ORLANDO -- This business of waiting on LeBron James is more suspenseful than the actual games he plays.
With the basketball world waiting for him to decide his career plans, James spoke with Heat president Pat Riley for more than an hour Wednesday in Las Vegas during a highly anticipated meeting that will steer the course of not only the Heat’s future, but also the entire NBA. The waiting will continue.
James emerged from his face-to-face, free-agency meeting still undecided on whether he will return to Miami next season or perhaps play somewhere else. Now, the “decision in the desert” could turn into the decision from a family couch. James will conduct no more team meetings, the Miami Herald confirmed.
James stayed in Las Vegas on Wednesday night — he is promoting a basketball camp there for elite prospects — but he is expected to meet with his family either Thursday or Friday and come to a decision.
There are several teams that are still at play for James’ talents, but the two most likely landing spots have been whittled down to Miami, where he has played in four consecutive NBA Finals and won back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the professional team that drafted him and is close to his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
Those rival scenarios have created some anxiety in both cities, and a swirl of speculation on Twitter, ESPN.com and other websites have triggered a unique form of daily mass hysteria on social media outlets. James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, and there are people in Cleveland already convinced, based on nothing more than conjecture, that James will reverse that decision this week and move home. People in Miami are beginning to have doubts that James is staying.
Meanwhile, James has been the most responsible party in this unfolding drama. He scheduled a special television show with ESPN in 2010 to announce his decision to play for the Heat, but this time he has been more measured, patient and business-like in his approach to free agency. He met with Riley on Wednesday to understand Riley’s plan to strengthen the Heat. James’ agent, Rich Paul, also attended the meeting.
Of course, the sports world doesn’t do patient, especially when James is involved.
“I was never worried about LeBron leaving, but I started [Wednesday],” said Heat fan Tony Monticone of Sunrise on Wednesday night while seated at a local watering hole, the Inn-Field. “That said, I’m not sweating it too much. I just hate all the flip-flopping reports you read, ones that say he’s for sure leaving and then cover themselves in the next one.”
There has been a lot of that on Twitter, but the social-media website has also been used strategically by teams during James’ free agency as well. While Riley delivered his pitch in person Wednesday, the Cavaliers used news-hungry reporters and the Internet to communicate their pitch.
In a preemptive strike before Riley met with James at 3 p.m. Las Vegas time, Cleveland’s push started in the morning with a flurry of reports on Twitter trumpeting a three-team trade including the Celtics and Nets that would create enough salary-cap space to give James a max contract in Cleveland. James didn’t play for the maximum-allowed contract under the NBA’s collective-bargaining agreement during his contract with the Heat. Chris Bosh and James were the team’s highest-paid players, but James would like to be the highest-paid player by himself on whatever team he chooses during his next contract.
Later on Wednesday, news reports, citing anonymous sources, also linked the Cavaliers to some of James’ favorite Heat teammates. One report offered that the Cavaliers’ upper management was communicating with Ray Allen. Another claimed that the Cavaliers were pursing Miller and James Jones.
James recently went on vacation with Allen and Jones following the Heat’s disappointing loss in the NBA Finals to the San Antonio Spurs. Miller is a touchy subject for James, and the Cavaliers have tried to use Miller’s abrupt release from the Heat last summer as emotional leverage this week. James lobbied for Miller to be added to the Heat’s roster in 2010, and James was blindsided by Riley when Miller was released in a cost-cutting move shortly after the Heat won back-to-back championships.
In a final push to give James something extra to think about before his meeting with Riley, the Cavaliers began talking up a potential deal that would send another league star, Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves, to the Cavs if LeBron returned to Cleveland.
On Thursday, the cycle will begin anew. The league will wait for James to make his decision, and his teammates and fans in Miami will, too.
“He’s going to stay, no doubt,” said Chris Ramirez of Miami, who stopped to chat about the Heat at the Dolphin Mall on Wednesday. “You can’t go with the tabloids. It’s a show. It's all just the entertainment media.”