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Nothin' but Net: Will LeBron disappoint Cleveland again?

By Jim Brighters, NBA Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - LeBron James' looming free-agency next offseason will be the dominant storyline in the NBA for the better part of five months.

James can opt out of his deal with the Miami Heat after this season. He could always honor the remainder of his contract, but he'd be a pretty noble man to leave a bazillion dollars on the table.

Even if James opts out of the final year of his deal with the two-time (and possibly three-time by the end of the season) champion Heat, he could re-up for a long-term deal once again.

Say what you will about James, but he went to Miami with his two Olympic buddies to win championships. Winning still matters to James. He has four MVPs and two Olympic gold medals, but that's not the end game.

James wants to go where he has the best chance to win more rings. Yes, Miami is nice, so I've heard, and the money was good. But James believed the Heat offered the best opportunity for a title.

Let's assume that will be the driving force in his next decision, and not money. The next 11 generations of the James family could live comfortably off LeBron's wealth. Remember, James took slightly less than the max to go to South Beach.

But, money is a factor because any prospective suitor needs to have some in order to sign the game's best. Teams are already re-structuring deals, not offering contracts to prospective free agents and gearing up for a run at LeBron.

Let's assume the money is equal, and winning is the priority, why wouldn't James just stay in Miami? The Heat are favored to win another NBA title. How could you make the argument that if Miami won three championships in a row, that isn't the best destination for success?

Pretty simply, actually. James is the dominant reason for the Heat's success. Wherever he goes, he is so good that he vaults the team into instant contention.

The rest of the Heat roster is good, but not great.

Dwyane Wade is heading toward the home stretch of his career. He had a spectacular regular season last season, but his knees bothered him in the playoffs and he was a shell. An aging two guard whose Hall of Fame career has been based on slashing and athleticism will take steps backward as age and tread catch up to him.

Chris Bosh has been a loyal soldier playing the center spot, banging with guys who have 20 pounds plus of a muscle advantage. He could be a viable No. 2 option, but if that ascension occurred, it would weaken the Heat some.

The Los Angeles Lakers are reportedly going to be in hot pursuit of King James. Kobe Bryant will be a free agent and could sign something cap-friendly to have one more run, this time with James. Bryant could give James the Lakers' torch he desperately wanted to pass to Dwight Howard.

And for a season, maybe two, James and Bryant would be awesome theater. But there is no young player on the Lakers roster coveted by any other team in the league. Not a single one, so after the nostalgia tour ended, James would be left with little.

Los Angeles is nice, so I've been told, but winning, not climate and Denzel Washington in the stands, will drive James' choices.

The other team you hear is the Cleveland Cavaliers, the franchise James crushed to bits by exercising his free-agent rights three-plus years ago. They torched James jerseys in the streets, the owner lost his mind in front of the media and the town grew to hate him.

But the thinking has always been that James would, at some point, like to right that wrong. He's an Ohio guy, but would he return this quickly?

The Cavs have the game's best talent who can barely legally drink in Kyrie Irving. He is an All-Star already and is poised to become a huge superstar in the league, and, make no mistake, even James needs at least another stud to continue the championship routine to which he's become accustomed.

Cleveland has stocked up on young talent and gotten lucky with two lottery victories in the last three years. Irving was the first No. 1 pick, then Anthony Bennett was the surprising choice in June.

They also have taken Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller very high in recent drafts. It's a solid nucleus, but is it enough to sway James back home?

Sadly, I don't think it is.

(Sorry, Cleveland fans, you've had a rough week with the Browns trading Trent Richardson. This won't help.)

Thompson has been decent in two seasons with averages of 10.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Those are serviceable numbers for a fourth option, which Thompson would probably be if James came.

However, Thompson is s grunt guy. Yes, you need them to win in the NBA, but could you honestly say the Cavs couldn't live without him? Of course not. Plus, this offseason, Thompson has tweaked his shooting a touch. A little more than a touch actually. After a career shooting left-handed, Thompson is NOW SHOOTING RIGHT-HANDED! He is believed to be the first NBA player to switch dominant hands in the middle of his career. That is terrifying.

Waiters, the fourth pick in the 2012 draft, posted a highly respectable 14.7 points per game in his rookie season. The rest of his numbers were not earth- moving. He's injury-prone and again, not a player you couldn't live without.

Zeller also had a decent rookie year in 2012-13. He had to play more than expected when Anderson Varejao went down. Zeller averaged 7.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg and shot 43 percent from the field, which stinks out loud for a big man.

Bennett is a gigantic wild-card. He was, at best, a sketchy choice for the top overall pick, but this past draft was weak so someone had to be the guy. Bennett has a lot of skills and could bounce between forward spots. His development is crucial to the Cavs' success, and, in the process, any courtship of James.

Most believe the Cavs had a good offseason. The Andrew Bynum signing was low risk, high reward, but if you think you'll see Bynum in real action before you see Christmas lights in your neighborhood, you're too optimistic.

If Cleveland's young guys improve significantly, the Cavs are a real option for James. It may look foolish to diminish such young players, but I'm going by the sight test, and I just don't see Cleveland having enough, besides Irving, to lure James. I'm not big on some of these guys the way others are.

Plus, the Cavs hired back Mike Brown to be the head coach, and he and James were not always united according to those more in the know on the subject than myself.

It just doesn't seem a James return to Cleveland makes sense.

Hopefully, this time around, James won't go on national television to break the hearts of Cleveland fans. Just do it on Twitter.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

- My early second favorite for LeBron's services, other than the Heat, is actually the Chicago Bulls. When reports surfaced the Bulls weren't going to offer Luol Deng a contract, my mind immediately wandered to signing James. If they amnestied Carlos Boozer and did a few small things, they could be right there for him. Derrick Rose is a superstar to play alongside James. I'd watch for the Bulls in nine months.

- With time winding down until preseason camps open, I'd been finalizing my rankings. I was tentatively leaning toward the Washington Wizards as my eighth seed in the East. Emeka Okafor's injury alters that a bit. He's no superstar, but he's a pretty darn good defensive center and above-average rebounder. There's no timetable for his return from a herniated disc in his neck.

- Am I crazy enough to not pick the Miami Heat as the best team in the league preseason? I believe I am.

- Worst team has been locked up for a while as I see the Philadelphia 76ers winning 15 games.

- Teams I think will be better than others expect: Lakers, Wizards, Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics. Teams I think will be worse than others expect: Heat, New Orleans Pelicans, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets (no one thinks they'll be 3 seed again, but I think they could be in danger of missing the playoffs.)

- Movie moment - I have no fewer than nine movies that I haven't seen in my DVR. The oldest, "21 Jump Street," has been in there since spring. Movie moments may be going away because I don't watch movies anymore.

- TV moment - Number of the 6 Best Drama Series Emmy nominees I watch: 0. Number of the 6 Best Comedy Series Emmy nominees I watch: 3. I'm not watching enough good dramas is what I take from this.

09/19 12:57:29 ET

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