And so the LeBron returns to Cleveland in 2014 speculation begins…

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This has been a buzz around some NBA circles for little while now, but it’s starting to leak into the mainstream.

First it was my friend T.J. Carpenter (radio host at ESPN’s WHB Radio in Kanas city), who plays for me a clip of one journalist quoting an off-the-record remark from Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins saying he was 100 percent sure LeBron James will go back to Cleveland (although no timeline was given).

Then there is the column Friday in the Miami Herald by Greg Cote somehow spinning the likelihood of LeBron opting out of his deal in 2014, his new agent living in Cleveland and praise for Kyrie Irving during All-Star weekend into a feeling LeBron has one foot out the door.

Say it isn’t so that you will be heading back to Cleveland in the summer of 2014, or we can start the clock now on about 16 months of ever-increasing rumors and speculation gradually morphing into assumption.

This same rumor is all over Cleveland.

Ugh. Really? We need 14 months of LeBron speculation again? It’s starting up again as the Cavaliers face the Heat on Sunday.

Let’s try to separate some fact from fiction.

Fact: LeBron will opt out of his contract with the Heat in 2014. If there is one thing you can bet on in this saga it is that LeBron will use this chance to opt out of his contract after three years and get a new one, a real max deal (remember the last one was slightly less than max).

But that new contract most likely will be with the Miami Heat.

Fiction: That anyone, including LeBron, knows for sure what he will do in 14 months. I’m willing to rule out he’s going to go play for CSKA Moscow, but after that pretty much anything can happen and is on the table for the summer of 2014.

LeBron will be 29 when he opts out and at this point in his career it is about legacy and rings (which go hand-in-hand). Which is why he most likely stays in Miami — it’s a good bet he has one or two more rings by 2014 with the Heat. He’d be hesitant to walk away from that, and throw in the fact the Heat can offer more money and years and there are a lot of reasons to stay. If he’s still winning and it’s about the rings and the legacy, he’s not walking away from that in 2014.

But you say Dwyane Wade will be 32 — and an old 32 the way he throws his body around — and Kyrie Irving is young and good? No doubt about Kyrie, that’s not in question. But Wade is averaging 20.9 points a game this season and is showing a veteran’s ability to coast at points and turn it on when he needs to. He is still a top 12 player in the NBA (and that is being conservative), it’s not like he and Chris Bosh are chopped liver.

And if they need to get new players in Miami, don’t you think the lure of playing with LeBron, the lure of playing in South Beach (and Florida with no state income tax), plus the Jedi mind tricks of Pat Riley can get more impressive talent to come there?

The Cavaliers will have cap space in 2014, but it’s not just Dan Gilbert that has lined up 2014 cap space just in case. Kobe Bryant will be off the Lakers’ books and only Dwight Howard (after he likely re-signs with the team this summer) and Steve Nash will be on the payroll. The Lakers can offer the chance to play with the best center in the game on a big-name franchise. Dallas likely has cap space and a great reputation with players thanks to Mark Cuban. Heck a lot of teams will have max cap space and a solid core. If LeBron wants out of Miami, he will have options.

But I don’t think he wants out.

Legacy matters and his image already took a hit jumping once. He’s going to be very hesitant to do it again. He knows he can win in Miami, and he knows Pat Riley will put a team around him that can do it.

A lot of people who know LeBron better than I think he will go back to play for the Cavaliers. Someday. That he will close out his career there.

But don’t bet on that time being 2014.

Rumor: Suns, Magic have inquired about Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina

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Where do the Knicks stand on Frank Ntilikina, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft (taken ahead of Dennis Smith Jr. Zach Collins, and Donovan Mitchell)?

This should tell you all you need to know: The Denver Nuggets decided to cast Emmanuel Mudiay aside and the Knicks traded for him and instantly Mudiay jumped Ntilikina on the depth chart.

Ntilikina has played good defense but unimpressive offense for the Knicks this season and there is a thought from other teams around the league they may try to trade the young European.

A few teams are interested, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, but — shocker! — there may be a split in the front office about what to do between president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry.

