COMMENTARY | Every time I bump into one of my friends who actually serve on the Cleveland Cavaliers' beat, "The Question" usually comes up.
I'm sure they get asked "The Question" just about any time they do a radio appearance, or even when they are at a family dinner.
"The Question" has been bandied about pretty much from the very hour LeBron James made "The Decision" to leave the Cavs after spending his first seven years as a pro there (2003-10) to "take (his) talents to South Beach" and sign with the Miami Heat.
"The Question" is this: Will LeBron James come back to the Cavs if (and when) he opts out of his contract with the Heat following this season?
While James, who initially suffered some national backlash for the crass way he handled his departure from Cleveland (airing a nationally televised ESPN special with Jim Gray acting like a shill instead of a journalist was not the best course of action), has become even more of a global icon since he joined the Heat, along with winning two NBA championships in three seasons, the Cavs have become an NBA afterthought.
To say the Cleveland reaction to "The Decision" was not a positive one would be a gross understatement. And, in fact, four years later, there are still many local sports fans who really don't want him to come back.
LeBron James has become like the ex-girlfriend to many Cleveland sports fans. You hate her for breaking your heart and dumping you and you wish many horrible things to happen to her. But yet, you secretly hope that she suddenly "wises up" and decides to take you back, even if you just dated her in high school and it's been like 10 years or so since then.
In LeBron James' case, it would be like this ex-girlfriend being the prettiest girl in your school who then wound up becoming a Playboy Playmate.
LeBron and the Heat make their first trip to Cleveland this season Wednesday night for a 7:30 p.m. tip-off at Quicken Loans Arena. And, as James comes back, "The Question" keeps getting asked.
Unless something drastic happens to the Cavs between now and April, I think Cavs fans that are hoping that he does, shouldn't get those hopes up and start thinking realistically.
I don't think it's going to happen.
The City of Akron, LeBron's native home just 25 miles south of Cleveland, has taken it upon itself to start the "Bring LeBron Back" campaign by erecting a few billboards around town. Also, during a Heat-Cavs game at The Q last season, a fan ran onto the court with a "We Miss You" T-shirt and tried to shake LeBron's hand. The FOX Sports Ohio telecast didn't cut away, giving the fan a few minutes of fame and a clip that got picked up by ESPN and YouTube.
And, even Cavs center/power forward Anderson Varejao got into the act on Tuesday by saying that James' return to Cleveland "could happen" in the near future. "'Bron is from Akron," said Varejao, the last remaining Cav from James' days with the team. "Akron is not too far from here. Eventually in his career, he probably wants to play at home."
James, for the most part, has always been coy about his intentions following this season. He has the option of opting out of his contract and becoming a free agent, free to sign with anyone, or he can stay with Miami and try to win another ring. He is signed for six years, but can opt out after the fourth and fifth years if he likes.
Many felt that LeBron would be open to coming back if he won at least one championship with Miami and if the Cavs were able to improve their roster. While the first part of that bargain has been lived up to, the jury is still out on the second part.
The Cavs have had ample opportunity to improve the roster. After three dismal seasons, the team accrued six first-round draft choices in the three NBA drafts. Two of those picks were No. 1 overall picks (Kyrie Irving in 2011; Anthony Bennett in 2013). Two of those picks were No. 4 overall picks (Tristan Thompson in 2011; Dion Waiters in 2012). Two others were in the top 20 (Tyler Zeller in 2012; Sergei Karasev in 2013). On paper, you would think that this roster would be on the verge of something.
Of those six, only one (Irving) appears to be on the verge of super-stardom and another (Thompson) appears to be a decent NBA player. Waiters has played himself out of a starting role and has been coming off the bench, appearing to be an ill-fit for Mike Brown's defense-first philosophy. The 7-foot Zeller could be considered a "stiff," not starting a single game and only averaging only 2.3 points and 1.8 rebounds per game this season. Karasev has only played in eight of 14 games and is averaging 3.1 points per game. Bennett, who is on pace to become one of the worst No. 1 overall picks in NBA history, has fallen completely out of Brown's rotation and is averaging just 2.0 points and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting a paltry 21 percent (9 of 42) from the floor.
However, LeBron and the Heat appear to be coming to Cleveland at the perfect time. They are coming to town on a seven-game winning streak The Cavs, meanwhile, are 4-10, having lost three in a row and are 1-5 since a controversial players'-only meeting following a blowout loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. They are also coming off of their worst loss of the season, a 126-96 throttling at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 23.
The Cavs, right now, resemble the jumbled mass of players that LeBron left back in 2010. Irving is more talented than anyone else who stayed with the Cavs following LeBron's departure, but having a good (potentially great) point guard and a bunch of decent-to-mediocre talent isn't going to be enough for LeBron to give up the glitz and glamour of Miami and even spurn other bigger markets that have cap space to come back to Cleveland.
Why would LeBron, who has restored his image, if not improved it, as a global icon since leaving town, come back to a team that hasn't sniffed the postseason since he left, with a coach that he helped run out of town back in 2010 when he reportedly defied him in back-to-back embarrassing losses to the Boston Celtics in Games 5 and 6 in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals , and with an owner that ripped him to shreds hours after he signed with Miami and still refuses to even say his name publicly?
To Varejao's credit, he did say that he and his teammates are not focusing on what may not (or may) happen this upcoming summer.
"We're playing for us," he said. "We can't control that. Whatever happens with LeBron, happens. We are just trying to figure out what we have to do to be a better team."
The fans should give up any dreams James riding back to town on a white horse aiming to deliver on his championship promise that he made many years ago. The players should give up hoping that the NBA's best player will return to help turn them into a championship-caliber team all by himself and focus on trying to salvage a season that appears to be spiraling out of control.
Like the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, who have each lost in their careers to the Cleveland Browns a combined total of twice, James has similarly owned the Cavs since he left. Ever since his emotional first trip to Cleveland on Dec. 2, 2010, in which the Heat dominated the Cavs, 118-90, sending the Cavs on a downward spiral they have yet to recover from, James is 9-1 against his old team, with the only Cavs' win a 110-90 victory at The Q on March 29, 2011.
That also includes a 98-95 win at The Q on March 20 last season, in which the Cavs squandered a 27-point lead. However, it does not include Miami's 96-95 win at The Q in last season's regular-season finale in which James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh didn't even suit up.
If the Cavs are going to restore some faith with their frustrated fanbase, a win over LeBron and the Heat at home would go a long way. It could be the defining moment in a dramatic turnaround. That should be the primary focus for this team, the front office and the fanbase -- not what could happen this coming July.
If LeBron James were to eventually return to Cleveland, I'd much rather him return as a member of the Cleveland Browns, just like he did in a State Farm commercial a few years ago. However, I think that scenario is just about as likely as his return to the Cavs.
Dan Gilles lives in Northeast Ohio and has been a sportswriter for 19 years. He has been published in multiple newspapers and web sites, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram. He is a life-long fan and observer of the Cleveland sports scene.
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- LeBron James
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