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How Tim Duncan inspired LeBron James to return home to Cleveland

LeBron James is going back to Cleveland. But how did we get here? I'd say it was during the Finals when James saw the way Duncan's career had progressed in his first NBA home.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

This is the story of how LeBron James chose to go back to Cleveland.

First off, no matter how angered James was by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert's infamous letter, he's made it known for some time that he would eventually return to Cleveland, no matter how he feels about him. His feelings about home supersede the owner. Even after The Decision, when Ohio was at the peak of its LeBron-hating delirium, he kept his Akron home and returned to it during the off-season. Despite what what people like ESPN's Stephen A. Smith kept saying about the "lure of South Beach," I've never gotten the impression that James chose the Heat because he wanted to stroll down South Beach and hook up with supermodels. Call me a naive fool, but I'll take the high road with James, who's been in a relationship with the mother of his two children -- and now his wife -- since high school. The warm weather and clubs are nice, but he went to Miami because that's where Dwyane Wade was and he wanted to play with Wade. It could just as easily have been Charlotte, Detroit or Philadelphia. Once the Heat stopped being the best team, Miami didn't matter anymore to James.

(Besides, it's LeBron freakin' James. If he wants supermodels, they'll be on the next flight over.)

Once the initial anger at Gilbert subsided and the years passed, I think James came to realize how sweet he had it in Cleveland. Smith explained the contrast on the "Mike & Mike" program on Wednesday morning. To paraphrase Smith's comments: James and his pals had run of the place in Cleveland, from courtside seats to access to team flights to decision-making capacity on which night the team plane would leave one city for the next. He had veto power on who the coach would be and what free agent moves would be made. He was the organization, in essence. Gilbert was just the guy who signed the checks.

In Miami though team president Pat Riley didn't give James' flunkies nearly that kind of access or power. The plane left when Riley said it'd leave. James wasn't allowed to skip flights to party with Chris Paul in New Orleans. He wasn't allowed to pick the coach and had to learn to work with and trust Erik Spoelstra. His owner refused to dip into the luxury tax to keep Mike Miller and didn't always spend to improve the supporting cast.

Say what you want, but Gilbert spent the money. And it certainly wasn't lost on LeBron or his friends that he spent it exactly how they wanted him to spend it, on and off the floor.

So that's what the atmosphere was like going into the 2013-14 season. Fast forward 82 games, and where are we? He plays a regular season where his teammates are so inept that he can't even drag the Heat past a sorry Pacers team for the top seed in the East. He plays 23 games and 1,123 more minutes than Dwyane Wade. He is too worn down over the final 20 games to mount any kind of challenge to Kevin Durant for the MVP award and doesn't have the kind of energy to play defense the way he did in seasons past, making the idea of capturing the Defensive Player of the Year trophy, a trinket James has long coveted, impossible.

These are the sacrifices he made, just to keep Wade fresh and to win another ring.

For three rounds, it looked to be worth it. A foot injury to Al Jefferson enabled the Heat to sweep the Bobcats without ever breaking a sweat and they made it past Brooklyn in five tough games, thanks mostly to awfulness from Kevin Garnett and Deron Williams. Even without home court advantage, they beat the Pacers in six games, completely outclassing them in a Game 6 blowout at home. Everything was going according to plan. A fourth straight trip to the Finals, and only 15 playoff games to get there. Best of all, the aging crew would get plenty of rest before the first game.

And then the Spurs broke the Heat into a million tiny pieces.

San Antonio didn't defeat Miami. They humiliated them. The Spurs set a record for highest team field goal percentage in a Finals series and the biggest margin of victory. They blew the Heat off their home floor in two straight games.

The ironic twist, and one that I can't imagine was lost on LeBron, is that he played MUCH better in this Finals than 2013. I mean, it wasn't even close. When he shot the ball, it was almost an automatic bucket. The problem was A) Nobody else on his team could throw it into the ocean, and more importantly B) The Spurs shot eleventy billion percent.

Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla wrote a typical "hot sports take" column about James' hijacking of the sports news cycle these past two weeks and how sports fans and media alike have our priorities badly out of whack for caring about him and deifying him when Tim Duncan and the Spurs are the ones who should be emulated. It was rightly mocked by's Drew Magary and others on the interwebs.

But while a sizable portion of the NBA world can't stop comparing James to Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or even Durant, I think James sat back and processed what happened to him in the Finals and realized that he wants to be Tim Duncan.

James, who turns 30 on December 30, has logged 40,000 NBA minutes already, counting playoffs. He must have cast an envious glare at what Duncan, the grand old veteran, had around him. Not just two Hall-of-Fame teammates in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker but also a hungry, capable young star in Kawhi Leonard and plenty of young, skilled role players in Danny Green, Patty Mills and Tiago Splitter -- none of whom shrank from the moment. He saw that the Spurs added Boris Diaw in a mid-season acquisition, an example of the owner being willing to spend a little extra for a veteran who's a perfect fit.

The older Duncan got, the better his surrounding cast seemed to get. It was uncanny. All Duncan had to do was score 12 points and scoop up 10 rebounds in 28 minutes and he was praised for being a winner and lauded for his leadership, while James was killing himself to lose by 20 to the Spurs.

