Sports

LeBron James: Aging, Winning and Possibly Returning to Cavaliers

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We’ve all heard the rumors.

LeBron James’ talents have been much appreciated in South Beach as he has taken the Heat to one title and, at the very least, the cusp of two others. The King can opt out of his contract after next season if he so wishes, as can Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. Wade would probably stay as he has been a heat player his entire life and has seen the team stick by him even through a myriad of injuries. Bosh will probably stay, but either way it doesn’t seem all that important to the future of the Heat.

But James does, and the fact the he didn’t completely burn his bridges back to Cleveland has left plenty of room for speculation that the door is still open for his return. James has indicated he’d be open to it and so have the Cavs, so now all that is left is the wait. Would James opt out of his final two years in which the Heat would owe him $42.6 million, especially if they’re still the powerhouse team they are now? It depends on the future and how things pan out, but there are a few determining factors.

AGING

LeBron is getting older and though we see no signs of decline at his ripe age of 28, the transition into your thirties is much different. The body isn’t nearly as agile and doesn’t recover as well from strain, something James has certainly put plenty of on his 250 pound frame. The question is then: can James go on for more than another couple of years carrying a team by playing nearly every position on the floor?

Let’s face it, that is essentially what he is doing. Chris Bosh is inconsistent at best and the Heat shuffle him back and forth from power forward to center depending on how they want to play. His meager averages of 16.6 points and 7 rebounds during the regular season are not what a superstar player provides, leaving one to wonder what Bosh will really bring to the table as he enters his thirties.

Dwyane Wade has already begun a decline, experiencing an increase in injury troubles over the past few years and a noticeable decline in his athleticism. Aside from the soreness that can be expected to accompany his style of play, Wade has struggled with injuries to his hip, ankles, knees, shoulders and fingers, so unless he drastically changes the way he plays and becomes a spot up jump shooter, it would be safe bet to say the least that he will struggle with his health going forward, leaving James to do most of the heavy lifting.

But as James ages, can he do that? The best players in the history of the game have been hampered by age. Jordan went from a slash and dunk guy to a jump shooter who could play with his back to the basket and bury that trademark fade away jumper over you. Kobe Bryant made a similar transition and so will James. The difference is what he’ll transition into.

The only reason LeBron James has ever been called a small forward is because of his athleticism. His build and size matches that of a power forward, but you can’t get the ball to your power forward on the perimeter and let him attack the rim. You get it to him on the block and let him go to work with his back to the basket or face up guys, ala Tim Duncan.

Right now, while James in his  prime, you can ask him to cut to the basket time and time again, but as he ages and his body doesn’t recover from the beating as well, he’ll have to settle into a role that isn’t being the “everything man”. His quickness will decline and he won’t be able to keep going at younger faster players from the perimeter. His role will most likely be more of a power forward, as noted in a recent SI piece, where he can continue to deploy his impressive arsenal of post moves and his size.

But given the fact that it’s hard to imagine Bosh or Wade giving up on their deals, is staying in Miami where he is expected to play every position 1-4 at different times going to suit James as he ages? Granted, the Heat could change the system to make James the four with Bosh at center, but they become significantly less dynamic and would need Wade to stay healthy to provide quality guard play.

WINNING

On top of considering all the aforementioned factors, the Heat will have to rebuild their stable of supporting players around James if they’re going to continue winning, but with the three star’s salaries eating up over $65 million of the salary cap, that is going to be a challenge. What they can surround him with is questionable, so the grass may seem greener on another side of the fence to the superstar who left things in his hometown on a bad note.

Cleveland, on the other hand, has been building a stable of young stalwarts ever since James departed and now boasts one of the best young guard duos in the league in Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. They have a developing young power forward in Tristan Thompson who could serve as a great trade chip if needed, but given that his deal is only $5 million for the team to pick up two years from now and the fact that they have zero salary already committed at this point to the 2014-15 season, there is plenty of wiggle room for the Cavs to figure out how they want to handle it.

Let’s not forget that Cleveland will add another No. 1 overall pick to their stable of youngsters this year and could easily be in shape to have a valued draft pick again next year if they struggle to settle in under Mike Brown.

So, there is no question of Cleveland having all the money in the world to throw at James and they can offer him a younger supporting cast complete with at least one superstar guard in Irving. They can offer him the freedom to do what he wants and gracefully transition back into a more specific role at either power forward or small forward depending on where he wants to play. No one can be blamed for being curious.

Are the final chapters of James’ career meant to be spent in South Beach where he has become a champion, carrying his fellow aging star teammates and a thrown together group of role players every year? Or will it be in his hometown, where a cathartic return would see him go from demonized to hero in a moment’s notice?

The pursuit of being mentioned in the league of Jordan and Bryant is going to be tough for James. His story is different, but the decisions for his future will certainly be based around his best chance to win. Time will tell how this unfolds, but you can see the reason for all the fuss with the way this situation is taking shape.

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