At last year's All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, LeBron James set the NBA world ablaze when he hinted that he could one day return to the Cavaliers for a third stint.
“The door’s not closed on that,” James said to The Athletic last February. “I’m not saying I’m coming back and playing, I don’t know. I don’t know what my future holds. I don’t even know when I’m free.”
James has since signed a contract extension that keeps him in Los Angeles through at least the end of the 2023-24 season, with a player option for the 2024-25 campaign, meaning the earliest he could be "free" is the 2024 offseason.
Over the course of his 20-year career, James has never been included in a midseason trade and has played through each of his contracts, but he has exercised his rights as a free agent multiple times — three to be exact.
As James' career winds down, is a third stint with the Cavs in the cards?
Will LeBron James return to Cleveland again?
It's important to acknowledge that James was careful not to say he was coming back to play in Cleveland.
James, a native of Northeast Ohio, has long expressed his interest in one day becoming an owner of an NBA franchise. If his Las Vegas plans don't materialize, could he have been insinuating that he planned to join a future Cavs ownership group? Could it be the classic one-day contract to "retire" as a Cavalier?
Moving past the specifics of James' very calculated choice of words, a few variables loom large with respect to his future decision.
James is on record saying that before retiring, he wants to share the NBA floor with his son, Bronny. In the same interview with The Athletic, James added that "my last year will be played with my son. Wherever Bronny is at, that’s where I’ll be."
As it turns out, James' actions might be just as calculated as his words. James has the option to enter free agency in 2024, the same offseason in which Bronny becomes draft-eligible. And while the Cavs have parted with a bevy of draft capital in the past few years, they do happen to own their first-round pick once in the next seven drafts — the 2024 NBA Draft.
This, of course, is all conjecture and in 2024, James could be years away from focusing on a retirement tour and Bronny might not be NBA-ready just yet.
That said, there is one tangible aspect of the situation that could lead LeBron back to Cleveland: winning.
How LeBron James would fit on the Cavaliers
In the 2022 offseason, Cleveland went all-in by acquiring Donovan Mitchell in a blockbuster trade with Utah. The 26-year-old Mitchell stands alongside 22-year-old Darius Garland as the backcourt of the future while 21-year-old Evan Mobley and 24-year-old Jarrett Allen make up the frontcourt of the future.
Taking a look at how things break down, the Cavs are set at point guard, shooting guard, power forward and center. Surely, an upgrade to the small forward position would be welcomed.
While James doesn't exactly fit the developmental timeline of Cleveland's young stars, he is the greatest to ever wear a Cavs uniform and will likely still be performing at an All-Star level when he becomes a free agent again. A Garland-Mitchell-James-Mobley-Allen starting unit would immediately become a title contender — if not a title favorite — and as a four-time champion, James could help the young core reach new heights.
On the court, James is considered to be one of the NBA's greatest players because of his insane basketball IQ and ability to lift the play of others around him. In some respects, we've seen what this looks like before.
LeBron won alongside Kyrie Irving. LeBron won alongside Dwyane Wade. Now, imagine LeBron playing with prime Irving and Wade at the same time.
History suggests that after an inevitable period of adjustment, that's how he'd look playing off of Garland and Mitchell.
As for concerns around ball dominance, this is 39- or 40-year-old LeBron we're speaking of. Even at 37, James has been willing to take a step back to allow Anthony Davis to be the No. 1 option in LA. Tack on a few years to his age and James could realistically be the fourth option in this lineup given Mobley's trajectory toward stardom.
There are a number of moving pieces involved, but if James were to somehow land back in Cleveland, the fit would be close to seamless. More importantly, it would be a career extender, which could allow LeBron to fulfill the goal of playing alongside Bronny. Will that happen just miles away from where they both were born? Time will tell.
LeBron James contract
In August, James signed a two-year $97.1 million contract extension tying him to the Lakers through at least the 2023-24 season. Depending on James' performance over the next few seasons, he could choose to opt-out in 2024 to maximize his earning potential as the NBA's salary cap is expected to increase.
(Salary figures courtesy of Spotrac.)
|LeBron James||$44,474,988||$46,900,000||$50,652,000 (PO)||UFA|
PO — Player option
UFA — Unrestricted free agent