For the third time in his career, LeBron James‘ upcoming free agency could once again drastically alter the NBA landscape for years to come. The fallout from his 2014 decision to return to Cleveland after a four-year stint in Miami is still being felt around the league.
And whatever he decides this summer, whether to stay with the Cavs or to try and chase a championship elsewhere, it will no doubt have wide-ranging implications for several franchises. For instance, the Heat are still trying to pick up the pieces from his departure in 2014.
Yes, team president Pat Riley has done an admirable job of keeping his franchise somewhat competitive in the intervening years, but it’s been a difficult and complicated process. And beyond that, it’s taken the legendary executive some time to come to terms with that reality.
But in an excerpt from Ian Thompson’s new book, The Soul of Basketball, Riley has come to understand why LeBron made the choice he made. Via Jackie MacMullan of ESPN:
“I had two to three days of tremendous anger. I was absolutely livid, which I expressed to myself and my closest friends,” Riley said. Then, Thomsen wrote, over the weeks and months to come, Riley came to see the move to Cleveland from LeBron’s point of view. “My beautiful plan all of a sudden came crashing down,” Riley said. “That team in ten years could have won five or six championships. But I get it. I get the whole chronicle of [LeBron’s] life.
“While there may have been some carnage always left behind when he made these kinds of moves, in Cleveland and also in Miami, he did the right thing. I just finally came to accept the realization that he and his family said, ‘You’ll never, ever be accepted back in your hometown if you don’t go back to try to win a title. Otherwise someday you’ll go back there and have the scarlet letter on your back. You’ll be the greatest player in the history of mankind, but back there, nobody’s really going to accept you.'”
LeBron, of course, achieved that ultimate goal in 2016 with a miraculous comeback from a 3-1 deficit against the Warriors. But with the Warriors’ addition of Kevin Durant, the ascendance of the Houston Rockets, and the newly-competitive Eastern Conference, another title looks as far away as ever.
Still, much of his decision will hinge on how the Cavs perform this spring, and there’s a lot that could happen. The Celtics are without Kyrie Irving for the remainder of the season and playoffs, and Golden State is dealing with a slew of injuries heading into the postseason.