The white Cadillac Escalade pulled into the parking garage attached to the IMG building on July 1, 2010, and LeBron James slipped out of the passenger side door. He flipped a black backpack over his shoulders and entered the headquarters of his LRMR marketing firm as the frenzied scene outside erupted.
Traffic was occasionally stopped as generally civil people ran – paparazzi style – into the streets to catch glimpses of NBA team personnel entering and exiting the building. Jay-Z was there. So was Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Pat Riley showed up, too, and eventually walked away with the grand prize.
As James enters into free-agent waters again today, the feeling is far different. There is a more professional, business-like feel to the event. James has grown up and matured over these last four years, and so have the people around him.
All communications will now go through his agent, Rich Paul. And with the widely held belief James will ultimately return to Miami, teams interested in speaking with him don’t know when – or if – they’ll receive a face-to-face meeting.
The Cavaliers, however, will be ready if called upon.
ESPN reported Monday that James will be seeking a max contract, estimated to be worth about $22.2 million for next season. The Cavs will have to move some contracts around to get there, but have always remained confident that’s attainable.
What’s more important to them is the pitch to get James back. They have been preparing for months, even years, for this moment. They know any team that gets in front of him will lay out a plan of how they’ll win with him, how they’ll surround him with top talent and how they can win titles together.
But the Cavs privately feel they can separate themselves in two key areas: This area is still home to him, and Dan Gilbert is willing to cut any check necessary to help the team win.
The Cavs know how much James and his wife, Savannah, love being in Northeast Ohio. He spends plenty of time at his Bath home in the summer, and the Cavs will try to convince him of the merits to return here permanently.
Perhaps more importantly, they’ll try to sell him on Gilbert’s deep pockets. The history between Gilbert and James is all-too-well documented. Gilbert’s letter in the hours after James’ departure four years ago did significant damage to the relationship, but what can’t be denied is Gilbert’s willingness to spend.
If given the opportunity, the Cavs will remind James how the Heat parted ways with Mike Miller last summer in what was strictly a cost-cutting move. Miller’s release under the amnesty provision saved Heat owner Micky Arison about $15 million in tax penalties. On top of that, the Heat never used their midlevel exception to replace Miller or give the Heat another weapon.
Both decisions irritated James.
Gilbert, conversely, has never let money cloud a decision. He proved that again when he essentially bought assistant coach Tyronn Lue from the Los Angeles Clippers. The potential total value of Lue’s deal – four years, $6.5 million – is more than some general managers make.
Gilbert will spend any price to win, and that’s not to label Arison as cheap. The Heat have consistently held one of the league’s highest payrolls since James joined them and will likely be in line to pay an expensive repeat offenders tax following next season. But the Cavs certainly will cite the Miller amnesty, if given the opportunity, as proof Gilbert is willing to spend more than Arison.
A more likely scenario for the Cavs, however, will be to move on without LeBron, continue building this team through the draft and supplementing with appropriate trades and free agents.
Along that line of thinking, ESPN reported the Cavs will fly to New Jersey to meet with Kyrie Irving today about a possible max extension. Teams can start negotiating with free agents at 12:01 a.m. today, and rather than using those early hours to pursue other players, the Cavs seem to be making the commitment to getting something done quickly with Irving.
Irving is already under contract for next season. The extension, if completed, won’t begin until the 2015-16 season. Irving will earn $7 million next season as the final guaranteed year of his rookie deal, which gives the Cavs one final chance to add a high-priced free agent while paying Irving rookie contract dollars.
At this point, that player seems unlikely to be James. But the Cavs have come too far to give up now. They’re ready to talk if he’s willing to listen.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at www.facebook.com/abj.sports.