- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
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The biggest upset in the NBA this season isn't happening in a game; it will come during intermission Saturday night in Cleveland.
LeBron James is planning to come back to Cleveland because he badly wants to be at Zydrunas Ilgauskas' jersey retirement ceremony. In fact, he's been looking forward to it for months. The Cavs franchise and, it's expected, many of their fans will welcome James, who will be an honored guest and have his own suite for Cleveland's game against the New York Knicks.
James volunteering himself to come to town and spending thousands to charter his own jet for the celebration less than four years after Cavs owner Dan Gilbert authored his now-infamous letter is a stunner.
This ceremony is going to be some extravaganza, too. Gilbert and the Cavs are pulling out all the stops, flying in dozens of Ilgauskas' former coaches and teammates and producing what promises to be a one-of-a-kind 3D video honoring the two-time All-Star's career that will be projected onto the playing surface. The planned final shot: James embracing Ilgauskas in the moments after they won the 2007 Eastern Conference finals.
Think of the odds you could've gotten on that in July of 2010, when Ilgauskas was also booed out of town when he too signed with the Miami Heat. Now James and Ilgauskas will embrace in front of 20,000 Cavs fans on a 94-by-50-foot screen. That's a Hollywood comeback story right there.
The Cavs even chose this date in October after consulting with James on whether he'd be able to fly over from Chicago, where the Heat are staying on an off night. Technically, James is coming at Ilgauskas' request, but the process of picking the game revolved around James' schedule and was orchestrated by the Cavs.
This is one of the reasons why over the past year, the Cavs have started to genuinely believe there was a chance they could get James to return in free agency this summer. The thaw between James and Cleveland and James and the Cavs organization has been clear. The Cavs even started making roster moves -- signing players on short contracts like Andrew Bynum, Earl Clark and Luol Deng -- to try to assure they would have open cap space in order to sign him.
But however large the crack might have truly been, that door has virtually slammed shut now for reasons both within and outside the Cavs' control.
There were two people within the Cavs organization with whom James maintained good relations over the past four years. They were general manager Chris Grant and Ilgauskas, who joined the team's front office in 2012 after his retirement.
Grant was fired last month, blamed for the Cavs' underwhelming season, while some of his recent draft picks were heavy scrutinized. Ilgauskas, meanwhile, has taken on a reduced role.
Grant was not without his flaws -- this season did not go the way he plotted it at all and the blame was reasonable. James, however, was not among those who criticized Grant's draft picks and saw good futures for Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett.
"If they get things in order, they have some really good pieces here," James said after a game in Cleveland earlier this season. "We'll see what happens."
What happened was the Cavs shook up their front office, with Gilbert moving onto his third general manager in less than nine years of owning the team. It was suggested that Grant's maneuvers, which were part of a once-Gilbert-endorsed rebuilding project, were a reason that James' chances of returning to Cleveland had been diminished.
In reality, it is the opposite.
One of the things James has come to value with the Heat is their stability. Pat Riley has been in full control of the franchise since 1995 and coach Erik Spoelstra has enjoyed the full support of his bosses. Even when James was unsure of his decision to go to Miami and wasn't certain Spoelstra was the right person to coach him in the 2010-11 season, the Heat stuck with their principles and their plan and did not waver from their beliefs. That has certainly paid off.
The time is coming where James is going to be asked to trust the Heat again. He has a contract decision coming, either in 2014 or 2015. The Heat, even though they remain strong today, are going to have to restructure their roster. Some of James' choice will come down to faith in the team's ability to stay the course and execute major moves in the future.
The Heat have proven they can. The Cavs, who currently have an interim general manager in David Griffin and a coach with an uncertain future in Mike Brown, have not.
Gilbert is an astute businessman who is an expert at reading situations and taking advantage of them. His various companies' re-investment in Detroit is both a civic and fiscal triumph. In 2009, he brilliantly designed and executed a plan to get casinos built in Ohio and ran a sensational and shrewd campaign to win over voters who had rejected the same ballot measure four times before. He overspends not only on his players' amenities but also on his fans, including a massive renovation planned for Quicken Loans Arena.
But for various reasons, he hasn't been able to bring that golden touch yet to his basketball team. A big part of it is he hasn't been able to exercise the patience that historically has rewarded NBA teams like the Heat. This restlessness has been illustrated in the high-profile James saga, which continues to add chapters.
James' affinity for Ilgauskas, though, still runs deep. One of the few regrets he has over his time in Miami is that he wasn't able to help his teammate for eight seasons get a championship (Ilgauskas retired after the Heat lost the 2011 NBA Finals). Even with all the success James has enjoyed over the past two years, that is something that still nags him, and, in a way, still keeps a bond between the two.
One of the reasons James had a return to the Cavs sometime in the future in the back of his mind -- he said in 2012 "I think it would be great, it would be fun to play in front of [Cleveland] fans again" -- was to rejoin Ilgauskas and try to get him a ring that way. This, of course, was one of the reasons that Grant hired Ilgauskas into the organization two years ago, even though there was lingering resentment that Ilgauskas signed with Miami in 2010.
This was Grant playing the long game, a Riley-esque move, because he knew how close James and Ilgauskas had grown after playing eight seasons together. With the shake-up in the Cavs organization, Ilgauskas' future with the organization is unclear.
During the free agency pitch meetings in Cleveland that summer, the Cavs came to the table in James' downtown offices with a custom-made cartoon that featured a bunch of fart jokes and characters that mocked other teams in the league. The Cavs knew James' personality well, including his love of low-brow humor. They played to it, and James roared with laughter and there were smiles all around. It was fun.
Riley came with his championship rings and his vision to leverage the city of Miami to load the Heat roster with talent. James didn't laugh nearly as much during that meeting. There were still smiles all around. It was impressive.
During an interview last week, Riley was asked about James' future and the rumblings that a team like the Cavs or the Los Angeles Clippers may have a chance at signing James if this Heat season were to unexpectedly turn sour.
"All the other stuff that's flying around like butterflies; they're just things," Riley said.
Another excellent Riley quote to add to the list. Of course, in 2010, the Heat were one of those butterflies dancing around in James' head. When the Cavs' season abruptly went south in the playoffs that year, so eventually did James. Riley turning his organization into a chrysalis worked like a dream that time.
Hard as it may have been to believe, the Cavs were in position to do the same this season. They had their best team since James left and they had planned to include James in the llgauskas celebration as the first salvo in their reunion dream. Of course, they needed the Heat's season to take an unexpected turn, just as Riley did with the Cavs four years ago.
Privately, Riley has to be irritated the Cavs hatched this maneuver and even more miffed that James bought into it the day before the Heat play a key game against the fast-rising Chicago Bulls with a noon start time. The Heat play in Cleveland in two weeks; Ilgauskas' jersey could've been retired that night so James could be there, the thinking goes. Naturally, though, Riley countered perfectly by endorsing James' trip and planning to send along several members of the Heat's staff with him.
"We view [Ilgauskas] as a Miami Heat guy," Spoelstra said Thursday night in a perfect play of public relations.
The Heat appear strong, perhaps poised to win their third consecutive title. Circumstances across the league make it seem as though James may end up just putting off his free agency until 2015.
The Cavs have underperformed, their young players failing to mesh and Brown failing to get the improvement on defense as he was hired to do. And Gilbert lost his patience for it, damaging the behind-the-scenes plan that was playing out.
That butterfly may be meandering away.