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.
Per ESPN's Tom Penn, the move could free up as much as $21.7 million in cap space for Cleveland and -- what a coincidence! -- James' max price tag is $20.7 million.
Cleveland's core is loaded with young, if unproven, talent. At 22 years old and with three seasons under his belt, Kyrie Irving is a seasoned veteran compared to Andrew Wiggins (19), Anthony Bennett (21) and Dion Waiters (22). Rounding out the frontcourt, Tristan Thompson and Zeller, both of whom are under 25 years of age, join veteran bigs Anderson Varejao and Brendan Haywood. Matthew Dellavedova, 2014 first-round pick Joe Harris and Carrick Felix will pick up the slack left in Jack's wake. Now comes word that the Cavs are pursuing Ray Allen to further entice James. For this exercise, we'll project the Cavs to snag James' pal Mike Miller for the room exception (worth $2.7 million) and Anthony Tolliver as the stretch big with the remaining sliver of about $2 million in cap space.
You want to see James' impact on the offensive end? Cleveland plummeted in the offensive efficiency ranks from fourth in 2009-10 all the way down to 29th the season after James left -- moving from one of the best offensive machines to one of the most pathetic outfits overnight. That's the power of James. For the most part, Cleveland hasn't recovered on that end of the floor. In the four seasons without James, the Cavs have never ranked higher than 23rd in points per possession.
Adding James, of course, would change all that. He's the most versatile, talented offensive force in the game. There's nothing on the court he can't do except maybe ignore a wide-open shooter on the perimeter. That's pretty much it.
But whether he's a good fit with Cleveland's personnel is a different story. Irving is not a good off-ball shooter and primarily needs the ball in his hands to be effective. He shot just 31.2 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers last season, ranking 76th among 77 guards in catch-and-shoot efficiency last season. Only Michael Carter-Williams was worse. Yuck. He'll need to spend the summer working on improving that area of his game if he wants to maximize his value next to James. Will he have the motivation to reinvent himself after landing a $90 million contract?
Cleveland coach Blatt, widely labeled as an offensive guru in his career overseas, certainly has the brains to pull it off. A graduate of the Princeton offense, Blatt would do well to use Cleveland's athleticism and youth to his advantage by pushing the pace and moving the ball offensively. Irving would have to cede primary control to James, but the Cavs would be stocked with able and willing passers in James, Miller and Varejao.
Wiggins is the wild card. New Cavs GM David Griffin already has labeled Wiggins as a "big 2-guard," which would ease the overlap on the wing between James, Wiggins and Bennett. Wiggins projects to be a solid 3-point shooter after shooting 34.1 percent at Kansas, but he's nowhere near as sharp as Miller, who is an all-time elite marksman. Getting out in transition and cutting to the basket in the half court -- a Blatt specialty -- would be Wiggins' best plan of attack in a James/Irving-centric offense.
James and Varejao made music in the pick-and-roll before, so the Cavs can avoid the growing pains that come along with integrating ball-dominant talent by featuring that action as much as possible. However, it's unclear how Waiters and Irving will feel about playing primarily off the ball, though Waiters is the much better option as a spot-up shooter. Blatt's challenge will be to get two young, ball-dominant scorers who have a history of being sticky with the ball to defer those duties to James. Wade did it, but that took a full season and he wasn't trying to prove himself in the league like Irving and Waiters.
There are a lot fewer question marks with the Heat. Continuity plays a large role here as James, Wade and Bosh can run the Heat's offense in their sleep. McRoberts and Granger are high-IQ players with 3-point range who can integrate seamlessly with the Heat's pace-and-space system. As mentioned in Monday's story, the Heat think of McRoberts as their Boris Diaw -- a playmaking big man who can shoot from deep and make quick, smart decisions. While the Cavs start from scratch, the Heat will be polishing one of the NBA's most dominant offenses.
The Heat's biggest weakness can be found at the point guard position, which happens to be the Cavs' biggest strength. The Heat could rely on Cole and Napier to hold down the fort as they try to bring in a veteran point guard off the scrap heap, but neither is a good bet to lead a high-functioning offense from the start. If Mario Chalmers or Nelson can be had at a cheap price, that would provide a big lift for the Heat's championship quest. With a high turnover rate and poor finishing skills, Cole remains one of the most destructive point guards in the league on that end; his 8.8 PER does not lie.
