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LeBron James to Return to Cleveland Cavaliers, Leaving Miami Heat


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LAS VEGAS — Four years after he bolted from Cleveland to Miami in pursuit of the N.B.A. championships that had eluded him, LeBron James is returning home.

At age 29 and with two N.B.A. titles now in his possession, James decided Friday to rejoin the Cavaliers, for whom he played in the first seven seasons of his storied professional career. Vilified in Cleveland when he decided to leave for the Heat, James is likely to find that all is forgiven, and more, as he embarks on an effort to bring a championship to a city that has not celebrated one in any major sport in 50 years.

James, who grew up in nearby Akron, Ohio, and is widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of his generation, made the announcement through Sports Illustrated’s website, saying: “My relationship with northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

In the fairly elaborate statement, which he prepared with the sportswriter Lee Jenkins, James went on to add: “I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.”

In his four-year absence, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst franchises, compiling a 97-215 record without making a single playoff appearance. But by choosing to return, James positioned the team to become a championship contender in the years ahead. Cleveland features a young, talented core that includes Kyrie Irving, a 22-year-old point guard who recently signed a long-term extension with the team, and Andrew Wiggins, a forward who was the top overall pick in last month’s draft.

It is also possible that the Cavaliers will now move aggressively to bolster the roster with veteran players, perhaps even a star from another team, in an effort to fast track the team’s chances to compete for a title. In his statement, James referred to his new teammates, saying, “I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, and I can’t wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates.”

James, however, did not cite Wiggins in the statement, perhaps a clue that the Cavaliers would be willing to trade him this summer for an established player.

James’s departure from Cleveland in 2010 left deep psychic wounds on the city, and they were apparent almost immediately. On the night of his televised decision, fans burned replicas of his jersey and tossed memorabilia in Dumpsters. Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers’ owner, posted a vitriolic letter to the city on the team’s website in which he referred to James as “our former hero” and described his move to Miami as a “cowardly betrayal.” Gilbert also pledged that the Cavaliers would win a championship before James ever did.

Gilbert, of course, was incorrect. But the letter, which gained additional notoriety for being written in Comic Sans, remained online until early this week, when it was removed. That action left many to wonder whether James was, in fact, returning, and there were other clues: photographs of James posing with friends from Akron on his Instagram account; a convoy of moving vans parked outside his home in Miami (although James always ships his cars to Ohio for the summer); and perhaps most important, his silence about his intentions.

At the start of free agency, the Heat were widely considered to be the favorites to retain his services. James has a great deal of respect for Pat Riley, the team’s president, and the Heat had appeared in the N.B.A. finals in each of James’s four seasons in Miami.

It was the appeal of playing with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, two perennial All-Stars, that had lured James to Miami in the first place, and it was a successful partnership — by most measures, if not necessarily their own. When they joined up in 2010, each player agreed to take less money so their superstar collective — the so-called Big 3 — would fit under the league-imposed salary cap. James predicted the number of titles they would win together: “Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven ...”

In hindsight, he should have stopped at two, which was no small feat. The Heat won consecutive championships in 2012 and 2013 as James collected his third and fourth Most Valuable Player awards. He emerged as the league’s most unstoppable force, possessing an almost superhuman blend of speed, strength, skill and savvy.

He was nearly as dominant last season, averaging 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game while shooting a career-best 56.7 percent from the field. The Heat posted a 54-28 record, which earned them the top seeded berth in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Miami advanced to the finals to play the San Antonio Spurs, and it was only then that serious problems surfaced. Wade, 32, slowed by leg injuries in recent seasons, labored to run up and down the court. The Spurs exposed the Heat’s lack of depth. James averaged 28.2 points while shooting 57.1 percent over the course of the best-of-seven series, but it was not enough as San Antonio swatted Miami aside in five games.

In the wake of that sobering experience, James told the Heat that he was opting out of his contract so he could explore free agency. It did not necessarily mean that he was leaving — he could always sign a new contract with the Heat — but it seemed apparent that he wanted to see what sort of personnel moves Riley was capable of making to reshape the roster while working within the league’s salary-cap restraints.

The rest of the league was left to wait and watch, as several teams drafted plans to clear the necessary financial space so they could potentially sign James and accommodate the starting salary of $20.6 million that he was sure to command. He delegated his agent, Rich Paul, to meet with officials from the Cavaliers, the Dallas Mavericks, the Houston Rockets, the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers. The franchises lined up, all of them eager for a crack at courting James.

If the process itself felt familiar to 2010, with James entertaining offers from a smorgasbord of suitors, the conclusion felt very different this time around.

When he decamped for Miami four years ago, James made the announcement in a televised special on ESPN — an awkward bit of programming that struck many viewers as self-serving. Indeed, in his statement Friday, James seemed to be referring to that moment when he stated, “If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently.”

This week, he did opt for a more subtle approach.

In the statement, James said that “Miami, for me, has almost been like college for other kids,” and added: “These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man.”

The decision seems likely to leave the Heat bereft of much talent. Riley had worked to shed salaries so he could woo other free agents to join James, Wade and Bosh in Miami, and so far had recruited two players — Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger. Bosh, meanwhile, has a lucrative contract offer from the Rockets, who are much better positioned to vie for titles than the Heat as constructed without James. If Bosh now follows James out the door, Riley will be almost starting from scratch.

None of this, of course, is of any concern to Cleveland, which lost James four years ago. On Friday, the city was very glad to win him back.

“I looked at other teams,” James said in his statement, “but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.”







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