Court Changes: Return of the King

What does LeBron's return home mean for Cleveland and his legacy?
by July 14, 2014

This is another installment of Court Changes—a summer breakdown of trades and free-agency signings. The series will get into the motivations behind the moves and how these transactions will affect teams’ trajectories. All opinions are those of the writer.

LeBron James signed a two-year, $42.1 million contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

LeBron James made this decision because: It has been inevitable since 2012.

When LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world with one of the most polarizing personalities, decided to leave behind everything he considered home for the first 25 years of his life, it was clearly a difficult choice he felt needed to be made. James broke plenty of hearts—including one of a particular owner—due to the manner in which he decided to reveal his “decision.” Why would he do such a thing to his people and his city?

A Championship.

The born and raised Ohio native understood the difficulty of making it to the NBA Finals and going on to claim the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Through seven seasons with the Cavaliers, besides one odd Playoff series against the Celtics in 2010, the King had displayed a level of dominance that clearly established his place among the elite players. But even that wasn’t enough to get the job done.

This pursuit only becomes more arduous with age, as 30-year-old Carmelo Anthony can attest to. With his jewelry box bare and his heart set on being one of the best of all-time, James made the basketball-savvy decision to team up with two superstars also in their prime and continue chasing his dream.

After plenty of trials and tribulations, including the ridicule that accompanied his 2011 NBA Finals disappearance, James finally obtained the coveted title he went to Miami to acquire. At that moment in the summer of 2012, we should have had an inkling LeBron might eventually go back home. We should have had a gut feeling we would ultimately see LeBron in the wine and gold. How he will be remembered in sports history has always been just as important to LeBron as climbing the NBA mountain and winning a ring.

Even though LeBron’s return to Cleveland is tied heavily to an emotional connection to his hometown, the conceivable end of the Heat’s dynasty that seems to be just around the corner also played a factor. Unfortunately for Dwyane Wade, he is at the core of the collapse.

Wade, who sat out 28 games last season, put up respectable numbers in the regular season but looked more and more broken down as the postseason progressed. What was the last impression the Heat shooting guard gave LeBron in Game 3 and Game 4 during their Finals loss? He averaged 10.5 ppg while shooting 7-25 (28 percent) from the field and picked up more turnovers (6) than assists (5). The thought of what Wade is about to become rather than what he was most likely scared LeBron away.

So with the Heat lacking depth and the cap space to lure more star-studded free agents (hey, the CBA is actually working) along with LeBron’s undying desire to close his career where it began, the NBA’s top free agent decided it was time to end his vacation and go home.

This is good for LeBron James because: He has the opportunity to create his own legacy.

One thing is for sure: 2010 LeBron wouldn’t have handled his return like 2014 LeBron did. And he knows it.

By taking the time to seek out Sports Illustrated—a company that has always done a fantastic job humanizing professional athletes who can sometimes become larger than life—and put his emotions into well-thought-out and engaging words, LeBron is showing he’s matured off the court and wants to restructure his legacy. Instead of going for the bright lights of a drawn-out, unnecessary television segment that was all about him, him and him, the now self-aware superstar took the mature and sincere road back home.

No longer will LeBron’s image be at the mercy of those who have criticized him for abandoning his own and taking the easy way out. He now has control over what he wants to be for the rest of his career. The question, “But could he have won it all in Cleveland?” will one day be answered with certainty and clarity. It’s all in the King’s court.

This is good for the Cavs because: They are bringing a more mature LeBron back to a roster infused with youth.

During the end of LeBron’s first stint with the Cavs, the best players behind him were Mo Williams (one-dimensional shooter), Antawn Jamison (34-year-old role player well past his prime) and Shaquille O’Neal (troublemaker a year away from retirement). The franchise had its face in King James but lacked many of the other necessities or assets teams need to legitimately compete. The future seemed shaky.

