LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers preaching responsibility, waxing patience and selling uncertain visions that made, and continue to make, more sense when bound to rookie Andrew Wiggins instead of Kevin Love.
This is not to suggest Love is an unworthy sidekick. Pairing a top-10 superstar with the world's greatest player has its advantages—extravagant frills the Miami Heat exploited for almost a half-decade.
Placing Love alongside James and Kyrie Irving creates an instant powerhouse in Cleveland that is not to be outdone by any team in the Eastern Conference and is capable of rivaling even the most indomitable Western Conference foe. (So, the San Antonio Spurs.)
When this proposed superteam comes at the expense of Wiggins, the most recent No. 1 overall pick who projects as an NBA All-Star, it's not worth the risk. Not to the Cavaliers, not to James.
Not to the resplendent future they're trying to build together.
If the Cavs are able to acquire Love without forfeiting Wiggins, then we're all free to sing the sweet melodies of Lumiere, begging them to be our guest, pleading with them to pull the trigger.
Only that's not possible at the moment. They tried brokering a deal without Wiggins, offering Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett, a future first-round pick and, presumably, a lifetime supply of high fives. The Minnesota Timberwolves were having none of it, according to ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard.
That left the Cavs in a difficult situation. The deal clearly cannot get done without Wiggins, who they are rightfully refusing to give up.
Or rather, were refusing to give up.
Soon after the Timberwolves rebuffed their initial offer, Broussard says the Cavaliers officially put Wiggins on the table, a James-driven move if there ever was one. That's if Wiggins is actually available.
Cleveland's intentions with regard to the 19-year-old remain unclear. While Broussard has them dangling Wiggins, The Associated Press' Jon Krawczynski does not:
Whatever the Cavaliers are offering, Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski makes it clear that James wants Love:
Courtship implies desire. The Cavs appear to be resisting Minnesota's counteroffers, but, like NBA.com's Jeff Caplan writes, there is no mistaking James' intent: He wants Love, even if it costs Wiggins.
Part of this thinking is flawed. What James wants, he usually gets. Especially in Cleveland. Especially the second time around.
If he wants to move Wiggins for Love, the Cavaliers would be willing to move Wiggins for Love. And if they're willing to move Wiggins for Love, this deal would be done, or at least seem inevitable.
None of this means James isn't ready for the Cavs to do anything and everything to land Love. It would make sense if he was. He'll turn 30 in December. His career is far from over, but he's deep enough into it to understand his basketball mortality.
Love, 25, is established enough to boost the Cavs' status, yet he's young enough to cement them as long-term juggernauts.
You know, if he sticks around.
No matter where he lands—even if it's next to James—Love will hit unrestricted free agency next summer at which point he could leave, as Cavs: The Blog's Nate Smith confronts head-on:
Most importantly, there’s absolutely no guarantee that he re-signs with the Cavs if/when he enters free agency next summer, and he’s not going to sign an extension, nor would it be in his interest to. Conversely, the Cavs have Waiters rights for at least three more seasons; Bennett’s for four; and Wiggins’ for five. That level of risk would be unacceptable for any billion dollar company, and it should be unacceptable for the Cavs.
Assurances of Love's return mean nothing right now. The Cavs could get bounced in the first or second round of the playoffs, prompting Love to seek a different opportunity. Or, more likely, James and the Cavs could find out Love isn't Chris Bosh and that Cleveland isn't Miami.
It takes a special kind of player to willingly relegate himself to third fiddle the way Bosh did in Miami. That's what Love would be to the Cavaliers. Irving becomes the No. 2 option by default. He's a point guard, so even alongside the ball-dominant James, he'll have more control over the offense than Love.
And, again, Cleveland isn't Miami. It doesn't boast the warm-weather climate that appeals to young superstars and would make Love want to shave his beard. The winters are brutal and the market less than prominent, though the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame does make for a nice afternoon getaway.
In the event Love leaves—a legitimate possibility—the Cavs will have sacrificed this year's No. 1 overall pick, along with other assets, for a one-year rental. There is no value in that.
Wiggins will be with the Cavs for at least the next few years. The frequency with which rookies sign extensions makes it so Cleveland will get, at minimum, six years out of its potential star.
