By Ian Thomsen
December 27, 2012

This has been the year of LeBron James, who earned the NBA championship, the Olympic gold medal and Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. And as his outstanding 2012 ends, one persistent rumor has taken hold.

A lot of people believe that James will be returning to Cleveland.

"It's the worst-kept secret in the league,'' one general manager said.

There are reasons to believe it, starting with Miami's untenable position as a luxury-tax payer. After next season, the Heat will be among the first teams faced with the new "repeater'' penalty that threatens them with close to $50 million in luxury taxes, in addition to their expensive payroll.

It just so happens that James can opt out of his contract and become a free agent after next season, which will serve him and his team with three options: (1) Miami can absorb major financial losses to re-sign James and hold on to his teammates for an extended -- and incredibly expensive -- run at championships; (2) Miami can duck under the tax threshold by unloading salaries that will enable the Heat to keep James and fellow potential 2014 free agents Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, even though the minimal roster around the three stars will reduce the team's chances of winning; or (3) Miami can watch James move in free agency to a franchise that can afford to contend for championships as he plays out the peak years of his career.

When Oklahoma City appeared to weaken its championship hopes in November by trading James Harden, it wasn't a matter of choice -- it was because the team could not afford to pay the oppressive new taxes that his max contract would trigger. The same dilemma appears before Miami and LeBron. If he stays, then the Heat probably won't be able to afford the teammates who can help him win championships.

A lot of teams can have cap space after next season, including the Cavaliers. While he will have the opportunity to return home, will he have motive? The reason for believing that James will return to Cleveland is built on the lingering idea that he needs to go home to make things right. But I disagree with that. James doesn't need to return anymore.

The crucial word here is "need." James' accomplishments this year show that he is far past having to worry about making things right for The Decision of 2010. He brought a lot of pain upon himself for the way he chose to leave Cleveland. It was still haunting him throughout 2011, and maybe at that time it made sense to predict his ultimate return to Cleveland. It made sense because at that time LeBron was incapable of redeeming himself.

But the equation has changed entirely after 2012. Now James can say not only that he made the right move by signing with Miami, but also that he might not have won the championship if he had stayed in Cleveland. Winning the title in Miami wasn't easy. He made it hard on himself, but maybe he needed to go through that pain to remodel his approach and his game. Would he have been forced to make the necessary transformations if he had remained in Cleveland?

The bottom line is that he has no need to revisit his relationship with Cleveland anymore. If you were to bring this issue to people associated with the Cavaliers, I'm guessing they would admit that James doesn't need to come back to make things right. The only reason he would come back is if the team offers him the best chance to win, and/or if he wants to live year-round in the Cleveland area.

LeBron will turn 28 on Sunday, and the years ahead are too precious to be spent worrying about his living arrangements. He is a highly intelligent player -- as revealed by Lee Jenkins' recent profile affirming him as SI's Sportsman -- and neither he nor the NBA can afford for him to surround himself with inexperienced teammates who can't liberate him to achieve the highest levels of play. Cleveland is a young team with one potential star in Kyrie Irving, who hasn't played long enough or with talented enough teammates to prove that he can excel without the ball.

If James were to go back to Cleveland, then he might find himself in the same position he faced in 2010. He'd be held accountable for his failure to carry an inadequate roster to the championship.

A recent story by Todd Jones on illuminated the relationship between James and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. "The aspect that bothered him most was the lack of personal communication, the basic courtesy not shown by not giving Dan a phone call or telling him the decision first in person before going on TV,'' Quicken Loans VP David Carroll said of his friend Gilbert. ``He was never able to build up a relationship with LeBron, and that bothered him."

If James didn't connect with Gilbert then, why would he be inclined to connect with him now?

LeBron himself has hinted at returning to Cleveland (although he did so before he won the championship that changed the way he is viewed), and maybe that's where he'll wind up. Or maybe Heat owner Micky Arison will find some way to accommodate James and maintain his title aspirations in Miami.

My guess is that Heat president Pat Riley and James will leave together. They'll win one or two more championships through next season, and then Riley will retire while James will go to a place that can afford to surround him with the talent to which he has grown accustomed, the talent that he deserves. The next decision should have nothing to do with the past. For his sake and the sake of the league, it should have everything to do with the future and finding out how well he can play, how much he can achieve and how great he can become.