Now? Thanks to four miserable years of bad management and some undeserved luck with ping pong balls, they have consistently drafted high and established a foundation pleasing enough for their former MVP. I don’t know if it’s right to “give them credit” for what has transpired in the recent past; nevertheless, Dan Gilbert and his staff are building something special.

And if LeBron had decided to stick it out in Cleveland for the entirety of his career rather than letting the Heat rent him for four years, it seems inconceivable that the Cavs would have been able to lose enough games to land Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins in just four drafts. No way.

Furthermore, going to the Heat along with two other established superstars forced the younger James to develop his play on the court. Rather than simply being a freak athlete with the ability to incessantly run a high pick-and-roll, LeBron is about to show Ohio his powerful post-up moves, impeccably-timed cuts to the rim and polished passing that make him so much more than before.

LeBron can use what he’s learned to become the veteran presence these young ones need moving forward.

This will be a challenge for Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters because: The ball-dominant guards will now need to primarily work off the ball.

Irving (20.8 ppg) and Waiters (15.9 ppg) were the Cavs leading scorers last season. Both of these guards put numbers on the scoreboard by getting the ball in their hands and going to work. This strategy obviously didn’t work last season and even caused some tension among the players.

With the addition of LeBron and David Blatt’s fluid offense, these two guards must find a way to improve their movement and work without the ball. LeBron, like most of the greats, almost instantly makes those around him better once he steps on the court—as long as the teammates accept their roles.

Luckily for Irving and Waiters, they are both 22 and still molding their skills and abilities. If they buy into what LeBron can offer them as a scorer and distributor on the court, this adjustment to their games should come about smoothly.

This is good for the Eastern Conference because: It might become somewhat competitive.

Last season, the 48-34 Phoenix Suns did not make the Western Conference playoffs. If they had been in the East, they would have been the three or four seed. The drastic disparity in quality of conference play was evident last season and is even having an impact on some current free agents’ decisions on where they want to go.

With the addition of the Cavs to the East’s elite, there is one more team to be afraid of playing rather than another bottomfeeder. Additionally, the Heat look as if they will try and stay competitive with the re-signing of Bosh and expected return of Wade. Chicago will also be back in action with a (hopefully) healthy Derrick Rose and newly acquired Pau Gasol. Things could be fun in the Eastern Conference semifinals since a Heat-Pacers East finals might not be so obviously expected before a single regular season game has taken place. (Can you imagine a Heat-Cavs playoff matchup? That is NBA entertainment at its finest.)

This signing will have a significant impact on the Cavaliers because: The city of Cleveland is once again relevant in the NBA and sports world.

LeBron James. Johnny Manziel.

You may hate them, you may love them, but you can’t deny their ability to captivate the entire nation. They have restored Cleveland’s position in the sports world. There’s a reason Cavaliers season tickets sold out eight hours after LeBron made his re-decision. There’s a reason Vegas odds give the Cavs the best chance to win the 2015 NBA championship. The tides are changing.

Cleveland fans know it, too. They may have burned LeBron’s jerseys and relentlessly criticized LeBron’s every breath and step for almost four straight years. However, as has been proven time and time again, sports fans are some of the most forgiving people in the world and can force themselves to suddenly have a case of short-term memory.

Once LeBron steps on the court for that first game this fall, the agony and despair he once caused will be all but completely and entirely forgiven.

LeBron loves Cleveland and Cleveland loves LeBron. A true love story. To be continued…

Previously in 2013-14 offseason:
Court Changes: Tyson Returns to Big D

Previously in 2012-13 offseason:
Court Changes: Jennings Finally Finds a Home
Court Changes: The New Argentinian Sixth Man
Court Changes: Nate The Lil’ Nugget
Court Changes: Monta Ellis Picks Dallas
Court Changes: Iggy Joins the Dubs
Court Changes: Josh Smith Going To Motown

Court Changes: Superman to Houston
Court Changes: Clippers Get Two Sharpshooters
Court Changes: Knicks Acquire Andrea Bargnani