This is not the same LeBron James that made a decision four years ago in a televised special. This is a new LeBron James, one who is following a path many humans walk: grow up in the cocoon of a hometown, leave to experience the world, then return with more maturity once that outside world hardens and molds you.
The King Comes Home
LeBron James will return to Cleveland
In a stunning turn of events, the best player in the world is going back to where he began his NBA career, spurning the Miami Heat despite four straight Finals appearances.
The King Comes Home
It's obvious that James is making this choice for reasons beyond basketball. He said it himself in his announcement to Sports Illustrated. Much of the letter focused on his obligations to his family, his hometown and his foundation.
Much less was devoted to the relative upside of the Cavaliers' roster compared to Miami's aging one. In fact, James even spelled out that his new team isn't ready to compete for a title yet. You don't see that every day from a prospective free agent. For James, this is greater than the game.
It would be foolish, of course, to assume basketball had no impact on this decision. Miami's infrastructure is aging with no easy way to improve. It has Pat Riley, history and organizational stability, but not much else. All those things matter, but in this current CBA, they can't recruit talent on their own. James saw Dwyane Wade's physical shortcomings up close and remembers how much effort he had to expend to prop up everyone else. When Miami's grand free agency plans yielded Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger, the writing was on the wall.
One has to wonder if James may have made a different choice if the Heat won last year's Finals, or at least were more competitive in them. Memories are short, and that was James' lasting one with Miami. There was no easy avenue to keep winning. And winning, as much as James downplayed it in his Sports Illustrated letter, matters.
LeBron James/Photo credit: Andy Lyons, Getty Images
By contrast, there's nowhere for Cleveland to go but up. James has a young core that may have been built clumsily at times, but still exists. New Cavaliers general manager David Griffin won't get the credit he deserves for the work he's already done in a short time in charge, but he ought to. He was fortunate to land Andrew Wiggins, but he also cleared out Mike Brown even though it was financially painful to do so, got Irving's extension done quickly despite all the noise that he couldn't and restored as much normalcy to a chaotic organization as one possibly can in four months.
Now, James has players eventually capable of carrying him, not the other way around. Irving has his faults, but is an unbelievable talent that was the very best player on the floor in a showcase of the league's best talent at the All-Star Game in February. Wiggins has tantalizing athleticism and amazing defensive potential; eventually, he'll be taking all the tough assignments off James. And, of course, he could also be traded for Kevin Love, one of the league's most versatile offensive talents and one who can yield a top-10 offense by himself.
This puzzle isn't finished yet, and there's still a lot of work for Griffin to do. He must make decisions on Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett, all top picks by predecessor Chris Grant that may or may not have places in a LeBron-led future. He must eventually find a big man. Yet James surely saw this roster and saw its potential, potential that Miami's barren group lacked.
But of course, this is about more than hoops. This is ultimately a grown-up decision made by a human being that needed to move away to mature and eventually come back home. James arrived in South Beach with grand expectations, thinking that a union of stars could overwhelm the league by sheer force. He learned some hard lessons along the way, about how his actions affect others, how hard it really is to win a title and how important it is to have structure and discipline to be successful.
These are lessons he never would have learned in Cleveland, not with the weight of those expectations and the way the organization then catered to his every need. Now that he's learned them, though, he's able to impart them to others. James has always relished this kind of role, having become an unofficial mentor to countless young stars throughout the league. Finally, he has an audience that can directly benefit from the same life lessons he learned the hard way.
In this sense, James showed his human side. It's healthy for anyone to move away before eventually coming back home, especially if you're the most famous basketball player on the planet.