As LeBron James meets with Pat Riley this week for the first time since free agency began, the speculation about his return to Cleveland is louder than ever. A week into free agency and James still has not given any indication that he'll be back in Miami, leaving the rest of the league in a holding pattern.
If it's true that it has come down to two choices -- Miami or Cleveland -- James could not have two more different options in front of him. One city is near where he grew up; the other, paradise. The Miami front office has been as stable as any organization in the NBA; Cleveland has seen turnover seemingly every year. Miami employs the second-longest tenured coach in the NBA in Erik Spoelstra; Cleveland hired David Blatt, who has never coached in the league in any capacity, last month. The Miami Heat were the oldest minutes-adjusted team in the NBA last season; the Cleveland Cavaliers were the seventh youngest. The Heat haven't made a lottery pick since 2008; the Cavs have made five top-five picks in the past four years, including three No. 1 overall selections.
Simply put, the Cavs offer youthful upside while the Heat boast a proven, if aging, championship pedigree. So which on-court situation is better for LeBron James? Let's break it down.
First, we have to lay out some inferences. On the Heat side, we'll assume that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (though he's not a lock) will return to Miami along with Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, James Jones, Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen. The Heat will bring Norris Cole back into the mix while adding 3-and-D wing prospect James Ennis, who played overseas last season, and first-round pick Shabazz Napier. New signees Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger add depth around the perimeter to fill in for the departures of Shane Battier and Michael Beasley.
That's 13 players. Because the Heat are hard-capped at $81 million and bringing back the core with McRoberts and Granger will likely nudge them right up near the tax line at $77 million, they won't have much wiggle room to bring in more talent via sign-and-trade. At the high end, they could try to convince Jameer Nelson to take a pay cut and sign for the minimum, but it's more probable that they'll try to bring in a reclamation project such as Brandon Rush or Chris Singleton for the wing and a vet point guard such as Jannero Pargo to add depth.
Over on the Cleveland side, they are now in position to offer James the max. According to ESPN's Marc Stein, the Cavaliers successfully unloaded Jarrett Jack's three-year contract that would have eaten $6.3 million on the cap and sent him to Brooklyn in a three-team deal. The salary dump came at a cost, however. To sweeten the salary dump, Cleveland also sent 2013 first-round pick Sergey Karasev, Tyler Zeller and a future first-rounder. In return, the Cavs received a future second-rounder.