LeBron James Might Be Open to a Cleveland Reunion, But the Cavs Aren’t
LeBron James created a stir during All-Star Weekend when he said he’s open to the idea of returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Immediately, the talking heads ran with this idea, with some dreaming up scenarios to get The King back to The Land next season. It was part of a salvo of passive-aggressive shots James took at the front office of the Los Angeles Lakers.
But the idea of Part 3 for James and the Cavs proved irresistible to some.
It’s a nice dream, if fevered. There’s just one problem: The Cavaliers are one of the feel-good stories in the NBA this season. Fourth in the Eastern Conference, Cleveland is a legitimate contender in a wide-open race.
So what if the Cavs don’t want a reunion with James?
LeBron James delivered on his promise to Cleveland
When LeBron James announced in July 2014 he was returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers, he boldly declared that bringing a title to Northeast Ohio was important to him. He told Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated he left the organization to pursue championships. Two rings with the Miami Heat later, he wanted to deliver a title to Cleveland.
He did that in 2016, helping the Cavs become the first team ever to erase a 3–1 NBA Finals deficit to take down the record-setting Golden State Warriors.
But things deteriorated from there. According to Brian Windhorst of ESPN, LeBron’s play in January 2018 made it clear he disengaged from the franchise. The team made a bevy of trades, James was happy, and the season ended with a fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
Then The King signed with LA in the offseason. The Cavs collapsed. But Altman’s rebuild is paying results now. Cleveland is a playoff-caliber team without James on the roster for the first time this century.
According to one report, the organization isn’t interested in fixing what already works.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are just fine, thanks
The concessions the Cleveland Cavaliers made to LeBron James in 2018 set the franchise back. The result was a third Finals loss in four seasons and King James bolting when his contract expired.
In the fourth season of the second post-LBJ era in Cleveland, the Cavs are fighting for a top-four seed in the East. Veteran Kevin Love transitioned beautifully into sixth-man and locker-room leadership roles.
They’ve weathered two season-ending injuries in the backcourt. Altman deftly flipped one of them, Ricky Rubio, and landed Caris LeVert, giving the offense the slasher it lacked after Collin Sexton went down.
Why bring back James? According to Marc Stein on Substack, Cleveland is content to go its own way.
“In conversations with people that I had in Cleveland, I think it’s just assumed that the Cavs would jump at the chance to get LeBron back, and I really don’t think that’s the case,” Stein said.
Koby Altman deserves to be in the Executive of the Year conversation, the same way J.B. Bickerstaff should get considerable support for Coach of the Year. Cleveland has two young All-Stars in Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen and a Rookie of the Year frontrunner in Evan Mobley.
They deserve a chance to see what they’ve got. Besides, the salary-cap math isn’t attractive for the Cavaliers.
The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t in a hurry to become taxpayers again
The second LeBron James era came at a high price for the Cleveland Cavaliers. From 2014–18, the Cavs played in four NBA Finals and won the 2016 NBA title.
It cost them nearly $136 million in luxury tax payments, including topping the $50 million mark in 2015–16 and 2017–18 (because of repeater penalties).
The Cavs have nine guaranteed contracts on the books for next season. They also have a $1.9 million option for Dean Wade. Lamar Stevens’ $1.8 million deal for 2022–23 is non-guaranteed.
If they extend an $8.6 million qualifying offer to Sexton, he will become a restricted free agent. Cleveland projects at $23.2 million below the luxury tax line next year.
James has one year and $44.5 million remaining on the two-year extension he signed with the Lakers in December 2020.
As much as everyone loves a homecoming story (or, in this case, a second homecoming tale), bringing back the 18-time All-Star in his age-38 season has two genuine downsides besides the tax implications.
First, James’ arrival focuses on him at the expense of the young core Cleveland developed. LeBron deserves every accolade he gets; that’s not the point. But he’s not on the same timeline as the group that Altman put together to bring the Cavs back to respectability.
That brings us to the second problem. Bron-Bron is not shy about demanding teams cede to his personnel whims. Does Cleveland want to lose the young talent it accumulated to create James and his Superfriends? Especially considering how well it worked out this season for LA?
LeBron James already disproved the adage. But this time around, you really can’t go home again … again.
Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.