When LeBron James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in an essay in SI.com, the whole thing almost felt like a dream. The idea of a reunion has always lurked in some cranny of the NBA universe, but it always tread the side of fantasy more than possibility. Four months ago, the notion felt ludicrous. Today, it's the world we live in. Behind the tranquility of it all, LeBron's message rung clear: His four years in Miami were an invaluable experience, they turned him into a more focused version of the one-man wrecking crew he was when he left, and now he's ready to sling that ability back where it all started.
LeBron's four years in Miami were heuristic. Not because of head coach Erik Spoelstra's undeniably genius meshing of LeBron's sometimes latent abilities with a relentlessly calculative and ruthless scheme, but for an experience LeBron aptly compared to college. You go off to someplace, you learn and then sometimes you come back. More importantly, you come out with better understanding of how to maximize your ability and be the best version of yourself.
The Heat were something of a pressure chamber for LeBron. With Spoelstra, his teammates, the pressure and scrutiny of a post-Decision world that wanted to break him down to his core, LeBron was able to consistently churn out the kind of masterful performances that only made occasional appearances in Cleveland. He became a more complete player, a defensive lynchpin and a post-up monster.
Take 2012's Game 6 against Boston at the TD Garden. It was a confluence of sorts. LeBron criticism was at its zenith, the Heat were on their heels and it felt like not only the Big Three experiment was at stake, but LeBron's legacy too. LeBron's 45-point evisceration snowballed into his first championship and then into the entire 2012-2013 season, especially the 27-game winning streak.
Superstardom, as a concept, has always been abstract. It exists in words like "hope," "potential," and "unstoppable." Basically, there's a reason some of these guys are called legends. LeBron is a different kind of superstar because, at his best, he can blur the lines of abstract potential and reality with a kind of acuity the NBA hasn't seen since Michael Jordan.
In Miami, he was pushed into a special echelon of dominance, something of a hallowed ground that only exists for a player with LeBron's talent. In those moments, LeBron couldn't waste a breath -- let alone a possession. None of that happens if he stays in Cleveland.
On some level, LeBron had no idea how good he could be when he first left. That, or he understood it all too well.
Miami may be the past and Cleveland may be the future but for LeBron, their meaning is rooted in the same guiding principle as passing to an open three-point shooter instead of driving into a brick wall: believing in the process. Think of a boomerang exercising more force on its return route. The road ahead is uncertain, replete with past ineptitude, the possibilities ranging from dreams of Kevin Love to a young roster and head coach not making good on their potential. It's the NBA after all, and the slope from contention to irrelevance is slippery.
But any team James signed with would have been crowned an instant championship contender. LeBron's skills, a great deal of which he discovered in Miami, allow him to be The King and kingmaker all at once. With that kind of malleable power, LeBron can dominate on his own terms. If we abide to this line of thinking, shooting his hometown into contention felt like the obvious choice. As long as he's playing, LeBron can trust that the process will end well for both parties.
It's easy to look at LeBron's return as the righting of a wrong, or of fate re-aligning itself. You might think LeBron owes it to Cleveland. That may be true, it may be false. As tempting as it is to analyze the moral implications of LeBron's return, it's besides the point. Because greatness rarely has anything to do with giving back what you owe. It's about exercising that intrinsic desire to give in the first place.
Given the wherewithal, LeBron has always been one to play the long game. And that's what Cleveland is: home -- a place that has needed him since he left, a place for LeBron to give back on his own terms, a place for LeBron to be great on his own terms, even if it's going to be harder this time.