Nets paved way for LeBron to Cleveland

LeBron James has returned to Cleveland. And Cavaliers fans, at least in part, can thank the Brooklyn Nets for making it happen.

Here’s why: In order for the Cavaliers to have made James a competitive offer financially, they needed to open up max salary cap space.

That’s where the Nets and Boston Celtics came in.

In their three-way trade, which was finalized Thursday, Brooklyn received Jarrett Jack ($6.3 million) and Sergey Karasev ($1.5 million), while Boston received Tyler Zeller ($1.7 million), freeing up Cleveland to offer James the max, which starts at $20.7 million.

The Nets and Cavaliers had been talking about a Jack-for-Marcus Thornton swap dating back to the trading deadline. But in this instance, Cleveland was looking to shed salary, not take it on, and Thornton is due $8.6 million in 2014-15.

Enter Boston. The Celtics were able to absorb the contracts of Thornton and Zeller with a $10.3 million trade exception -- which they got in the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett blockbuster deal. Boston also received a protected 2016 first-round pick from Cleveland.

Let’s take a look at the Nets-Celtics trade from an assets standpoint: In exchange for Pierce and Garnett, Boston received Brooklyn’s unprotected firsts in 2014 (James Young), 2016 and 2018, the option to swap firsts in 2017, Zeller, a first-rounder in 2012, and Cleveland’s protected first in 2016. That’s quite a haul.

But back to James. Since passing up the likes of the Nets, New York Knicks and Cavaliers in the summer of 2010 for the prospect of teaming up with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and forming “The Big Three” in Miami, James is 13-5 against New Jersey/Brooklyn -- including playoffs.

In those 18 meetings, James averaged 27.2 points on 58.0 percent shooting.

A lot has happened to both The King and the Nets over the last four seasons.

The Nets have moved from East Rutherford to Newark to Brooklyn, while coming up short in their attempts to land a franchise-changer like Dwight Howard or Carmelo Anthony.

Brooklyn ended up trading for Deron Williams and paying him like a franchise player, but he hasn’t played like one.

The Joe Johnson deal has proved to be a good one. Brook Lopez’s new contract looked good -- until he broke his foot again.

In all, LeBron won four Eastern Conference championships and two NBA finals. The Nets won a playoff series.

To bring it full circle: the last time James wasn’t in the NBA Finals was 2009-10, when Garnett, Pierce and the Celtics lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games.