LeBron James attended the jersey retirement ceremony of Zydrunas Ilgauskas on Saturday, a move that would have been viewed as unusual by NBA standards even before considering the history that exists between the star player and the team where he began his NBA career.
James played his first seven seasons in Cleveland, before infamously spurning the organization with an ill-conceived, nationally-televised spectacle that caused Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert to pen a letter full of vitriol aimed at his former franchise player.
The relationship seemed to be irreparably damaged, but time has taken the sting out of the way the separation went down. And while the Cavs have underachieved this season and fired their general manager along the way, people inside the organization believe they still have a shot in tempting James to return to Cleveland as a free agent.
Yes, the Cavs underachieved this season. Yes, Grant tried feverishly for the past two years, but could never find that second star to pair with Kyrie Irving and ultimately serve as the bait to lure James back to the Cavs.
But the Cavs privately believe it’s not too late. They still have the assets to pull off a mammoth trade this summer at the draft, the type Grant tried so hard to make. Kevin Love will be entering the final year of his contract, as will LaMarcus Aldridge. Grant tried for two years to unsuccessfully pry both stars out of their current cities, but each had too many years left on their contracts for their current teams to consider it. That’s no longer true.
If either the Minnesota Timberwolves or Portland Trail Blazers come to the conclusion they can’t re-sign their stars, this summer is the time to move them and the Cavs will be at the front of the line, stocked with young players and future draft picks.
The Timberwolves have Kevin Love under contract for next season, and are not going to trade him before it’s absolutely necessary under any circumstances. If a trade does happen, it won’t be until the following summer, and will only take place if Love insists on playing elsewhere as a free agent — at that point, the team may consider sign-and-trade options.
In Portland, it would seem even less likely that LaMarcus Aldridge would become available, for some of the same reasons. Except that the Blazers are actually decent, sitting at 22 games over .500 in the deep Western Conference while being essentially assured of a playoff spot this season.
Neither of the stars mentioned are likely to become available this summer, when James can opt out of the final year of his deal in Miami to become a free agent. And even if the Cavaliers made a ridiculous offer of young players and multiple first round picks to try to secure an All-Star to pair with Kyrie Irving, it’s far from guaranteed that any of that would entice James to leave the Heat.
Cleveland’s best course of action is to throw those assets at a team in exchange for a star player who still has at least two years remaining on his contract. The game’s top free agents aren’t going to choose to play for the Cavaliers willingly, but if they’re brought in via trade and the team can build a playoff contender around them, they may find it harder to leave when the opportunity comes.
If you believe James still has a soft spot for his home town and may indeed want to return one day, perhaps in the final season or two of his career, that’s not crazy to envision. But going back in his prime to play alongside talent that doesn’t come close to guaranteeing a title? That line of thinking is delusional, at best.