Grip on LeBron strong as Heat visit Ohio

Cleveland fans have dreams of LeBron James joining Kyrie Irving this summer. Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports

LeBron Watch is a periodic feature at ESPN.com that looks at the potential free agency of LeBron James in the summer of 2014.

CLEVELAND -- A group of Cavaliers fans has assembled $50,000 to buy billboards and pass out thousands of T-shirts prior to the Miami Heat’s visit Wednesday night with “Come Home LeBron” printed on them.

It is the most visible move yet from a wounded fan base that has gone from reviling James to at least being partially divided. When the Heat visited Cleveland last season, James got cheers from a portion of the crowd, and a fan rushed the court so he could show James a shirt that asked him to return in free agency in 2014. This happened in the same arena that, only three years ago, created one of the most hostile environments the league has ever seen when James first returned.

In a further sign of a thaw, the Heat are extending their stay in Ohio and going to James’ Akron mansion Thursday to have Thanksgiving dinner.

The Heat, it seems, are also more comfortable hanging out in James’ hometown than they were a few years ago when they brought a small private security army with them for protection. That’s perhaps because they’ve never been more certain that his time in Cleveland in foreseeable seasons will be short stays such as these, those billboards and T-shirts notwithstanding.

Whenever evaluating James' potential free agency there must be a disclaimer. No matter how things look as different twists and turns in the season, ultimately what matters is what options James has in July. James has openly said that’s his game plan and experience has taught him not to deviate from it. As was seen in 2010, things can and do sometimes change very quickly.

With that on the record, though, it can be said that the events over the first month of the season have only appeared to strengthen the Heat’s position as the leaders to keep James.

When the Heat won the last James derby, they did it with what turned out to be a highly effective “LeBron +2” game plan.

In the two years leading up to James' 2010 free agency, teams that planned to chase him did so with the premise that they could pair him with a second star. The New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets and Chicago Bulls all put themselves in position to sign James and pair him with a running mate who was either on their roster or on the market.

The Heat, however, trumped all when they raised the LeBron +1 plan to a LeBron +2, convincing All-Star Dwyane Wade to stay and fellow All-Star Chris Bosh to sign on with a combination of shrewd planning and excellent salesmanship.

The only team that came close to the same offer was the Chicago Bulls, who recruited Wade and Bosh as well to play alongside Derrick Rose. But without Rose truly on board with the James pitch and more limited cap space, they couldn't get it done.

If you judge James on these past acts, you can assume it will take another +2 scenario to get his signature again. The Heat’s position in this race once again looks to be quite strong.

With changeover happening almost everywhere in the league, the Heat’s stability has only grown in value. And it isn’t budging. Coach Erik Spoelstra recently signed a long-term contract extension. President Pat Riley, who works on a year-to-year handshake agreement with ownership, has told confidants that he intends to stay on the job as long as James is with the team.

You can be assured James has been given that message or will be reminded when the time is right. With the need to recruit new talent to replace aging role players as well as keep Bosh and Wade in the fold, having Riley’s assurance that he’s committed is no small piece.

With top teams facing a new luxury tax structure that has zapped some contenders’ depth, the Heat remain one of the deepest teams in the league even with having to let Mike Miller go. Riley and the city of Miami are major reasons for that. With oppressive tax provisions threatening the Heat next season, the franchise is going to badly need to leverage both those advantages to extend their title window.

But as the Heat look around, the realistic market for James next summer seems to be getting leaner by the week. Three years ago, James met with six teams before choosing the Heat. The field this time around doesn’t appear to have as much legitimate depth.

James put the Cavs in the game himself last year when he said “It would be fun to play in front of these fans again” and “If I decide to come back, hopefully the fans will accept me” during a trip to Cleveland. The cheers started back up again in Ohio shortly thereafter.

Los Angeles Lakers owner Jim Buss admitted before last season he intended to clear space to chase major free agents next summer. James would be a top target by default.

But those options are taking a beating. The Cavs are off to a terrible start to the season, going 4-10. The No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Bennett, has struggled mightily. In addition to expecting they’d improve to be a playoff team, the Cavs hoped they could find a trade that would allow them to use some young players and extra draft picks to trade for a star to pair with All-Star Kyrie Irving. That would be their +2 to offer to James. It is not happening right now.

The Lakers’ $48 million extension they gave Kobe Bryant this week has left them with enough cap space to either sign one max player or to re-sign Pau Gasol next summer, but not both. There will be no +2 to offer unless the Lakers miss the playoffs and get lucky in the lottery. James was never a good fit with Bryant, who was hinting he might retire in 2014 just a year ago, and the Lakers were not in denial of this fact. When Bryant made it clear he wanted to extend his career and he wasn’t in the mood for a large pay cut, they took the sure thing and probably removed themselves from James’ radar, no matter how small the blip may have been.

There are a few long shot entries. The Bulls could clear cap space with a few roster moves but the knee injuries to Derrick Rose have changed their landscape. The Dallas Mavericks will have cap space and some star power but league executives expect them to target another Heat free agent, Dallas native Bosh.

The Los Angeles Clippers are an interesting option because of James’ close friend Chris Paul and his long-standing respect for coach Doc Rivers. But that would take a trade and while James has the cachet to force anything, this seems like a very long shot.

In the more tangible standings, the Heat are already sizing up the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs, the two teams that pushed the Heat to seven games last season, as they’re both playing at a high level. They continue to monitor Wade’s knee issues. They’re slowly bringing along Greg Oden. The Michael Beasley experiment is showing some promise. There are plenty of things to focus on other than free agency.

Bottom line, if the Heat want to give thanks for something this week it’s that James future currently appears to be in Miami.