I know James wrote that he's not leaving Miami because of the current roster or because he's lost faith in Riley to put the pieces around him and I don't believe a word of it. James isn't stupid. He knows how this movie's going to play out.

Wade's knees were visibly leaking sawdust in the Finals. It's not a muscle problem like a hamstring tear that can heal. It's a chronic condition that's not going to get better. There's no medical procedure that will let him play hard for two straight months and I very much doubt that James wants to carry the roster by himself through another regular season just to maximize Wade's chances of contributing in the playoffs.

Then there's Chris Bosh, who is slowly turning into a rich man's Andrea Bargnani. He refuses to play in the post anymore. He doesn't even want to facilitate the offense from the high post like he used to do for Miami. All he wants to do is hang out by the three-point line. He doesn't have it in him to rebound anymore and he's lost a step defensively, probably because Spoelstra's manic trapping defense put so much more of a toll on him than any big man in the league.

The rest of the roster was D-League worthy, to be kind. Ray Allen is strictly a three-point specialist at this point and nothing else. Chris Andersen is too beat up. Udonis Haslem is done, Shane Battier already retired and the point guards are hopeless.

It got to the point where by the time the draft rolled around that James was championing the drafting of Shabazz Napier. Shabazz Napier!

My hunch is the day after the draft or thereabouts, James had an epiphany: I'm going nuts about Napier and the Cavs just drafted Andrew Wiggins. I'm freaking out about Wade's knee and Kyrie Irving is just 21. Dion Waiters is 22. What am I doing here? Time to schedule a meeting with Gilbert.

Once James decided he wouldn't play for less than the max, I think he realized that there was no way Riley could improve that roster to make it good enough to compete with whoever comes out of the West. Even if he took less than the max, there just wasn't enough cap room to sign enough guys as long as he, Bosh and Wade are all making non-insulting salaries. There's no cheap young talent in Miami. No Leonard, no Mills.

In Cleveland, James' Leonard is Wiggins. He'll be groomed to be a perimeter defensive stopper first and a scorer later. James' Parker is Irving. His Ginobili is Waiters. And he'll see himself as Duncan, the sage veteran imparting his wisdom and leadership. As he ages, the others will improve. Even the new coach, David Blatt, is a fellow who's an expert on the European style sweeping through the league and is known for having a bit of a temper, just like Pop.

Even how James handled free agency has a Duncanesque tone to it. He didn't say anything to anybody. He refused to be wined and dined by different suitors who had no chance to sign him, just for the sake of having his ego stroked. He kept a low profile and stuck to previously scheduled commitments, letting his agent do the heavy-lifting. When he met with Gilbert, he did it without anyone finding out. When the news finally broke today, it was via a written statement. No press conference, no big party. James is off to Brazil to watch the World Cup Final, but after that he wants to get to work. Yes, there was a lot of hysteria around him the past two weeks, but he tried to stay away from the fray as much as he could.

Throw in some unplanned for ancillary stuff, like Riley foolishly copying Gilbert's ill-chosen tack from four years ago, only this time in spoken form and James' good buddy Johnny Manziel being drafted by the Browns, and it was as if this was destined to happen. Heck, the city of Cleveland will probably order Browns coach Mike Pettine to start Manziel from day one now.

Anyway, you're welcome, Cleveland. I was gonna write that the city should send the Spurs a gift basket of something, but then I thought about how Duncan can't play forever, and figured there's got to be something of substance that San Antonio can receive in exchange.

How about some draft picks instead?


Obviously this news means that Bosh goes to Houston, and while I'm already on the record that he's not the asset most analysts think he is, there will be time to discuss them later. I'm more interested in what happens in the East with Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love.


(I guess Boshtrich figured he might as well take the most money and enjoy life in Miami with his family since there's no way Dwight Howard and James Harden are leading anybody to a title anyhow. Good on you, CB!)]

Anthony has to go to Chicago now, right? Otherwise he's completely full of it and just cares about money.

If Melo joined Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson in Chicago, the Bulls would be overwhelming favorites to come out of the East over James and his young, inexperienced teammmates who have to learn to crawl before they can walk. The Bulls made the playoffs last year without Melo, without Rose and without Luol Deng for most of the season. Add two stars to that defensive core and that's a scary team.

In New York, the best Anthony could expect is to carry a flawed roster to the sixth seed and a first-round exit -- all while learning a new offensive system.

Even if the money does matter, Anthony can sign a deal that gives him a three-year opt-out and then re-sign for the max with his Bird rights in Chicago to recoup the lost wages with a higher salary cap down the road.

It's a free country and he can do whatever he wants, but if he chooses New York then Anthony is telling the world all he cares about is short term money and nothing else.

The Love saga is also fascinating. I doubt very much James wants them to give up Wiggins to get Love, a guy who can score and rebound but doesn't protect the rim at all. The Cavs need defenders at the rim, on the perimeter, everywhere. If they can get Love for draft picks, Anthony Bennett and maybe even Waiters I'd consider it, but no way do you give up Wiggins for him.