LAS VEGAS — In this city of bright lights, odds makers and craps tables, leave it to the Cleveland Cavaliers' daring casino owner to take the biggest gamble of all in pursuing LeBron James.
In order to clear enough space under the NBA's salary cap to offer James a max contract, the Cavs traded Jarrett Jack, Tyler Zeller, Sergey Karasev and a future first-round pick for essentially nothing.
Now that James has arrived, the risk taken by Dan Gilbert and the Cavaliers has already earned them millions. But the Cavs made the deal with no knowledge of whether LeBron was truly returning to Cleveland. Had he chosen Miami, they may have recouped assets elsewhere, but the team would've taken a public beating for giving away a key rotational piece in Jack, a young 7-footer with potential in Zeller, and a young guard with upside in Karasev, whom General Manager David Griffin loved.
"For me, it was about taking a chance and having the courage to be in the discussion," Griffin said. "And we have ownership that encourages those risks and will encourage those chances. It's an investment you have to make."
Much like Gilbert's business investments, the Cavs found gold. The lure of home was too strong to resist and the trade gave the Cavs the opportunity to present and sign him to a contract immediately.
James signed his deal Saturday, but it's only a two-year contract with an opt-out after next season, sources with knowledge of the deal said. So, yes, James can become a free agent again next summer, but the move is strictly a financial strategy. James made it clear in his letter - and the Cavs are operating under the belief - that he intends to finish his career here.
"I always believed that I'd return to Cleveland and finish my career there," James wrote in his letter to Sports Illustrated.
By signing for only two years, James can negotiate another long-term max deal when the new television contract is negotiated before the 2016-17 season. A new TV contract means higher revenue under a significantly higher salary cap. The potential for another lockout in 2017 could also affect salaries, so James is trying to keep his business options flexible.
The Cavs, however, fully expect James to sign a new long-term contract once the next television deal is negotiated.
Certainly, fans may fret over James' contract structure, and it's inevitable New York media will at some point speculate about James joining the Knicks and Carmelo Anthony next summer, when the Knicks will have cap space, but James' letter to Sports Illustrated made it clear he had no intention of going anywhere else and is committed to the Cavs for the long term.
The Cavs are betting on James being true to his word, just as they gambled with the trade and then remaining patient while other top free agents fell off their board. Gordon Hayward signed, as did Chandler Parsons and Channing Frye. The Cavs had interest in all three, but preserved the space with the hope of luring back their hometown star.
Now the more realistic version of the trade is Jack, Zeller, Karasev and a first-round pick for James. And every general manager in the league makes that deal instantly.
"We could not be happier to welcome LeBron James home," Griffin said in a prepared statement Saturday announcing James' return. "LeBron, through his essay, told us he wasn't going anywhere except Cleveland and that 'Cleveland is where he always believed he would finish his career.' These words and commitment put all of us, including LeBron, in the best position to build our franchise the right way and achieve the kind of goals we all know are possible. Expectations will be at the highest levels but no one should expect immediate and automatic success."
The odds are on the board now and the risks have been everywhere. The Cavs initially took the risk with the trade and now are betting on LeBron to remain here until he retires.
James, meanwhile, seems to be admitting that his return now might cost him a championship or two in his career. He had alternative opportunities with teams closer to winning titles, but he's betting on himself to help shape and mold the Cavs' youthful roster into contenders while he's still in his prime.
He's 29 now, a grown man and an 11-year veteran. But some things never change.
Everyone is still betting on LeBron. Including himself.