After more than two years of planning, the Cleveland Cavaliers believe they have LeBron James listening to their pitch to leave the Miami Heat and return to his home state in free agency, according to sources close to the process.
There has yet to be a firm indication that James is ready to leave Miami after four years and two championships with the Heat, but sources told ESPN.com that the four-time MVP is increasingly considering the Cavaliers as an option as he moves into the final stages of deciding which team to sign his next contract with.
A critical face-to-face meeting with Heat president Pat Riley looms on a day to be determined this week, sources confirmed Sunday night, so that James can hear the Hall of Famer's plans for the Heat's roster. But James' agent, Rich Paul, has already sat down with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert in what is regarded as the first formal step toward trying to shrink the gulf between James and Gilbert after the ocean of hard feelings stemming from James' departure from Cleveland in 2010 to sign with the Heat.
Sources say that the Cavs' pitch made to Paul last week -- which they also hope to make this week to James in their own face-to-face meeting -- revolves around Kyrie Irving and the other young prospects they have in addition to the numerous options Cleveland possesses to add to the roster over the next year.
The second part of this pitch is what the Cavs hope will be the key selling point in getting James to choose them. Although several teams such as the Heat, Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets have cap space to make moves this summer, the Cavs hope to show James how they have collected and created tools to continue adding into the next few years.
The Cavs also believe they have made the greatest move so far this summer: persuading Irving to sign a five-year maximum contract extension in the first few hours of free agency. With No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins under control for the next five seasons as well, the Cavs are pitching youth and roster stability to James, who played on one of the oldest teams in the league last season.
The team also potentially will own three first-round picks in the 2015 draft. The Cavs will have their own pick, the Memphis Grizzlies' pick if it falls between Nos. 6 and 14 and the Heat's pick if they fall outside the top 10. The Cavs think they can use these as assets in potential trades to further upgrade the roster if James will come aboard.
The Cavs also made an unheralded trade late on draft night that has potential to become valuable next year, an aspect they intend to explain to James: As part of a draft-pick swap, the Cavs traded Alonzo Gee for Brendan Haywood in a deal that will be announced after July 10.
In addition to having size the Cavs need, Haywood has an unorthodox contract created when he was waived via the amnesty clause by the Dallas Mavericks. Haywood will be on the Cavs' books for $2.2 million this season but has a $10.5 million deal for the following season that won't be guaranteed until Aug. 1, 2015. This is one of the most interesting contracts in the league, and the Cavs could use it in a straight trade or a sign-and-trade to add a major free agent next summer, even though they aren't positioned to have cap space.
The Cavs still have several hurdles to overcome. Rival teams are skeptical that James and Gilbert will be able to patch up their differences in the wake of James' televised "announcement" and Gilbert's subsequent open letter that attacked James' character and got him fined by then-commissioner David Stern. There has been a cooling of the tension between the parties in recent years, but James still harbors some ill feelings that both would have to attempt to settle before any partnership could be renewed, sources said.
Perhaps as a sign of the Cavaliers' thawing relationship with James, Gilbert's letter was removed from the team's website Monday, though the Cavs denied the team's pursuit of James led to the web page's removal. It had been posted and available on the site for four years previously.
"The letter was removed years ago from the Cavs.com website, but over the last week, it was discovered that it still existed from this external link to a stagnant archived page," Cavaliers director of communications Tad Carper told SB Nation. "It was on the content management system platform that was used back in 2010."
Carper said had the Cavs known it was still active it would have been removed.
"Quite frankly, we weren't looking for [the letter] because we knew we deleted it," he said. "If [it still being an active url] would have become apparent a year ago, we would have deleted it, too."
The Cavs currently don't have the cap space to sign James to the $20.7 million maximum contract he is looking for. They have some players on non-guaranteed deals they could waive but will want to keep Anderson Varejao, who has a partially guaranteed deal and is the lone holdover on the team from James' years in Cleveland.
The easiest way to get near the needed space would be to offload the $6.3 million salary of guard Jarrett Jack, and the Cavs have been in trade talks involving Jack for several weeks, sources told ESPN.com.