The best analogy here is to a marriage that ends in an acrimonious divorce. At the very end, things are said or written in anger, things that you don’t really mean, and in fonts that no one should ever use. But there are also underlying reasons for the breakup, patterns of behavior that must be changed for these two people to be civil with each other or—in certain extraordinary circumstances—take the plunge and get back together.
Though James is the one who supposedly “betrayed” Cleveland, in this instance he’ll be the one with trust issues. For the Cavaliers, re-signing LeBron would be an amazing coup. The team would be an instant championship contender, and Gilbert’s coffers would spill over with added revenue. Cha-King!
By contrast, if LeBron goes back to the Cavaliers, he would have to sign a long-term contract that would lock him in to a committed relationship with the team and the owner. Given the bitterness of the previous split, it seems likely that this would be a till-retirement-do-us-part situation—LeBron won’t have to go through this craziness again. James, then, would have to trust that a franchise that has a proven track record of failure and poor decision-making would reverse its course. The only reason the Cavaliers were any good during the LeBron James era is that they were so bad that they lucked in to drafting LeBron James. The only reason the Cavs have a semiappealing young roster now is that they’ve been so bad in the post-LeBron era that they’ve “earned” three of the last four No. 1 overall draft picks. (And it’s looking like they screwed up at least one of those selections.)
Just as important, James would have to go in to business with someone who’d behaved as if his move to Miami in free agency had been a betrayal on the order of surrendering West Point to the British. And this someone still seems to believe that fanning the flames of LeBron hatred was the right thing to do.
During our conversation, Prudie noted that as a general rule, it’s good to “get out of horribly dysfunctional relationships, and don’t go back.” Then again, if LeBron really does want to return to Cleveland, then he’d be shortchanging his own happiness if he decides to stay away just to spite Dan Gilbert.
There are no easy answers here, which reveals the absurdity of all of the talk that LeBron is in an unusually powerful position, able to dictate where he wants to go and under what circumstances. The likely reality is that he’s grappling with a pair of imperfect choices, both of which would require him to cede control to a higher, richer power. Does he believe that Heat President Pat Riley and owner Micky Arison can retool an aging roster? Does he think that Miami is where he wants to spend the dwindling prime years of his career? Does he trust that Dan Gilbert will control his worst impulses, and that Cleveland general manager David Griffin can solidify the team’s young core? Does he believe that the value of returning home and winning a championship in Cleveland exceeds anything else he could possibly achieve in the NBA?
The whole point of free agency is that you’re free to go wherever you like, for whatever reasons you feel are most important. Going to a new team isn’t a betrayal, and it isn’t an act of cowardice. It’s simply a decision, whether televised or not, that you make after thinking through the pros and cons. If it were me, “Owner wrote an insane note in a weird font that deemed me a blight on humanity” would get a prominent place in the con column. But it’s not my list, and my opinion doesn’t matter. If LeBron wants to get hitched to Dan Gilbert once again, I’ll wish him well. I just hope they get some counseling, because nobody deserves to see this again.