The Headlines

? Nets fire coach Avery Johnson. This move was signaled by the Steinbrenneresque tweet of Nets CEO Brett Yormark after Brooklyn's 93-76 Christmas loss to the Celtics: "Nets fans deserved better today. The entire organization needs to work harder to find the solution. We will get there." This team has been on a deadline ever since huge investments were made in Joe Johnson (31 years old), Gerald Wallace (30) and Deron Williams (28), who will have only a few years of contention as a group. None of the underachieving Nets -- including Avery Johnson -- was accustomed to the pressure and accountability that comes with fulfilling expectations in the league's most demanding market. They saw the Lakers fire their coach in the early going in pursuit of a championship, and now the Nets are following that example. P.J. Carlesimo will be the interim replacement, but the Nets should focus on hiring Nate McMillan, who has spent years developing a relationship with Williams as a USA Basketball assistant and who can work with the struggling point guard to develop an offense that plays to his strengths.

[Rob Mahoney: Johnson a bad fit for revamped Nets]

? Miami wins fifth consecutive game against Oklahoma City. In the final seconds of their 103-97 Christmas loss in Miami, the Thunder watched Kevin Durant go one-on-one to miss a contested three-pointer over LeBron James; Russell Westbrook then failed to convert his ensuing three-point attempt. It was a meeting of important lessons, as this game reminded the Thunder that they need to run plays for Durant at the end rather than count on him to free himself against Miami's fourth-quarter defense. The matchup also proved once more that the Heat (who went 19-for-19 at the free-throw line and got 20 points from Mario Chalmers) have learned how to squeeze out victories in order to maintain their margin of superiority. "It was a good win for us to put a little more doubt in their mind,'' Chalmers said. When they meet again on Feb. 14 in Oklahoma City, the Heat can believe they should and will win; the Thunder won't be nearly so sure.

? Lakers beat Knicks. The last of Los Angeles' five consecutive victories (the streak ended Thursday in Denver) was by far the team's most impressive: The Lakers beat the winningest team of the East with a strong fourth quarter that showed the importance of Steve Nash. Pau Gasol suddenly had a meaningful role to play, and Kobe Bryant's scoring was viewed as a strength rather than a black-hole weakness. The first impression of Nash's return to the Lakers was noteworthy because (1) he looked like his old self and (2) he and his teammates are sure to grow more cohesive and effective over their next four months together, health permitting.

[Rob Mahoney: Encouraging signs for Lakers]

While the Lakers began to realize that they may yet contend in the West this season, the Knicks received a reminder of their own: They need Amar'e Stoudemire to return and contribute in a big way. Without him, they don't have enough high-level firepower against the league's best. Though J.R. Smith was able to steal a 99-97 comeback win Wednesday at Phoenix in the absences of Anthony and Raymond Felton, those exploits won't hold up in a seven-game series against Miami.

? Celtics break through at Nets' expense. "We're very, very close to becoming a good team,'' Boston coach Doc Rivers said the Christmas victory at Brooklyn. The Celtics held the Nets to 40.6 percent shooting, and Brooklyn had 14 assists and 20 turnovers. Rajon Rondon controlled the pace, and Jared Sullinger (16 points) and Jeff Green combined for 31 points off the bench. Was this a momentary exhibition of pride for the national audience, or were the Celtics on the verge of renewing themselves as a defense-first contender? The Celtics have been optimistic of returning to contention around the championship spine of Rivers, Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and an upcoming three-game road trip against the Clippers, Warriors and Kings is going to provide confirmation or denial for that optimism. The best hope for the Celtics will be to show improvement month by month, especially when defensive stopper Avery Bradley returns in early January.

? LeBron James commits a foul! He went 254 minutes, 7 seconds without being penalized by the referees. I can't believe this peculiar streak was a priority for the league's best player. While it's good to not put opponents on the line, it's also good to be so aggressive as to make an occasionally intimidating mistake, like a fastball pitcher who misses the inside of the plate every now and then to brush back the hitters. No one was accusing James of passive defense -- indeed, the streak was being used to criticize referees for showing favoritism to the superstar (though the case could also be made that if they were, in fact, consciously favoring James, then wouldn't they occasionally assess a meaningless foul in order to hide their conspiracy?). It ended Tuesday when James fouled Serge Ibaka to prevent him from dunking, which was, of course, the right play.

? Yet another bad week for DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings' talented yet tormented center earned a suspension (which lasted one game) for cursing at coach Keith Smart at halftime Friday. Then he fired agent John Greig, who has preached hard truths to Cousins, and replaced him with Dan Fegan, who is not the preachy type. The easiest prediction in the world is that Cousins will be seeking Fegan's help to leave Sacramento. It may be the best thing for everyone because the Kings have not been able to surround Cousins with mentoring leadership that he -- more than any young star in the league -- appears to need.

