This was supposed to be a relatively simple process when it came to recruiting LeBron James:
Sell your wares and build fears about how the Cavaliers simply have not done enough for James for him to remain in Cleveland.
That was the notion back at the start of the season, when the Cavaliers were the target among teams building sufficient salary cap space to make a max-salary run at LeBron.
And then something remarkable happened — there no longer was a single definitive target for the smear campaigns.
It wasn’t as simple as 29 other teams collectively beating down all that Dan Gilbert had thought he had built up in Cleveland.
Instead, the league has found itself with moving targets.
And perhaps that should make the Heat particularly uncomfortable.
Face it, who thought, on June 30, that the Heat would be the team that rival teams would need to knock down in order to build up their hopes for landing James?
Don’t kid yourself, all this hype this past week was not orchestrated by Pat Riley. As a team executive who has spoken publicly only once since May 3, all Riley wanted was to slip into Akron with championship rings on each finger and slip out with someone who just might deliver a few more.
Instead, figure on each northeast Ohio visitor deriding Riley’s vision of three max free agents and 12 minimum-salary teammates.
So how did we get here? How did an entire league move away from the central premise that to win LeBron’s heart would mean souring his love affair with Cleveland?
— At midseason, after the Knicks opened enough cap space at the trading deadline for a pair of prime free agents, it became all about rival suitors convincing LeBron that New York could offer little in support, that Mike D’Antoni’s offensive bent doesn’t win championships.
— Then the Russian playboy billionaire received his approval for ownership in New Jersey, and the Nets emerged as a force that had to be minimized by rival suitors, with the delayed entry to Brooklyn offered as the warning from competing bidders.
— Just a week ago, when the Bulls agreed to send Kirk Hinrich to the Wizards, Chicago became the LeBron favorite, with the task of James’ suitors to create questions about LeBron playing for a rookie coach, alongside a teammate in Derrick Rose, who, frankly, isn’t much without a ball in his hands.
— And then Dwyane Wade started dreaming, dreaming big, about playing alongside LeBron and Chris Bosh in South Florida. So now the Heat’s lack of a remaining roster is being ridiculed by the others vying for James, this notion of three max players and 12 minimum sidekicks.
Which raises the point: Is it wise to enter this process as a favorite?
Or, more to the point: Does that set you up as the suitor most likely to be knocked down by the other contenders?
Clearly, there is a reason Riley has been the silent man, why we’ve heard more from Gilbert and D’Antoni and, heck, even Gar Foreman during this process.
When teams get in that room with LeBron, will the mode be offense or defense?
Will it be a matter of building up your own assets, or devaluing those of others?
Until this week, the Heat were practically a silent partner in the James derby, a team several lengths back.
But now there is reason to believe that for the Heat to lose, others may have to cast Riley as a loser.
That is not an easy task. And LeBron well could be put off by such antics.
Still, in this race, being the frontrunner only translates into being turned into a doormat. It is a lesson learned by many already.
Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.