CLEVELAND -- "I don't want anyone thinking: He and Erik Spoelstra didn't get along. ... He and [Pat Riley] didn't get along. ... The Heat couldn't put the right team together. That's absolutely not true."
Those are LeBron James' words from his "Sports Illustrated" essay last year. That was his attempt, sincerely it seemed, to absolve the Miami Heat in his decision to return home to Cleveland. There have been varying degrees of belief in that statement in the months since, much of it partisan.
Now 15 months later and entrenched in Cleveland, James has three things he did not have when he left the Heat. And there is one big thing he doesn't.
When James left the Heat, he was the youngest of the star players. Chris Bosh is a year older; Dwyane Wade is three. Two of the starters who played with James in his final game with the Heat, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, haven't been in the league since. Two of the players that came off the bench that night in San Antonio, Michael Beasley and Shane Battier, are also gone.
The Heat have retrofitted their roster over the last year and added some good young pieces but their roster is not on par with the Cavs'.
"Our goal is to be like them," Wade said Friday after the Cavs beat the Heat 102-92.
• James is on a team with the second highest payroll in the history of the league. When James met with Dan Gilbert in Miami in July of 2014 they didn't just clear the air. Gilbert made a promise. He told James he would be willing to spend any amount, the luxury tax or the repeater tax be damned. This season he has committed $175 million to the Cavs' roster, including $65 million in luxury tax.
It is not a secret James was frustrated with Heat owner Micky Arison's cost cutting his final year in Miami. He used the amnesty clause to waive Mike Miller, didn't use the mid-level exception and used a first-round pick in a trade not to add talent but to offload salary at midseason.
This is a plot point that turns faces red in Miami because Arison did spend when James was there, paying $34 million total in luxury taxes in the last three years James was in Miami, the third most in the league in that span.
Also the world changed on the Heat a year after James arrived, when the luxury tax rules changed with a new collective bargaining agreement and blew up the team's financial planning. Arison didn't use this as an excuse later; he said it right at the time in 2011.
The spending may not have been the biggest reason James left but he's in a different situation now, that is clear.
"When you have an ownership group that believes what it's going to take, then money is not an object," James said last week. "It's a sign that [Gilbert] will do anything to help us go out there and perform."
• James has massive control in the Cavs' franchise. How much he uses it seems to fluctuate and he's not swung his hammer often, at least not publicly. But there's little doubt he harbors as much or more power than any player has had with his team in league history.
It was established moments after he signed when he successfully pressed the Cavs to include Andrew Wiggins in a trade for Love. It extended throughout last season, often in how he interacted with coach David Blatt.
There are some in the Heat organization that believe this factor was bigger than the others. James never had anything close to such influence in Miami and never would. In the end, it became clear that the James-Riley relationship was not strong. Regardless of what James said when he left, there naturally were hard feelings.
Certainly there can be debate here. But from James' eyes, he would see these as areas he's upgraded in since leaving South Florida. The situation has played out generally how he planned.
However, there is something he is missing. Something he is still pursuing that he had in Miami. The Heat are, and have been for some time now, a championship organization. The Cavs, to this point, are not.
It was the Heat's structure, accountability, creativity, stability and perfect blend of confidence and arrogance that matured James into a champion.
They conducted business in a different way than James was used to and he embraced it, changing and for the better. On this, there is no debate.
There isn't a week that goes by that James doesn't utter a Riley axiom. He did it on Friday, unknowingly perhaps, when he said the Cavs have to stay focused on the "main thing," one of Riley's sayings. The way he approaches the game with an eye toward efficiency echoes what Spolestra taught him. There are myriad other examples.
Wade may want to play like the Cavs right now but James, in ways both subtle and profound, wants the Cavs to be more like the Heat. This is the missing piece, the part James has not yet upgraded.
The Cavs are trying, they are making strides. Cavs general manager David Griffin is on a winning streak with player moves, though the Gilbert blank check sure does help. Over the last year the team's front office has pulled off a series of salary-cap maneuvers that have paid off in a big way, something Heat general manager Andy Elisburg has done often.
The team is coming together, continuity is being established and winning habits are forming.
Still, the photos that line the walls outside the locker room at Quicken Loans Arena are not of parades, trophies and Champagne celebrations like they are at AmericanAirlines Arena. It may seem cosmetic but it isn't, there's a giant step the Cavs have yet to take.
In the end, this will determine whether James' move was genius or hubris. He's got to elevate the Cavs the way the Heat lifted him. We don't know if he'll be able to or if the infrastructure in Cleveland can be molded into that of the Heat.
James had to try. They may disagree in Miami with the methods and secretly doubt him, but he's set himself up to make a run.