? The Rockets surge. Houston beat the Timberwolves 87-84 on Wednesday in Minnesota for its seventh victory in eight games; one day earlier, the Rockets had won 120-97 at Chicago. Houston's three expensive signings -- James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik -- have appeared to be worthy of their investments as the Rockets have climbed to No. 6 in the crowded West.

? Bobcats lose 16th straight game. They are the first team to suffer three losing streaks of 16 or more games in one calendar year. (Which is an insidious stat. Who comes up with these things?) Consider, however, some of the losses in the most recent streak: They cut a 17-point halftime deficit to 84-82 with 7:16 left Wednesday against Miami; they lost by a point at the Lakers, by six to the Clippers, by two to the Knicks and by three at Atlanta. In other words, they appear to be doing the best they can.

Get To Know: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

The 6-8 small forward is one of the top defenders in the NBA. Mbah a Moute, a 26-year-old prince from Cameroon, is averaging 5.3 rebounds and career bests of 9.8 points and 1.8 assists for the surprising Bucks.

? He was 13 when he started playing basketball in Cameroon. "My twin brother used to be at a different high school than I was, and they had a basketball court," Mbah a Moute said. "He wanted somebody to play with, so he'd say, 'Let me teach you about this new sport that I've learned.' I started playing with him and next thing you know we were up watching the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan at 3 in the morning and I started falling in love with the game. I started playing for a local team back home and two years later I was leaving to come to the United States to play basketball in high school.

"In Africa, the culture is different, but there are a lot of similarities as well. Integrity and respect -- those are the two main values. When you go to African countries you can see the warmth of people, and how people are joyful. Even with all of the struggles, people still go their way about life as if it were nothing. I think the main thing it teaches you is how to appreciate life and appreciate what you have.

"Being a prince is not like [the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America, that's for sure. There are a lot of tribes in Africa, and a lot of those tribes have chiefs and kings, and my dad just happened to be one. Growing up, we had to go to different traditional ceremonies and dress up in traditional clothing. But we didn't have any responsibility as far as making decisions. I'm sure later on my dad will choose who is going to be his successor; I don't know if it's me. But it was fun growing up and being in that position.

"I would say I was from a middle-class family. Fortunately, I didn't grow up poor like a lot of kids in Africa. I had something to eat every day, I had stuff that I pretty much wanted, I never needed anything -- but I grew up in an area where a lot of people around me did. So it exposed me to that and made me appreciate what I had because most of my friends and people I went to school with were kids who were struggling to have food on the table. They were having to do a lot of stuff to survive.''

? He moved to America in 2003 to pursue his potential for basketball. "I got good really quickly," Mbah a Moute said. "In two years, I went from being unknown to one of the top kids in my class in Cameroon. That's how I got the chance to go to Basketball Without Borders. I was one of the top kids at the camp, and that's what made me want to really pursue it. I thought, If I can get this good in two years, and if I put in more work and I get in a better situation, how good can I really be?

"It was a big decision, a decision that my dad wasn't really happy with at first. But I knew that's what I had to do because I was in love with the game of basketball -- I still am. I knew I wanted to come to the United States because that was the only place I could play basketball and go to school at the same time. I showed a lot of courage coming to a new culture, not knowing the language, not knowing anybody, just staying at a boarding school. That was tough, but it really taught me about life. It made me grow up a young age and I'm thankful I did that now.''

After two years at Monteverde Academy in Florida, he was recruited to UCLA, where he became the first player in 34 years to start in three straight Final Fours. He joined the Bucks in the second round (No. 37) of the 2008 NBA draft.

"I did not have any expectations as I moved through the stages," Mbah a Moute said. "I was just enjoying the ride. Coming from where I came from, I didn't expect to be where I am now."

? He has earned an NBA starting role as a lockdown defender who can guard four positions. "Actually, when I started playing, I was a really good shooter," Mbah a Moute said. "I was known for my shooting and my athletic abilities, and I could get to the rim whenever I wanted to.

"I wasn't as good a defender as I am now. It's doing my homework -- studying film of guys and knowing their game. To be a good defender you have to be a good offensive player, too. I think I was a good enough offensive player to know a lot of moves that those guys do, and know how to use it and know how to stop it.

"The No. 1 thing is you have to have fun doing it. You get to try different things, to be master of your craft, so to say. I was always trying different things with different guys, and it makes the game really fun.