All in all, the Cavs have a ton of upside offensively, but the pieces aren't likely to fall into place right away. They could be monsters in the open court, but James has never played for an up-tempo team. A top-10 offense would be feasible, but the Heat have ranked in the top two in offensive efficiency in each of the past two seasons. It's hard to see the Heat dropping much in that category after bringing back their core along with McRoberts and Granger.
Even with a defense-minded coach in Mike Brown last season, the Cavs ranked 17th, or just below average, on that end of the floor. Not a good start. Indeed, the thought of peak James and Wiggins flying around on the wing would be terrifying for the rest of the league. But those days of James' dominance on the perimeter may be over. According to NBA.com, the Heat were 2.1 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with James on the court last season, and James' defensive real plus-minus checked in around average.
At full tilt, James can be the best defender in the league, but he rarely went all out on that end last season. Call it coasting or energy conservation or just plain ol' aging, James hasn't been the defensive force he once was. Whatever the case, it's hard to imagine that James will dramatically move the needle enough to turn the Cavs into a top-five defense. And it's an open question whether the offense-minded Blatt can get everyone to buy into a solvent defensive system with all the youth at every position.
Irving was a flaming bag defensively last season and hasn't shown he is ready to take that end of the floor seriously. His minus-3.4 defensive RPM suggests he was one of the worst defending starting point guards in the league, hurtful enough to erase all his value on the offensive end. Though that probably is too harsh of an assessment, Irving will have to stop relying on his teammates to clean up his mistakes if the Cavs want to be a real defensive outfit. If you thought James yelled at Chalmers in Miami, just wait until he sees Irving "fight" through a screen 20 times a game.
Ranking 11th by the end of the season, the Heat weren't much better than the Cavs on defense. Adding McRoberts and Granger may provide some relief in place of Battier and Beasley, but the gains will probably be minimal. By injecting some relative youth in McRoberts and Napier, the Heat should have more energy on that end, but it's not as if McRoberts is a defensive ace.
Still, the Heat have the slight edge here. Varejao, Zeller and Thompson just aren't the rim protectors that the Cavs need with Irving in the fold. Even with Wiggins and James potentially wreaking havoc on the perimeter, it's hard to see the Cavs being good enough right away to get the nod.
The final word
This won't be an easy choice for James. On one hand, he and his family have an opportunity to return back home to Cleveland, where he still has a house nearby in Akron. On the court, the Cavs are stacked with young talent, which could be a refreshing change for James after carrying the load in the Finals against the Spurs.
But the Cavs simply aren't ready yet to contend for titles right away. If that's the priority, James should head back to Miami. I asked ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton to put together a projection for next season given the projected rosters, and the numbers backed up the conventional wisdom: The Heat would be the superior option now, with a projected record of 57-25, while the Cavs posted a projected 55-27 record. It's hard to imagine a young squad like Cleveland's would have enough discipline and maturity to reach the Finals against battle-tested teams like the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. (Note: the Cavs' projection included Zeller, who was only expected to produce about a win for the Cavs' bottom line. That could be replenished with a veteran at a minimum deal.)
In the aftermath of the Spurs' brilliant Finals performance, we're quick to dismiss the Heat's season as a total train wreck. But they posted the fourth-best point differential in the league last season and cruised into the Finals with relative ease. If a trip to the Finals is a failure, 28 other teams would kill for that failure.
Looking past next season, the Cavaliers might offer James more upside. Indeed, Pelton's projections have the Cavaliers eclipsing the Heat in 2015-16 as Wade and Bosh age, but there's way too much uncertainty a year from now to make any hard conclusions in the data. In terms of basketball talent, the smart move for James might be to re-up with the Heat for a one-year deal and then revisit his situation next summer after he has seen what Bennett, Wiggins and Irving can do under Blatt's leadership. Cavs fans would be wise to postpone the Cleveland homecoming festivities.