Swallow your anger, Miami Heat fans and the media that cover them. Get past your defiant skepticism, former NBA players howling no man in his right mind would leave the warm embrace of South Beach for the gray, fly-over reality of Cleveland.
Believe it, America.
LeBron James could end up back in a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey, perhaps as early as this summer.
On Tuesday night, in the one postseason spot Cleveland has learned to dominate, the Cavaliers again landed the No. 1 overall draft pick. It was a stunning moment, with all the possibilities seeming to unwind in the shocked eyes of new Cavs general manager David Griffin as its implications began to register.
This is a draft so deep and so full of Hall of Fame talent (and, yes, surely, get-yourself-fired busts) that a mere top-seven selection is seen as a great commodity. So that coveted No. 1 spot, where you get to choose between Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker? A gold mine, and for Cleveland one that reopens the possibility of the Chosen One doing what so many thought impossible three years ago and choosing to return.
This is far from a lock, and there are many, many skeptics. My “FOX Sports Live” colleague and friend Gary Payton summed up that doubt succinctly Tuesday night: “You’re a damn crazy person, Bill.” Then a lot of stuff I can’t print here. Then. “S***. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
With all due respect to The Glove and all the naysayers out there, this is very, very real.
Look, I’m not saying it’s a done deal. I am saying that the odds of LeBron again being a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers have jumped from about 1 percent to something much, much higher.
Let’s call it 20 to 30 percent that LeBron returns — a fluctuating number tied to whom the Cavs draft, what happens with the Heat in this postseason and whether LeBron chooses not to opt out of his contract and put off his decision another year.
There’s also who the Cavs hire as head coach, LeBron’s best guess at Dwyane Wade’s future, what Chris Bosh does this summer and even where Kevin Love ends up.
For the Cavs, even a 20 percent chance at bringing the greatest player on Earth back into the fold is not just incredible. It is, given their recent history, really good odds.
This is the team that had a 1.7 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick Tuesday night — and then defied all those odds, yet again, with a stroke of luck so improbable the suspicious among us might wonder whether Adam Silver didn’t pull off his own conspiracy in the service of the best and most interesting story in sports, which is just what LeBron to Cleveland would turn into.
There are, obviously, a thousand moving parts that could affect the future of the game’s most important could-be free agent. This Heat-Pacers series, which went to 1-1 after the Pacers ceded the final four minutes of the fourth quarter Tuesday night and the Heat won, 87-83, is the first. Followed by The Finals if the Heat advance. It is that much harder for LeBron to exit the confines of Miami for any team, let alone the Cavs, if he’s sitting on a three-peat.
Right now, I have no doubt, his focus and attention is not on this topic. He’s surely saving the energy and deep-thinking to correctly navigate his Decision Redux until after the playoffs. But when the time comes for LeBron to decide he’ll look at one thing and one thing only: legacy.
It will not be about loyalty — just as it wasn’t in Cleveland. LeBron’s next decision will be about him. It won’t be about D-Wade, Riley, Spo and the guys. That truth won’t change, only the skill with which he handles it.
It will not be about the warm weather, hopping nightlife and good vibes of Miami. LeBron wants the longer-lasting glow of all-time greatness and to be considered the best player of all time. That means chasing down rings, which means being as much a mercenary and good-decision maker off the court as he has been on the court.
This will be about legacy, and in this modern era that means it will be about rings.
Wade has his own opt-out decision to make, and a knee on which someone as brand- and legacy-conscious as LeBron may not want to rely. Bosh, too, can opt out, with a range of possible outcomes.
So joining a team that features LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Embiid/Parker/Wiggins (or even Love) is something LeBron would have to entertain. The Cavs with LeBron could be loaded and able to dominate the next three years the way the last choice LeBron made dominated the last three.
From 2015 and on, what’s the better vehicle to a championship:
LeBron, Wade, Bosh and a bunch of random guys? Or LeBron, Kyrie and Embiid /Wiggins/Parker and Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and the vets who would flock to that shot at a parade? That doesn’t even get into Cleveland, if LeBron came home, making a move for Love.
There’s also this: LeBron could choose not to opt out, stay in Miami for one more year and see whether this much-hyped No. 1 draft pick is actually a stud, whether Irving develops, whether Anthony Bennett redeems himself and whether the Cavs become the Suns or Trail Blazers of the last few years. Then, a year from this summer, he could make the move home.
And certainly other teams — the Clippers if Donald Sterling is finally removed, wherever Love might land, some as-now-unseen candidate — could vie for LeBron’s services.
That’s the basketball end.
There’s also the brand end of this, the consideration of how going to Cleveland and winning would help fuel LeBron’s assault on Michael Jordan’s place atop the game. That is a factor no other basketball player, with all due respect to Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, has actually lived with.
S***. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.
Regardless of whether he gets there, LeBron’s goal to supplant Jordan is an achievable one.
We live in a society fueled on narratives, storylines and obsession with ranking greatness and failure. LeBron’s path back to respect and universal love was gilded by two rings, but don’t underestimate his canny ability to grasp the zeitgeist and appeal to it and shape it, from his Samsung commercial to the carefully planned image campaign that has followed.
So while, no, NBA free agents do not pick places like Milwaukee or Cleveland — ever — this is different. This is not just LeBron’s home, it’s a tailor-made hero and redemption story with all the ready-for-TV-movie qualities LeBron needs to surpass not just Michael Jordan the player but Air Jordan the brand, the story, the legend.
Miami, as Gary Payton told me with such confidence, might be where he’s won again and again. But Cleveland — with its young star, No. 1 draft pick, and built-in brand enhancer — could be where LeBron’s future lies.
Bill Reiter is a national columnist for FOXSports.com, a national radio host at Fox Sports Radio and regularly appears on FOX Sports 1. You can follow him on Twitter at or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.