ORLANDO, Fla. -- LeBron James' hijacking of NBA free agency with his drawn-out decision-making process has created so much tension around the league that not even an archrival executive of Heat president Pat Riley can revel in Miami's anxiety.
"No, I don't take any pleasure in anyone's pain," Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge said Thursday between games at the Orlando Pro Summer League. "I know this is a tough business [with] free agency, and it's all part of what we go through. I certainly don't take any joy in seeing great players leave organizations that have been good to them."
Ainge and Riley have been known to exchange their share of barbs in recent years. And it was just two summers ago when Ainge watched Ray Allen walk away from a more lucrative offer to remain in Boston to sign with the Heat, which at the time was the Celtics' top conference rival.
But Ainge's show of sympathy for the Heat's current plight reveals just how torturous the free agency waiting game has been on just about everyone involved. Thursday was the first day free agents could consummate their new deals by signing contracts with teams.
There hasn't been an inkling of movement, however, from James on his latest decision.
Thursday marked the 10th day that's passed since free agents could have committed to teams, although the league's moratorium prevented them from officially signing contracts. James met with Riley and Heat general manager Andy Elisburg in Las Vegas on Wednesday, but the summit has yet to produce a clear indication on where either the team or the best player in the league stand entering the weekend.
But that didn't stop fans from lining up and standing outside of James' home in Akron, Ohio on Thursday in anticipation of the four-time league MVP announcing he'd return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Meanwhile, James was more than 2,000 miles away in Las Vegas, where he conducted his annual skills camp for high school and college basketball players.
Four years ago, James spurned the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2003 in a controversial decision to sign as a free agent with the Heat. After leading Miami to four straight trips to the NBA Finals, which produced the first two championships of his career, James is torn between remaining with the Heat and a reunion with the Cavaliers. Cleveland has stockpiled young talent, anchored by All-Star guard Kyrie Irving and rookie No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, in addition to clearing a maximum salary slot.
A strong case can be made that if there was ever a perfect time to go back and mend fences in Cleveland as the savior of the franchise, it's now. The Cavaliers are as ripe with assets and potential and cap flexibility as they'll likely ever get in this window of LeBron's prime.
Understandably, the lure is strong. And it's also possible that any of the bridges that were burned between James and the Cavs have thawed since owner Dan Gilbert ripped his departing superstar in an open letter to fans moments after "The Decision" aired four years ago.
Few have to be reminded how classless Gilbert was in the letter that drew a heavy fine from the league. And it would be an understatement to suggest that James was both immature and unprofessional in how he treated the Cavaliers leading up to the decision.
But there are two key things to keep in mind on this front.
First, if James truly wants to return to Cleveland and needs to resolve any lingering animosity or issues with Gilbert, don't underestimate the role former Cavaliers teammate and current front-office executive Zydrunas Ilgauskas could play as a buffer between the two forces.
And second, the fact that James doesn't appear to have any history with either the new Cavs coach or general manager doesn't mean much in the grand scheme. James' authority and influence has only strengthened since he left the first time, when his entourage essentially had carte blanche even then.
So just how does Riley compete with the seemingly magnetic force between James and Cleveland?
One way is to accept that the return just might be inevitable, but attempt to hold it off for a couple more seasons. The Heat have tried to sell James on the merits of remaining in Miami on a short-term deal that gives the team a chance to make one more run at a championship but also gives him the flexibility to re-examine his options in another year or two.
That's basically the extent of Miami's championship window with Dwyane Wade as any sort of vital threat as a sidekick. The logic is that James, 29, would be 31 at the end of a two-year deal and would still be young enough to sign a five-year, full max contract that's free and clear of the collective bargaining agreement 's over-36 rule.
If a two-year deal with a player option for the second year is what it takes to keep James, then it's worth it for the Heat. People often forget, but Michael Jordan also played his final two championship seasons in Chicago on a pair of one-year contracts worth more than $30 million a pop.
"Whatever it takes," Riley said entering free agency regarding the lengths the Heat would go to convince James to stay. "Whatever it takes to keep these guys together, that's what we're prepared for. Let's stay here and try to keep this thing going."
Wade and Chris Bosh continue to wait as James contemplates.
Bosh, who has a standing four-year, $88 million offer from Houston, has been vacationing in Africa this week, riding camels and exploring safaris. Wade has been in Las Vegas hanging out with former Heat teammate Dorell Wright. Wade had dinner with James this week and dropped in on his camp Thursday.
Bosh and Wade don't seem to be approaching matters as if their professional lives are about to be turned upside down by a James departure to Cleveland. Otherwise, they're better actors than ballers.
When a Miami television news station caught up with Wade in Vegas on Thursday and asked how a recent talk with James went, Wade replied: "It went good."
Wade was pressed further about the future of the Heat's Big Three as he entered a vehicle.
"I ain't got nothing to say, man," Wade said. "Life is good."
Both Wade and James reportedly flew back to Miami together Thursday night, with James planning to go to Brazil for Sunday's World Cup final.
Heat fans in Miami took to sports talk call-in shows Thursday, with many seeming resigned to the increasing speculation that James has all but decided to go back to the Cavaliers. Reports on social media sites had James supposedly announcing his decision on his official website Thursday afternoon.
That site, LeBronJames.com, received so much traffic that the server temporarily crashed. Around the same time, a group of Miami's young free agents and draft picks were in the middle of their fourth game of the week in the Orlando Pro Summer League.
Heat first-round draft pick Shabazz Napier said he hasn't spent too much time distracted by the franchise's free agency predicament. James has been a vocal fan of Napier, who led the University of Connecticut to the NCAA title last spring and was named the tournament's most outstanding player.
"You're aware of it, but you just try to focus on doing what you can to earn a roster spot," Heat summer league guard Tyler Johnson said Thursday. "You really can't be concerned about anything else."
That's much easier said than done amid the uncertainty surrounding James.
Questions and rumors are mounting.
Clarity and answers are nonexistent.
James insisted during his postseason media session that he's learned from some of the missteps he had during his previous venture through free agency and wouldn't make some of the same mistakes.
He might not have scheduled another television special this time, but he remains the king of drama.
Ainge was in Orlando speaking with reporters about Boston's three-way trade with Brooklyn and Cleveland -- a deal which allowed the Cavaliers to clear max cap space to entice James.
"Who knows what's going to happen in Cleveland -- it could end up being a good deal for them," Ainge said. "We're all waiting to see what's going to happen with their cap space. I wish I was in their position."
Ainge certainly wouldn't feel comfortable in Riley's, considering how this LeBron waiting game might end.