Every time you think the Cleveland Cavaliers are out, the lottery pulls them back in.
In an incredible bucking of the odds, the Cavs won the draft lottery Tuesday for the third time in the past four years. Even more, they've won the top pick four out of the past six times they've been in the lottery, dating to 2003 when Cleveland won the right to draft LeBron James.
Naturally, outrageously or uncomfortably depending on your rooting interest, the big question now becomes: What does this development mean if James chooses to become a free agent next month?
It's a question that never seems to go away, no matter how much success James enjoys with the Miami Heat or how many failures the Cavs experience without him.
The notion of James ever playing in Cleveland again is an extremely polarizing topic, both inside the organization and with its fan base. Within the league, opinion on this topic varies wildly. Some label it as absurd because of the Cavs' repeated stumbles and the damage the franchise did to James on a personal level after his departure. But there are others who think it's reasonable under certain circumstances -- one of which exploded onto the radar Tuesday night in the form of more lottery luck, opening the door again for the Cavs to add a potential star player.
James himself, the only voice that matters here, has respectfully left the door open enough that he now gets cheers by a healthy percentage of fans when he plays in the city. But since the beginning of the season, he has been diligent in refusing to discuss his free-agent options, which include the distinct possibility that he stays in his contract with the Heat this summer and pushes his free agency off to 2015. James' game plan all along has been to reach the end of the season and then judge the landscape before picking a path. All indications point to him sticking to that strategy.
However, what is clear is that when James looks at his menu of options next month he will focus on being with a team that is built to contend for championships right now. Not in two years. Not after new teammates get their first taste of the playoffs. Now.
At age 29 and in his prime, James is not in the business of playing for a team that is still developing. He wouldn't have much interest in losing a season while a coach is learning the ropes, either. James is very focused on adding titles and being on a team that has the expectation to be a yearly contender, essentially a situation like he has been in for the past four seasons.
The Heat are in hot pursuit of their third consecutive title and the organization is a model of stability in an ocean of turbulence in the NBA, where coaches and executives are getting fired even after successful seasons. When it comes to execution in surrounding James with talent, the Heat have lived up to all their promises.
So the idea of James going anywhere seems hard to project right now, especially with the Heat locked in a competitive series. But if he were to make a dramatic jump again at this point in his career, it would almost certainly take a situation like he chose in 2010, when the Heat offered an incomparable package of star power and title readiness. It likely would take some sort of dream scenario again to get James to even think about moving on.
The Cavs potentially could have enough salary-cap space to offer James a maximum contract this summer if they allow free agents Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes to leave. But a core of the No. 1 pick (Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid), All-Star Kyrie Irving and young prospects Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett may not appeal to James more than staying with the proven, if aging, Heat roster that has raised two banners. Without getting a look at how the uncertain rookie would perform, it seems doubtful James would be enticed by that option -- at least in 2014, seeing as none of the Cavs' core players would have ever played in a single playoff game or spent more than a week above .500.
However, new Cavs general manager David Griffin has said that he wants to take the team into "target acquisition mode" with the intention to immediately begin offering the team's assets in trades to acquire players who will help them break their four-season playoff drought. That certainly makes it likely the Cavs will shop that top pick around the league to see what they might be able to get for it. Assume there will be at least a call to the Minnesota Timberwolves to check on the possibility of getting Kevin Love.
That may be the type of move that could attract a player like James -- the promise of a complementary and proven player who could act as a veteran star alongside James as the younger players grow up.
Going that route, though, would be extremely risky for the Cavs without knowing if James was on board. The Cavs already have paid the price for gambling a bit by drafting Bennett with the No. 1 pick last season. Trading this year's No. 1 pick -- a potential franchise cornerstone -- to rent a star like Love with the hopes that it impresses James is the type of risk that could be crushing. Or it could be the type of aggressive coup that turns an entire franchise around, a move like the one the Heat dreamed up and executed in 2010.
There's no question the Heat are now facing some challenges in keeping their 2010 brilliance together as they face the challenges of replacing aging role players, getting their stars to recommit (Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh also have opt-outs) and having to operate in an extremely penal luxury-tax situation. But team president Pat Riley has never been afraid to make big moves and general manager Andy Elisburg has never failed to be creative in figuring out ways to produce options. The Heat themselves may call the Wolves about Love when their title push is over.
The idea of James trading in playing with teammates in their 30s for up-and-coming players in their 20s where he wouldn't have to carry as much of a load is a conversation starter for sure. But James is in a special zone that few people ever reach in any profession -- he doesn't have to compromise on anything and he can demand the premium.
Never lose sight of that reality; you can be assured that James will not.