Cavs still hold out hope

LeBron James(notes) and his associates have been relentless in the hours leading up to Thursday night’s television announcement in telling multiple league officials that James has made up his mind and will join Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) with the Heat.

Nevertheless, as Cleveland police braced for possible riots and James’ departure promised to be hailed as the darkest hour in the city’s dark sports history, Cavaliers officials have privately clung to hope that James has done nothing but work up a frenzy about himself leaving only to be welcomed back with a joyous celebration of relief. Some league officials close to James continued to question whether he has the stomach to go to such lengths to disappoint his hometown.

Despite a stated desire to keep James’ selection secret, those around him have been free and easy with telling associates throughout the league late Wednesday and into Thursday that James planned to accept Heat president Pat Riley’s offer to play in Miami.

A source with knowledge of the conversation, said James recently told a friend he would sign with the Heat because he didn’t see enough effort from his Cavaliers teammates in the playoffs and that he wanted to win a championship as soon as possible – rather than risk having to wait toward the end of his career like Boston Celtics stars Paul Pierce(notes), Kevin Garnett(notes) and Ray Allen(notes).

The Heat spent Thursday working on several trades fronts to move Michael Beasley(notes), the second overall pick in the 2008 draft. Riley wants to clear Beasley’s $5 million salary off the payroll, so the team can sign James and try to still fit free-agent forward Mike Miller(notes) with the remaining cap room.

“They are operating as though they are getting LeBron,” one prominent agent told Yahoo! Sports.

Bosh and Wade decided early Wednesday to sign with the Heat and invited James to join them in forming an All-Star triumvirate that could alter the NBA’s power structure. Sources said Bosh and Wade felt optimistic about their odds of landing the sport’s most celebrated free agent after their conference call with James.

“They think they’ve got a real chance to pull this off with LeBron,” a source with knowledge of the call told Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday morning.

One executive whose franchise was among James’ initial suitors said Wednesday morning the Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers were the only teams still being seriously considered by James. James’ representatives did little to quash the Miami speculation when they began helping search for players to fill out the Heat’s roster.

The Heat’s efforts to sign all three players received a boost Wednesday evening when the league announced it had set next season’s salary cap at $58 million, a $2 million increase from what most teams had projected. The Heat can now give James, Wade and Bosh a more modest cut from the maximum salary to fit all three players under the cap. All three are also represented by the same agency, CAA.

Regardless of James’ decision, the Toronto Raptors expect to send Bosh to the Heat in a sign-and-trade that nets them a trade exception and possible draft picks.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Wade said he told the Heat they would have to get a commitment from either Bosh or James to convince him to re-sign.

“It had to be one or the other,” Wade told the AP. “Of course, there’s a lot of talented players in this league. But you want to look at players that complement my game, and Chris and LeBron are two of those guys.”

Even if James decides to sign, the Heat still have significant work to fill out the remainder of their roster. Beasley and point guard Mario Chalmers(notes) are the only two players currently under contract, which, sources said, has been a concern of James.

The Bulls reached agreement with forward Carlos Boozer(notes) on a five-year, $80 million contract later Wednesday in hopes of improving their standing with James. The Knicks previously gave Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) a five-year, $100 million deal while also hoping his presence would help sway James.

If James does not choose New York, a league source tells Yahoo! Sports that the Golden State Warriors will acquire forward David Lee(notes) from the Knicks in a sign-and-trade deal in exchange for forward Anthony Randolph(notes), forward-center Ronny Turiaf(notes) and guard Kelenna Azubuike(notes). Lee will get a five-year, $75 million contract in the process.

Still, the Cavaliers have loomed as the biggest and perhaps only threat to keep James from playing alongside Wade and Bosh in Miami. Cleveland is limited to pursuing trades and using its midlevel exception on free agents as ways to improve its roster, but has one significant advantage over James’ other suitors: The Cavs can offer James a six-year, $125 million contract, more than $30 million more than what he stands to receive from the Heat in a five-year deal.

James’ strong ties to Cleveland and Akron have pulled at him, which is why only a few people have characterized his intent to play for the Heat as set in stone. One former confidant said James is often indecisive and it’s possible he has wavered with his choice.

“LeBron always waits until the last minute to make a decision,” said Chris Dennis, who used to run James’ foundation. “He always does.”

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Updated Thursday, Jul 8, 2010