The case for Cleveland: Why LeBron James might stay home this summer

LeBron's best plays with the Cavs (3:19)

Buzzer-beaters, poster dunks and incredible passes highlight LeBron James' most spectacular plays in 11 years with the Cavaliers. (3:19)

LeBron James sat down at the podium following what would turn out to be the final win of his season -- 48 minutes played in a Game 7 victory in Boston to send him to his eighth straight NBA Finals -- and made a statement before even uttering a word.

"There is no magic pill," read the embroidered, white letters across the front of his black baseball cap, which came into focus as James grabbed the microphone and peered out at the reporters in front of him.

For a man who often finds a way to make his clothes send a message -- remember his "Ultimate Warrior" T-shirt after the victory in the 2016 Finals? -- it was worth reading into the hint behind the hat.

One plausible interpretation can read the line akin to the slogan Nike plastered on tees celebrating James when he won his first championship with the Miami Heat: "Earned not given."

For someone with so many natural abilities, James has fought off the perception his entire career that he's this good simply because he was built with more size and athleticism than his peers. However, he feels the care he places on his body and the attention he pays to his craft are the real reasons he has been able to be successful. That's the reason he felt a connection to Conor McGregor when the MMA fighter said, "There is no talent here. This is hard work. This is an obsession."

There's no magic pill that allowed James, now 33 years old and coming off his 15th season, to play in all 82 games this past year. No magic pill that got him to eight Finals in a row. No magic pill that allowed him to stay near the top of his sport nearly two decades after he burst onto the national scene as a teenager.

Had the Cleveland Cavaliers lost that Game 7 to the Celtics, the hat also could have been looked at as a clue to James' impending decision about free agency, and it would have been just as appropriate.

There is no magic pill that will immediately put James on a team that will be favored to beat the Golden State Warriors and line up ring No. 4 for him. No magic pill that will make Philadelphia's young core less injury-prone and more playoff-tested. No magic pill that will allow Houston to keep all its ancillary pieces and still go out and add James to its stellar backcourt of James Harden and Chris Paul. No magic pill that will help the Lakers stockpile talent just because they're Los Angeles.

Which brings us to the Cavs.

The team with which he has spent 11 of his 15 seasons as a pro and that plays its games about 40 miles north from his hometown of Akron, Ohio -- in front of fans, as he described during the Eastern Conference semifinals, who make James think, "They know me." The team that has several people close to James on the payroll: Randy Mims as its executive administrator of player programs and logistics; Brandon Weems as its director of scouting; Mike Mancias as its athletic trainer and athletic performance liaison. The team that accepts James' personal biomechanist, Donnie Raimon, within its inner sanctuary.

Cleveland recognizes the importance of keeping James fresh from the basketball grind by planning an in-season excursion to Napa Valley, California, and giving its blessing for James to jet down to Miami to hang with former Heat teammates, as he did in between the second round and the conference finals these playoffs.

And, don't forget, it's the team that found itself in a one-possession game in the final minute of regulation in both Games 1 and 3 of this year's Finals against Golden State.

In the past week, two members of the 2017-18 Cavaliers -- a player and another staff member -- relayed to ESPN that they believe Cleveland has the best chance of any team to land LeBron.

A small sample size, sure, but also an indication of the belief that exists around the franchise despite a year full of unfavorable Vegas odds and #hegone tweets that fueled the public perception that James' departure was a foregone conclusion.

James told Cleveland.com in April that the two determining factors for his summer decision would be family and winning. He elaborated after Cleveland was eliminated from the Finals, mentioning his family -- particularly his two sons, LeBron Jr. and Bryce Maximus -- would factor into his decision as he considers their futures, but added, "It ultimately will come down to me."

James' oldest son is 13 and entering the eighth grade. James could opt out of the final year of his contract with the Cavs on Friday and sign with the Cavs on a one-plus-one deal -- the first year guaranteed with the second year being a player option -- and align his personal decision as to whether to leave Cleveland for good or not with the same time Bronny will be choosing which high school to enroll in.

Some might say that would mean the circus following James' decision for another 12 months, but when has James shied away from the spotlight? As former Cavs general manager David Griffin once put it, James "thrives on chaos."

Add in the fact that, as ESPN's Ramona Shelburne reported, James won't be seeking elaborate free-agency pitch meetings this summer; there is a sense of James already knowing what he needs to know.

"There won't be a dog-and-pony show," one source familiar with James' thinking told ESPN.

If you strip down the speculation and the pomp and circumstance, what remains are the facts about his situation in Cleveland.

With 29 games remaining in the 2017-18 season, Cleveland completely revamped its roster, then withstood a slew of injuries and a medical leave of absence by its coach and still made the Finals.

Those midseason trades, which seemed dramatic at the time, have become something of an annual tradition for a Cleveland team trying to chase championships: the JR Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov deals in 2015; the Channing Frye trade in 2016; and the Kyle Korver acquisition in 2017.

And owner Dan Gilbert, no matter what the status of his relationship with James, has spent more than any other owner in the past four years: $450.9 million in salary alone, not counting luxury taxes, with the next-closest team being the LA Clippers at $406.1 million. Publicly, at least, Gilbert has come to fully understand James' value, saying on a recent Business Insider podcast appearance, "Legally, [James] may be working for our organization, but that's not really the case. He's more of your partner, really."

Then there are James' own words, more explicit than what was stitched onto his hat, when he has repeatedly mentioned finishing his career in Cleveland and also his desire to shape the reputation of the Cavs franchise so its looked at the same way he looked at the Chicago Bulls, Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees when he was a kid growing up.

"I've tried to put this franchise at a level that is always seen in a positive light," James told ESPN's Rachel Nichols on the eve of Game 1 of the Finals. "From a basketball standpoint, from a social standpoint, from a brand standpoint. I get a lot of the light and the headlines, but I'm one; as long as I'm here playing for this franchise, when you see the Cavaliers, I want you to think of prestige and a great organization."

It was a precursor to his comments later on in the series when he spoke about his desire to play alongside "a group of talent, but also a group of minds to be able to compete with Golden State."

A source close to James told ESPN that when he came back to Cleveland in 2014, he recognized he was joining an organization that needed leadership and guidance, and that he would have to set the tone.

Whatever blemishes the Cavs might still have four years later only make James' role that much more important. If he wants the organization to stand for exceptionalism, professionalism and basketball IQ, perhaps he will have to be the one to continue to be the example for others to follow.

And there was one more message, or rather lack thereof, from James that could have been a telling clue as to Cleveland's chances this summer.

When James walked off the court after Game 4 of the Finals as the first Cavs player to make his way to the locker room, he greeted his sons with handshakes. He hugged his mother, and then he kissed his wife as he journeyed down the tunnel, but he did not stop to acknowledge or wave to the crowd to say goodbye.

Maybe because there was no need for him to do so just yet.