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PHOENIX – Before LeBron James disappeared on his two-week vacation to South Beach and JerryWorld, his message to these Cleveland Cavaliers had been unmistakable: Never mind what you see, just listen to what I tell you.
For all the leveraging of the Ohio homecoming into marketing and commercials, few surrounding these Cavaliers sensed James had intimately invested himself into the process of constructing a championship culture. When the Cavaliers needed his old MVP self – hard-playing, smart and relentless – they found him taking off plays and jogging back on defense and undermining his coach in ways big and small. James hadn't offered the leadership he promised to reconstruct the franchise, only his presence.
For everyone suspicious of James' intentions when he pushed David Blatt out of a confrontation with a game official in Tuesday night's loss to the Phoenix Suns, give James a benefit of the doubt he hasn't earned. He was trying to spare Blatt a technical foul.
In this warped Cavaliers culture, it almost felt like progress in the limited star-coach partnership. At least, James acknowledged that Blatt was there, that he was Cavaliers coach. That's been rare.
Cleveland lost its sixth straight game, dropping under .500. James was refreshed, explosive on the way to 33 points, seven rebounds and five assists – and it needs to be the reset button on his return to Cleveland.
James rejoins a roster with better talent than he left after the Cavs made trades to acquire Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. It's a roster that'll require James' greatest intangible skill of all: team builder. He should've been with the Cavaliers through his rehabilitation, whatever he says about the healing powers of warm weather. Much more than talk about it, James needs to live the commitment now. He needs to be engaged on the floor and in the huddles. Leading is every day, all day, and he's largely been absent in that way for the Cavaliers.
So far, the Cavaliers have witnessed LeBron James, the businessman. As much as ever, the Cavs discovered that the opening week of the regular season in contract talks on forward Tristan Thompson, with the Oct. 31 deadline approaching for the draft class of 2011 rookie extensions looming. James' agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, represents Thompson.
James is the biggest reason Klutch Sports exists, and he's an active recruiter of high school, college and current NBA players to join the agency. Of course, plenty of players help their agents recruit. So when James committed as a free agent in July, everyone understood there was a tax – spoken or unspoken – that would come with James' return, that would manifest itself in an above-market deal for Thompson.
Thompson's a rebounder, a defender, an energy guy. He isn't a starter on a playoff team, but he has a good attitude, a good motor and could be a role player anywhere in the NBA. Paul isn't the first agent to leverage a more prominent client's extension against another, nor the last.
Even so, at what price? Within the NBA, officials expected maybe $10 million a year, perhaps $12 million if Klutch wanted to push it. Well, they kept pushing it. Thompson turned down a $13 million-a-year extension offer – four-years, $52 million, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
For a player of Thompson's stature, this is an incredible risk. An injury could cost him lifetime security. Nothing close to that money exists on the restricted free-agent market this summer, but with James on a one-year deal, Klutch can try to leverage the Cavaliers all over again to get the deal they want – or simply take the one that was already offered.
Of course, LeBron James isn't leaving Cleveland again, and no leveraging can convince NBA people he will leave. James has what he wants in Cleveland: a captive audience for his business pursuits and the further elevation and reclamation of his marketing image. He has his friends everywhere in the organization – hired into staff jobs, riding on the team charters, meeting with management and ownership at will. Those things didn't happen in Miami with Micky Arison and Pat Riley, but let's be honest: Almost no other franchise wouldn't have promised all that access to sign James.
That was important to James, but so is winning, and his time with the Heat had to teach him the price that goes into winning.
In the end, James will decide Blatt's fate. If he remains obstinate, the Cavaliers will have to make a change. No coach can exist in that climate, least of all a European icon with no NBA playing or bench experience. Blatt has to grow fast on this job, learn the league and its players in a hurry, but James can give him support in the locker room – or keep choosing to treat him like a short-timer.
Whatever James' agenda on the coaching front, there were those who believed they had it pegged back in the summer. It was no accident Mark Jackson left one of the most powerful agents in basketball to become a client of Paul's. Paul had no coaching clients, but immense leverage within the Cavaliers. To hear Jackson overpraising James and the team's talent on television – even defending James on giving Blatt a tepid public endorsement – delivers light in itself to this alliance.
Before James signed as a free agent, the Cavaliers management wanted nothing to do with Jackson as a coach. They did their research and had their answers. Now, they understand the reality: If James won't play for the coach, what choice do they have there? James wouldn't be left to pay the buyout on Blatt's contract, nor the luxury tax on Thompson's extension. It'll simply be Klutch Sports gathering the commissions on Jackson's and Thompson's deals.
There was a different James on the floor on Tuesday night, and these Cavaliers need him to turn them into a contender. For now, LeBron James is back, and his time away seems to have rejuvenated his body and mind. Beyond bringing a championship to his beloved Ohio, everyone understands James had his business reasons for this return to Cleveland. Those are playing out, and they're clear, but the Cavaliers need the total LeBron James now. They need the team builder, the MVP – they need it all. The Cleveland Cavaliers need him now.