Pitted against the prospect of Love maybe staying, rolling with Wiggins is the safer play.
For both the Cavs and James, it's the smarter play.
Keeping His Word
It was also the expected play.
When James announced he was returning to Cleveland via Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, he spoke of patience, of enduring. But he's been sending mixed signals since then.
- July 11: James announces his return to Cleveland, acknowledging the Cavaliers will not become contenders overnight while accepting his role within this work in progress, telling Jenkins, "But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball."
- July 12: James finalizes a two-year deal with the Cavs, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst.
- July 17: Bob Finnan of The News-Herald reports Cleveland is willing to part with soon-to-be franchise cornerstone Wiggins.
- July 17: James starts recruiting Love.
So, yeah, about James' patience...it appears to run puddle deep.
The King's choice to sign a two-year pact can be slung as a business decision. As, too, can his interest in playing with Love.
But all of this goes against the very patience he demanded of himself not even weeks ago. And if it's all true, James is asking the Cavs to forge an instant contender and, in turn, beckoning the pressure he left behind in Miami to come join him in Cleveland.
Winning in Cleveland isn't as important as it was in Miami right now. James' exit in 2010 was depicted as cowardly betrayal. To redeem himself, he had to win every year. Not once, not twice—all the time. Nothing would have changed if he returned to the Heat.
Cleveland offers respite from the yearly win-or-look-like-a-failure motif that circled Miami like a starving vulture. James came home. He left the win-now Heat for the hopefully-we-can-win-later Cavaliers; he left a pair of equals to play with subordinates, novices and inexperienced talents he would mentor.
Chivalry wasn't dead—lest James decide to kill it now.
Landing Love at Wiggins' expense puts the Cavs in win-now-or-else mode, as Fear The Sword's Mike Mayer describes:
It's not really a surprise that LeBron would want Love on his team. I believe that he was genuine when he said that he wants to be a mentor, but don't think for a second that he doesn't also want to win right away. Adding Love to the mix would make the Cavs the prohibitive favorites in the East.
Almost all of that breathing room James created by leaving Miami, almost all of those brownie points he was subsequently awarded—gone. History. Existing only in hapless theory.
James will have endorsed a trade that compromised Cleveland's future, gutting its young core for the chance to do what he himself said wasn't necessary. Like Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal argues, going back on his word leaves James right where he shouldn't be—staring down inescapably imposing expectations:
Every win will inevitably be treated as either a step forward or a confirmation of elite status. Every loss will be considered disastrous, just as it was when LeBron first teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Do you remember how the sky started falling after the 2010-11 Heat lost three consecutive late-November games to depress their early-season record to a lackluster 8-7?
Lesser men would avoid the challenge; James would embrace it.
There's just no reason to when it costs him the opportunity to do something he hasn't done before.
Something more impressive.
Something more meaningful.
Leaving Miami wasn't about taking the easy way out. It was the exact opposite.
Mentoring youngsters meant something to James. Northeast Ohio remained a part of him. None of that changes, Love or no Love, Wiggins or no Wiggins.
For James, an avid seeker of rings and, more importantly, active chaser of Michael Jordan's legacy, tethering his future to that of Wiggins is the boon his reputation doesn't have.
"I want to be the greatest of all time and that’s my motivation," he said in September, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "It's that simple."
His Airness wouldn't have joined a team like the Cavs—a young, budding convocation that lacks the experience and mental fortitude to incite talk of an immediate dynasty.
Starting anew in Cleveland can help separate James. Fostering a new culture gives him credentials few others lay claim to 11 years into their career.
Teaching and developing and standing by Wiggins instead of throwing him to the Wolves—literally—for a proven superstar and incontestable flight risk reveals a side of James we haven't yet seen outside of his free-agent essay. Should Love wind up in Cleveland anyway, without removing Wiggins from the picture, then whatever. It was meant to be.
Willing it to be just isn't the same.
"I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously," James told Jenkins. "My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from."
Tying his future to Love as opposed to Wiggins makes it mean less. Not in a bad way or a cowardly way—in a different, less flattering way.
In a this-isn't-why-James-came-home way.