Seeking both redemption and a return home, NBA superstar LeBron James announced by magazine essay Friday that he will play again for the Cleveland Cavaliers, four years and two titles after he so infamously left.
His decision — note the lowercase d this time around after 2010’s disastrously televised “the Decision” — likely has empowered Flip Saunders, Timberwolves president of basketball operations and coach, in discussions to trade discontented All-Star Kevin Love to Cleveland for No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, or to another team before Love can leave as an unrestricted free agent next year.
Love would have to assure the Cavaliers he’ll sign a four-year contract extension next summer for any trade to happen now. That’s a promise he declined to give Cleveland last month, but likely would do now that James is going home.
Sixteen days after he opted out of his contract with the Heat, James — in an explanation published online by Sports Illustrated — likened his four years spent in Miami to a boy who went away to college and came back a man, mature and ready for a return home with his growing, young family.
It’s a return James said he always knew would come someday.
“The more time passed, the more it felt right,” James wrote. “This is what makes me happy.”
Cleveland fans rejoiced. Four years ago this week, they burned James’ Cavaliers jersey in effigy after the former Akron, Ohio, prep star announced he was taking his talents to South Beach.
The announcement immediately precipitated a sea change across the NBA, spurring a tumble of activity that included the Heat paying $118 million to keep Chris Bosh when Houston wooed him aggressively after James left.
James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade all decided to opt out of their contracts, presumably so Heat boss Pat Riley could use financial flexibility to rebuild a title team around them.
Instead, James and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert met Sunday in Miami and agreed to put the bitterness — and Gilbert’s angry letter written to Cavs fans — created by James’ 2010 departure behind them.
James, in turn, agreed to go home to play with a collection of mostly young, unproven players and NBA rookie head coach David Blatt.
That is, unless the Cavaliers complete ongoing trade discussions with the Wolves for Love, whose presence alongside James and point guard Kyrie Irving would immediately make Cleveland a legitimate title contender.
James said he is excited to mentor young Cavs players such as former high lottery picks Irving, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, and teach them the lessons of winning he has learned in Miami.
But he did not mention Wiggins, who almost certainly would be part of any trade the Wolves are willing to make for Love, even though Cleveland’s management publicly postured Friday that they will not trade the top pick.
“I’m not promising a championship,” James wrote. “I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head.
“But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go.”
The Cavs could speed that timeline considerably if James insists his team use some of those young assets — including 2013 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett — and future first-round picks owed them by Miami and Memphis to go get Love. Expect James to push to add pals Mike Miller and/or Ray Allen, as well.
If the Cavs decide eventually to offer Wiggins, that also could provide Saunders the leverage he needs to push Golden State, Chicago, Phoenix or other teams to sweeten previous offers for Love.
Such an opportunity would be possible because of James’ decision to return to the state and city that knows him best.
“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given,” James wrote. “Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”