On Feb. 5, 2010, the Cleveland Cavaliers were in the midst of a 13-game win streak and celebrating an easy victory over the Miami Heat the night before. They were on their way to a 60-win season and believed they had put their best-ever team around LeBron James.
That same day the Heat were at a low point, on a five-game losing streak to drop to three games below .500. Dwyane Wade and team president Pat Riley were in the midst of an uncomfortable and worrisome stalemate. Riley had publicly said he was not prepared to make major improvements to the team until he knew Wade planned to re-sign that summer. Wade, in turn, publicly said he couldn't commit until he knew what he was committing to. At the time, the thought that James, Wade and Chris Bosh would all be members of the Heat five months later was unfathomable. Riley and the Heat had dreamed it and prepared for it but it seemed an improbable long shot at best.
Now four year later, as James possibly heads toward another free agency, taking the temperature in February seems to yield a similar feeling. The incumbent Heat have done everything possible to keep James long term, including surrounding him with Hall of Fame talent and winning two championships. The logical and gut read is, five months from now, James will have recommitted to staying in Miami, either by not opting out of his contract or re-signing long term.
But as James and the Heat visit the Los Angeles Clippers on this Feb. 5, the lessons from the past are a reminder to be careful making assumptions at midseason. Especially when it comes to James.
"This time is going to be different," a source close to James said about James' view of free agency. "If LeBron decides to look at other options it won't just be teams with cap space. He has 30 options if he wants them."
By this time in 2010, the Cavs were favorites to retain James and the Heat were just a contender with a plan, hoping circumstances would lead to an opportunity. Now in February 2014, the Heat are favorites. But once again there are a few teams hoping circumstances can lead to opportunity. James plays one of them tonight in Los Angeles.
Unlike the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cavs -- two teams that have been mentioned as suitors for James this summer -- the Clippers will not have open cap space. They will not have the cap space to sign James as a maximum-level free agent. It would require a sign-and-trade if James ever got serious about the option. In short, it would take the Heat's cooperation.
For this reason, the Clippers are not on the national radar as a potential location for James if he decides to look around. It is unconventional to consider it. But what the Heat did to land James four years ago was not conventional, either. They were able to make some remarkable last-minute trades -- a detail that largely goes overlooked in history -- then convinced three stars in their primes to take pay cuts so they could play together. That is also a feat that remains unmatched by any of their peers.
The takeaway from that operation: Don't assume anything and don't underestimate competition.