In an interview that aired Friday on CNN's Unguarded with Rachel Nichols, the TNT commentator said he hopes James will sign with the Cavaliers after taking his talents from Ohio to South Beach in 2010.
"I think it would be great for him to go back to Cleveland," Barkley said. "Number one: I don't think they have great fans in Miami. I thought they were great fans in Cleveland. ... I'm not digging [a deeper hole with the Heat fans]. Listen, those are the same fans that were leaving when they thought they lost to the Spurs. Let's don't act like they're superfans."
Barkley was referencing the fact that a a significant portion of the home crowd left American Airlines Arena early during Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, missing the Heat’s dramatic 103-100 overtime comeback.
The impact of James' decision in 2010 could not be clearer. Since the four-time MVP left Cleveland, the Heat are 186-66 (.738) while the Cavaliers are 73-179 (.290). Miami has advanced to the Finals for three straight years and has captured back-to-back titles, and they are currently ranked No. 2 in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland has yet to make the playoffs in the post-James era after making the postseason five straight times, with James. A native of nearby Akron, James was selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft and he guided the Cavaliers to the 2007 Finals.
One Cavaliers fan ran onto the Quicken Loans Arena court during a March game between the Cavaliers and the Heat while wearing a shirt that read “We Miss You” on the front and “2014 Come Back” on the back. He displayed the shirt to James before he was hauled off by security.
“Well, he said he missed me,” James told the Palm Beach Post. “And come back please. And I didn’t have much time to say much to him, because security got to him.”
Some see the Heat's dominance as validation of James' thought process during the 2010 free-agency period, as the whole idea of the "Big 3" plan was to assemble a "superteam" that could sustain high-level play for multiple years. Barkley, who famously never won a title as a player, doesn't see it that way.
"I thought LeBron should have stayed in Cleveland," Barkley told CNN. "Just because he got them rings now, he ain't no better. Think about the notion that just because I didn't win a sporting event, my life is not successful. That's got to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
James signed a six-year contract worth $109.8 million with the Heat in 2010, teaming up with fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He holds an early termination option for the 2014-15 season, which he can exercise in July 2014 to become an unrestricted free agent. If James decides to opt in and remain with the Heat for next season, he also holds a player option for the 2015-16 season, which is the final year of his current contract. James is earning $19.1 million this season and would make $20.6 million if he opted in for the 2014-15 season.
Looking to avoid constant media scrutiny, James has remained quiet about his future in free agency this season.
"I would love to spend the rest of my career in Miami with this great team and great organization as we continue to compete for championships," James told ESPN.com in September. "That’s ideal. But we don’t know what may happen from now to the end of the season. That’s the nature of the business. It’s the nature of not knowing what tomorrow brings. I mean, as a kid, I never thought the [Michael Jordan-led] Bulls would break up. Never. ... But sometimes the nature of the business doesn’t allow things to happen like you would want them to. But we’ll see."
Barkley was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 after a 16-year career highlighted by the 1993 MVP award, 11 All-Star appearances and 11 All-NBA selections. He advanced to the Finals just once, with the Suns in 1993, but he lost to Jordan's Bulls in six games.
Even though Barkley is regarded as one of the most brash, straight-talking media personalities around, he's hardly alone in his criticism of Heat fans. Even Bosh had harsh words for those who left early the arena in comments made prior to Game 7.
“For all those guys [fans] who left, make sure they don’t come to Game 7,” he said. “We only want the guys who want to stay. … You never give up. People gave up on us. They can stay where they are and watch the game at home.”
During the Eastern Conference finals, Pacers radio broadcaster Mark Boyle took some shots at Heat fans who left early during Indiana’s Game 2 victory. “We are literally sitting in the crowd here,” Boyle said, in an audio file of the broadcast posted on Miami sports site PageQSports.com. “These losers are leaving. They are flocking to the exits with their team down by three. This city does not only not deserve this team, they don’t deserve any team.”