Free agent superstar LeBron James will bring his two NBA championships and four NBA MVPs back to Cleveland, almost four years to the day after he decided to bring his talents to Miami.
James made the announcement in an article in Sports Illustrated Friday.
"Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go," LeBron wrote. "I will always think of Miami as my second home. Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today."
James also thanked his teammates, Heat owner Mickey Arison and team President Pat Riley.
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"I went to Miami because of D-Wade and CB. We made sacrifices to keep UD. I loved becoming a big bro to Rio. I believed we could do something magical if we came together. And that’s exactly what we did!" he wrote "The hardest thing to leave is what I built with those guys. I’ve talked to some of them and will talk to others. Nothing will ever change what we accomplished. We are brothers for life. I also want to thank Micky Arison and Pat Riley for giving me an amazing four years."
James posted a photo to Instagram confirming his choice with a photo that reads: "I'm coming home."
Arison tweeted his disappointment in the decision Friday afternoon.
I am shocked & disappointed in today's news. However I will never forget what Lebron brought us for 4 years. Thanks for memories @KingJames
— Micky Arison (@MickyArison) July 11, 2014
LeBron said the lure of being able to bring a championship to his hometown swung things in favor of leaving Miami.
"Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart," he wrote. "People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now."
James also said he was able to get past the nasty letter Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote four years ago when he first left Cleveland.
"I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?" he wrote.
The heartbreaking news for Heat fans came after a Wednesday full of movement from the Cavaliers. The team cleared out more than $20 million in salary cap space to offer LeBron a full max contract of between $88 million and $118 million, depending on whether the Heat and Cavaliers exchange James on a sign-and-trade or he simply leaves Miami with no compensation from the Cavs.
The loss of LeBron is a devastating blow to a team that went to the NBA Finals for four straight seasons from 2010 to 2014, winning back-to-back championships during that run.
It’s hard to overstate James' value in Miami for the past four seasons. From the court to the tourism industry, James has been one of the biggest draws to South Florida outside of South Beach itself.
James has averaged 26.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game since joining the Heat. He took over the team's leadership after the Heat lost the first NBA Finals with the Big Three and ran off two straight NBA championships before losing this year to the San Antonio Spurs.
LeBron took on more of the load in Miami, but he also elevated his game. He won MVP awards and NBA Finals MVP awards, and he was arguably the defensive player of the year for at least two of those seasons.
The Heat deployed James all over the court, having him guard any player on the other team’s roster. LeBron also elevated his post play while with the Heat, letting Miami play a smaller, quicker lineup that ended up abusing NBA opponents for two seasons.
LeBron’s win-share with the Heat, or the number of wins contributed by a player, averaged 16.3 over his four years in Miami. James’ win-share per 48 minutes was always at least twice and almost three times the league average during his four seasons with the Heat.
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The King’s shooting also went to another level in South Florida. James’ true-shooting percent – which takes into account 2-point shots, 3-point shots and free throws – jumped from 59.4 percent in his first season with the Heat to 64.9 percent in his final season.
James’ value extended far beyond the court.
The Heat sold out the arena for four straight years, including the playoffs. According to ESPN, that’s given the team's regular-season ticket sales a boost of at least $60 million, compared with the prior four years.
ESPN reported that in total, LeBron is worth about $161.3 million over a three-year contract for the Heat. Forbes went further and estimated that LeBron's departure will hurt the Heat’s value by as much as $100 million.
Downtown Miami may take a hit with the loss of LeBron, but a statement issued after his decision was made public said they are ready.
“Downtown Miami’s resurgence was well underway before The Big 3 arrived, gained momentum alongside four consecutive championship runs, and won’t be slowing down anytime soon. LeBron’s decision to take his talents to downtown Miami in 2010 was rocket fuel for our city’s global brand, and we’re grateful for his contributions over the past four years.”
With LeBron gone, the Heat faces an unknown future that could be completely devoid of any major superstars. Power forward/center Chris Bosh has a max contract offer from the Houston Rockets and without LeBron, may take the offer to join a competitive team next season.
That would leave long-time Heat star Dwyane Wade as the only remaining member of the Heat’s Big Three. However, Wade is also a free agent and can choose any team he likes, should he decide not to return to South Florida to play with a team that he doesn’t consider a contender.
With James’ decision to leave, the Cavaliers jump into contention for the Eastern Conference championship, alongside the Indiana Pacers. If Bosh leaves for Houston, the Rockets move up the ladder to a top three team in the Western Conference.
But for Miami, the Heat now enter the free agent signing period with the top players gone, $55 million in salary cap space and the only players guaranteed to be on the team next season being rookie point guard Shabazz Napier and point guard Norris Cole.
Heat fans have total confidence in Riley — but this time, the man who put together Showtime and the Big Three came up short. What happens with the Heat, Riley and the rest of the NBA remains to be written.