It was four years ago Tuesday that LeBron James told Jim Gray at the Boys and Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers and taking his talents to South Beach to join the Miami Heat.
Four seasons, four NBA Finals appearances and two NBA titles later, another decision awaits the 29-year-old Akron, Ohio native. Opting out early from the six-year deal he signed with the Heat, James is once again a free agent with no shortage of suitors. While some clubs may be overly optimistic about their chances of attracting the four-time NBA MVP, there are a handful of teams that realistically can bring the game's best player to their city...or, in the case of one team, back to its city.
So which jersey will LeBron James be wearing come this fall?
The fact that James and the other two members of "The Big Three" - Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade - opted out of their deals with the Heat isn't necessarily an indicator that they want out of Florida. When a player has the leverage that all three possess and negotiated, it only makes sense to use and that's just what's happened here. By opting out, the three can all improve their deals with the Heat.
Call it greed if you want, but the Heat were prepared for this development and have already begun to address it. The talk following Miami's six-game loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals was that LeBron wanted Pat Riley to provide him with a better supporting cast. That began in earnest on Monday when the team brought in forwards Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts. Point guard Shabazz Napier, a player admired by James, was acquired on draft night as a means to improve the beleaguered back court (both Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole were benched during the Finals).
These three additions may not have James sprinting back to the Heat yet, but LeBron himself must recognize the Catch-22 Miami finds itself in right now - James wants the team to add to quality, but his choice to opt out has negated the biggest carrot the Heat have to dangle to free agents - the chance to play with James.
Still, the Heat will feel confident in being the devil that James knows. He's won with this team and he knows the coaching staff and the players. He's reportedly been in constant contact with Wade over the free agency process and his close friendship with the 10-time All-Star will go a long way to inform James's choice.
While James and Wade's futures may likely be entwined, Bosh is an intriguing factor when it comes to James's future in Miami. If one of the Big Three is most likely to leave South Beach, it's Bosh. Reports surfaced on Monday that the Houston Rockets had tabled a four-year, $88 million offer to the nine-time All-Star and Bosh was seriously considering it. It's also been suggested that Bosh's first choice would be to stay in Miami with James and Wade, but heading to the Rockets would give Bosh the opportunity to form a brand new Big Three with Dwight Howard and James Harden.
What would that mean for James? Bosh leaving would provide the Heat with ample cap space to bring in another marquee free agent in the form of, say, Carmelo Anthony. What better way to assuage James's call for support than bringing in a premier scorer whose averaged 25.3 points a game over his 10-year career? Now, whether or not there would be enough ball to go around for both James and 'Melo is something to be addressed for another day, but the signing of 'Melo would go a long way to signal the Heat's continued ambition and desire to retain LeBron's services.
If one calls the Heat the front-runner for James, then who else is potentially in the conversation?
Daryl Morey and the Rockets are focused on their first title in 20 years - luxury tax be damned. If Bosh doesn't want to form a new Big Three in the Lone Star State, then perhaps LeBron can do it himself. Dwight Howard would easily be the most talented centre that James has ever played with and James Harden as a No. 3 scoring is a proposition that no defence in the league wants to consider.
The Los Angeles Lakers, who look more likely to be players in next season's free agent frenzy rather than now, have $37 million committed to just five players including the aging Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. Still, the team seems to be interested in getting James and 'Melo together at the Staples Center. For this to work, one of the two would have to agree to less than a max contract, but would the allure of trying to win an NBA title with one of the league's preeminent franchises and two future Hall of Famers in Kobe and Nash be too much for James to resist?
They won 48 games last year and still managed to miss the playoffs, but the Phoenix Suns are one of the finest young teams in the NBA right now and the addition of James to a line-up that includes the dynamic Eric Bledsoe and, arguably, the most underrated guard in the NBA in Goran Dragic could turn the Suns from a team with boundless potential to one capable of competing overnight.
Oh, and there's the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With the level of sheer acrimony that existed when LeBron left for Miami in 2010, the idea that James could someday return to the team he took to the 2007 NBA Finals seemed preposterous. But here we are.
The disdain for LeBron from Cavaliers fans and even team owner Dan Gilbert was palpable and bridges didn't just seem burned, but nuked and the earth was salted.
James is an Ohio kid. In leaving the Cavs, his intent was to win a championship. Obviously, alienating himself from Cavs fans who once idolized him was a by-product of this and some of their vitriol is understandable. Sure, LeBron James was a free agent and only exercising his rights as a free agent to sign with the Heat, but it's hard as a fan to not take your best player deciding that there better options out there as a bit of a slap in the face.
They say that time heals all wounds and that seems to be the case here to some extent, but there's more to it than just that.
So what's changed?
Well, James left four years ago because he didn't have what he deemed to be a suitable supporting cast. In the 2010 playoffs, outside of James, Daniel Gibson was the only Cavaliers player 25 or under. The likes of Jamario Moon, 33-year-old Antawn Jamison and a 37-year-old Shaq didn't exactly instill confidence in LeBron that this team was equipped to compete in the long run.
Flash forward four years and the long run is exactly what the 2014 edition of the Cavaliers are all about. Thanks to five lottery picks in the last four years, including three first-overall selections (Kyrie Irving and Canadians Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins), Cleveland is stockpiled with young talent. The environment that James wanted in Cleveland four years ago exists now.
But what about the anger?
Fans, perhaps reticent at first, will likely come around to a return engagement, but the enmity wasn't a one-way street. While fans were furious with the player leaving, James, himself, felt that the Cavs played into the fomenting anger of the fans and all too easily allowed him to be cast as the villain in his exit. There was also the now notorious open letter to the fans (bizarrely written in comic sans) from Gilbert posted on the team's website that, in no uncertain terms, casted aspersions upon James as both a player and a person. That's not something that somebody quickly forgives and forgets. Gilbert certainly didn't forget, which is why, after four years, the letter was finally removed from the team's site.
While the summer of 2014 won't bring with it the forced and ill-advised pageantry of the Decision, the fallout of LeBron's choice four years later may dwarf that of his first one.
So until we know for a fact, we'll continue to wonder and ask this - Where is LeBron James headed?
As always, it's Your Call.