible he’ll consider a quick run with the team best suited to bring him more rings.
Dallas? Houston? Phoenix? Lakers? Cleveland?
A river once burned in Cleveland, but that would be mere smoke compared to the inferno of James burning that city twice. And by instructing his agent to allow a meeting with the Cavaliers, among other suitors, he suddenly is in position to torch his native region again if he doesn’t return there. Would he actually flirt with the Cavs, after his departure sparked so much animosity and so many destroyed No. 23 jerseys four years ago, only to dis the good people there once more?
Even a mercenary has a heart. It seems inconceivable that James would be so cruel, leaving me to wonder if he now will end his four-year Miami vacation to go home. Sure, the free-agency swirl spins in a new direction each day, but Riley’s mission has been paralyzed by the uncertainty involving the future contracts of Wade and Bosh, who have opted out but have yet to agree to substantial pay cuts that would allow the necessary financial flexibility to sign quality reinforcements. Maybe Pau Gasol will come, but the situation appears messy in Miami, where James realizes Wade is nearing the end and has to take care of his own interests this time. LeBron wants a maximum deal, and deservedly so, and to bring in a quality free agent or two, that would require Wade and Bosh to take less than they may be willing.
At the very least, by having agent Rich Paul talk face to face with the Cavs, Suns, Mavericks, Rockets and Lakers, James is sending a strong message to Riley: Improve your roster. If he can’t, the reality is that four of those five teams might be better than the Heat. Imagine James with Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins in Cleveland. Imagine James with James Harden and Dwight Howard. Imagine James with Mark Cuban and Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas. Hell, imagine James with Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. Actually, with the Knicks now willing to offer him a max deal at $129 million, Anthony likely is returning to New York. But James in L.A.? Where he can plunge head-first into his entertainment industry pursuits while becoming the face of the legendary Lakers after a two-year tandem with Bryant? Imagine that, too.
It’s all getting extremely interesting. And unlike four years ago, when he shocked us with the South Beach decision, we shouldn’t be surprised by anything he does this time. I could see him heading to Cleveland now. I could see him heading to the Lakers now. And I could see him staying in Miami, but only if Riley spins his magic, which never should be ruled out.
As for the hard feelings after he was ripped in a vicious 2010 letter by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who also accused James of quitting during that year’s playoffs? They haven’t stuck with James, who never has ruled out the possibility of returning to northeast Ohio. “I don’t know. I think it would be great,” he said two years ago. “It would be fun to play in front of these fans again. I had a lot fun times in my seven years here. You can’t predict the future and hopefully I continue to stay healthy. I’m here as a Miami Heat player, and I’m happy where I am now, but I don’t rule that out in no sense.
“And if I decide to come back, hopefully the fans will accept me.”
Gilbert, while never apologizing to James, did say he was wrong. “Looking back now, that probably was not the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said.
So, does this actually have a chance of happening? You would be stupid to say there’s no chance … until he makes us look stupid by staying in Miami.
LeBron may not have the gold trophy with the ball leaning on the rim, but he does have our attention. Isn’t it peculiar how we honored the Spurs and their five-game championship clinic for about two minutes, yet we’re now going to spend early July dissecting every imaginable destination for James? This is what’s known as power, and right now, despite the presence of billionaire owners and brawny media networks and influential corporate partners, nothing is more powerful in the National Basketball Association than LeBron Inc.
Winning a championship quiets the critics. Having an entire league wrapped around your little finger feeds the ego — and allows you to flip the middle finger, too.
It’s humorous, if not embarrassing, to see the announcement of his opt-out sending so many grown men scurrying into action. Know this: LeBron isn’t playing for a team that doesn’t have at least a fair shot at an NBA title. As constituted, the Heat cannot win another NBA title. Trading up in the draft and taking Napier, a favorite of James, wasn’t a big enough thought. The Heat need a rebuild, and James’ idea, as planted recently by his agents, was a pairing with Anthony. When Riley branded that possibility “a pipe dream,’’ he was assuming correctly that Anthony wouldn’t leave a possible $40 million on the table to play in Miami.
The rest of the league is sensing that James, already established as a mercenary after his 2010 escape from Cleveland, is ready for another jump. That’s why activity is resembling a game of musical chairs. All of this has to be galling Riley. Last month, sounding like Tony Montana before his bullet-peppered body fell into the fountain, he challenged “the guts’’ of James and almost warned him not to leave the Heat. “I think everybody needs to get a grip. This stuff is hard. You’ve got to stay together, if you’ve got the guts,’’ said Riley, in a strong-arm message clearly aimed at James and anyone else assuming the dethroned NBA champions are dead and gone. “You don’t find the first door and run out of it if you have an opportunity. This is four years now into this era, this team. Four (league) finals — it’s only been done three other times before — and two championships. From day one to the end, it was like a Broadway show. It sort of ran out of steam. And we need to retool. We don’t need to rebuild.’’
Then Riley, sounding more pompous and wounded than inspirational in tone, opined that too much was being made of three consecutive losses to the Spurs — three of the ugliest losses in NBA Finals history, by the way, a lll of which radically changed the way smart people view the Heat and their future.“We have a tremendous opportunity here for long-term success,” Riley said. “Don’t think we’re not going to get beat again, so just get a grip, everybody. That’s my message. It’s my message to the players, also.”
You can criticize James for certain faults, as I have. A lack of guts is not one of his flaws. Though the move looked cowardly in some ways, it did take guts to leave Cleveland, down the road from his hometown, and absorb relentless criticism when he transferred his “talents to South Beach.’’ And Riley is fooling himself if he thinks James, recalling the summer of 2010, won’t find the first door and run again if he has a much better chance elsewhere of winning rings.
At one point during his 55-minute bleeder, Riley spoke of downing fine scotch — Jonny Walker Blue — with his wife, Chris, while listening to James Ingram’s ancient “Just Once’’ after the Heat were eliminated. He sounded kind of weird, like his world of trophy and renown was over at 69. All in all, it sounded like an ass-backwards shot at an executive version of the Jerry Maguire speech. “I’m an Irish guy who believes in big dreams,” Riley said. “I’m optimistic. Until that’s proven different, I just have a level of optimism that there isn’t a better place for players to be than Miami. I didn’t come down here 19 years ago for a quick trip to South Beach and a sun tan. I don’t think they did either. … The important thing is, we want all three to come back.’’
James knows he will be judged in history by the number of rings he wins. Right now, he’s stuck on two and, approaching 30, needs to be in a place where he can produce multiple championships in the next five years. Wherever he lands, it’s amazing he can have such a dominant hold on the American sports consciousness, to the point we read his Twitter feed to see his World Cup observations. Four years ago, the process was called The Decision, and he was destroyed for it in a flogging that didn’t end until he won two NBA titles.
This time, are we witnessing The Revision?