Despite the Knicks’ clear lack of confidence in Ntilikina, teams have inquired about the 20-year-old, with the Magic and Suns expressing interest, according to a source. And this is where it gets interesting. There seems to be a debate within the Knicks on whether to deal Ntilikina. He was drafted by Mills and has supporters in the front office. But, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, Perry, who took the job after Ntilikina was drafted, recently approached the Atlanta Hawks to gauge whether the team was interested in dealing for the guard (Hawks have Trae Young and weren’t interested).

The Suns and Magic both desperately need point guards. However, neither are offering much in trades knowing that come free agency next July there will be better, more established targets — D'Angelo Russell, Terry Rozier, among others.

Ntilikina is a good perimeter defender whose skills could be developed in the right situation into a rotation point guard. Probably. But because the offers will be lowball, the Knicks would essentially just be dumping the No. 8 pick of a season ago, a guy who is only 20 years old. That would be a mistake — if the Knicks can’t get decent value back, keep Ntilikina and try to develop him themselves. Point guards take longer to come around in the NBA, maybe Ntilikina will develop into a player the Knicks want to keep.

But the rumors are out there and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Markelle Fultz returns to Philadelphia to do shoulder rehab with team

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Markelle Fultz is back with the 76ers.

Not in uniform for games, but he is back from Los Angeles and in Philadelphia working out with the team to recover from thoracic outlet syndrome, according to multiple reports. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story, then Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia confirmed it.

Fultz was in the arena for the Sixers game Saturday against the Thunder on national television (though not suited up to play).

There is no timetable for Fultz’s return, although his agent has said he expects Fultz to be back on the court this season. Whether that would be with the Sixers is another question, teams have called about the availability of the No. 1 pick from the 2017 NBA Draft, but the offers have been so lowball that none of them have been seriously considered by Philadelphia.

After consulting with a number of specialists just a few weeks into the season (and just after the Jimmy Butler trade), the 20-year-old Fultz was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a pinching of the nerve through the collarbone area. Since December he has been in Los Angeles is doing physical therapy to relieve the issue.

Fultz has returned to Philadelphia and is continuing that therapy.

 

Report: Rockets trying to trade Carmelo Anthony, likely to waive Nunnally to create roster spot

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To bring in some front line depth in the form of Kenneth Faried Monday, the Houston Rockets first have to clear a roster spot.

That led to a lot of speculation it could be Carmelo Anthony who is let go, he remains on the roster but not with the team, in a kind of limbo while the Rockets and ‘Melo’s agent look for a landing spot. (He reportedly has several options and will choose one before the trade deadline, but if he really liked any of those options he would have already taken them rather than waiting for a better offer.)

The Rockets are “aggressively” trying to trade Anthony and find him a new home before Monday, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported. However, James Nunnally is the most likely guy out, he was just signed to a 10-day contract.

If the Rockets haven’t waived ‘Melo yet, they’re not going to do it now.

Houston GM Daryl Morey is also working the phone lines to find wing depth to add to the Rockets’ roster. While James Harden‘s historic streak has carried the Rockets back into the playoff picture in the West, this is not the same Houston team that was a threat to the Warriors a season ago. Morey’s off-season gambles — including Anthony — have not panned out, and he is now trying to correct them.

Pelicans’ Anthony Davis out 1-2 weeks with sprained finger

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This is bad.

The New Orleans Pelicans are 21-25 and four games back of the eight seed in the West having lost 3-of-4 on the current road trip. When Anthony Davis is not on the court, the Pelicans get outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions.

Davis is not going to be on the court for a week or two due to a sprained finger, the team announced Saturday morning.

Looking ahead at the schedule, Davis is likely to miss between three and seven games.

Davis has played at an MVP level this season, averaging 29.3 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting, plus grabs 13.3 rebounds and dishes out 4.4 assists a night. And that’s just on offense, defensively he is one of the best rim protecting bigs in the league, averaging 2.6 blocks per game. Davis leads the NBA in win shares (8.3) and PER at 30.9. He has been an absolute beast all season long.

Yet he hasn’t been able to lead the Pelicans to a winning record because of the roster around him (and injuries that have sapped what little depth New Orleans had to begin with).

Because of that, the intensely competitive Davis — who has talked about legacy mattering more to him than money — is expected to turn down a $239 million contract extension from the Pelicans next summer. At that point New Orleans will have to consider trading him and 29 teams will be lined up to talk deal (the Celtics and Lakers are expected to be at the front of that line).