"It really helped me that I learned the game at home, because in Africa basketball is about team more than anything. In America, I think a lot of kids think about stats and being the best scorer or the best rebounder in AAU basketball and all that stuff. I didn't get a chance to experience that. When I started playing basketball, it was more about winning. That's what really counted. It was about the fraternity that we had on our team, and our friendships. We didn't care who scored the most points. You just wanted to be out there playing with each other and beating the other team. It was about the competition more so than the individual awards, because there were none. There was no such thing growing up as being, like, the best scorer in the league. They didn't keep stats like that. It was really about winning. That's what helped me become a really good team player.

"When I'm done playing in the NBA, I definitely will go back home. The last few years I've been doing basketball camps back in Africa, and I've been helping other kids come over to the United States. Over the last three years we've had six or seven kids in the United States -- two of them are playing in college, three of them are in high school, one [center Joel Embiid] just signed with Kansas. Hopefully, one of those kids one day will have a chance to experience what I did in making it to the NBA. But if they don't, I hope they get a good education and they can go back home and do a lot of great things. The main need is for me to be back home. I can do a lot more as far as helping people and making changes back home than I can do here.''

Quote Of The Week

"This is fool's gold." -- Chris Paul

The Clippers' point guard was trying to remind everyone in his organization on Christmas that a franchise-record 14-game winning streak wasn't going to mean anything four months from now in the playoffs. "You don't play for the regular season,'' he said. "Obviously, you want to build something."

A 112-100 victory against Denver on Tuesday lifted the Clippers to a league-leading 22-6. Paul has complementary star power in the ever-improving Blake Griffin to go with a deep rotational blend of experience and energy. They're big, explosive and skilled. But neither the Clippers nor Paul knows what it's like to play beyond the second round of the playoffs.

[Ben Golliver: How the Clippers have built the NBA's best record]

It's one thing to play well on Christmas, and another thing to win a Game 5 or 6 in the Western Conference finals against the Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies or Lakers -- as the Clippers dream of doing this spring. We are seeing why Paul is the most respected point guard in the league. No one at his position is playing better at either end of the court or showing more leadership this season.

Game Of The Week

San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks, Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET. The ever-contending Spurs will visit their Texas rivals, who are hoping to reach the playoffs for a 13th consecutive year after Dirk Nowitzki's recent return from preseason knee surgery. An NBA scout breaks down the two teams and the matchup.

"This year the Mavericks have been counter to everything I ever thought about Rick Carlisle philosophy-wise," the scout said. "They're so loose now, it's organized chaos. He used to be precise and focused on execution and there was a reason for every cut and move. And now he's told them, 'Just go!' I don't know if it's the influence of [assistant coach] Jim O'Brien, because that was Jim's way in Indiana and Philadelphia -- just run for more scoring opportunities and more possessions per game.

"Dallas was doing OK while Dirk was out, hanging in there. O.J. Mayo was scoring for them while Dirk was out. Now he ought to fit right back into what they're doing. In any system, if you can make jump shots, you're going to find a place to thrive -- and Dirk obviously can make jump shots. It's kind of like the way New York plays around Carmelo Anthony: They can go into the post to him and spread the floor. Dirk knows when he's got two people on him and when he can still turn away from the help defender and score anyway. It puts pressure on the defense to change where the help is coming from and get Dirk in spots where he has to put the ball on the floor.

"They're going to miss the leadership of Derek Fisher [who asked to be released after injuring his knee] at the point. He's seen it all, he knows where the ball should go and he gets it there. He can reset if he needs to, and if they're running out of clock, he knows what to do. Delivering the ball in the right place at the right time to shooters is a quality that is hard to find. Some people are in such a hurry to drive and score themselves. And when they get to where they can't score, they make that wild pass back out to the shooter that makes him have to bend down and reach out to make the catch. That gives the defense time to come out, and then you don't have that shot anymore. A lot of it has to do with being in control of the shot clock and knowing how you're going to manufacture points.

"It's a matter of experience that every team needs, and it goes to show that there is a quality of youth and quickness that doesn't always jell with winning. But you also need that quickness because you need to have that change of pace. As much as they need a guy like Fisher, there's also a need for the speed that the Mavericks get from Darren Collison, who has the motor to get to the basket and get a layup.

"It's never easy against the Spurs because they're such a good passing team that changes sides of the floor frequently with quick passes. A lot of defenses will tilt or load to one side and try to keep that from happening, but the Spurs can quickly get the ball from one side of the floor to the other and then attack as the defense is coming from one side to the other. That's what makes Tony Parker so dynamic in their early offense -- he gives up the ball and then gets it back quickly so that he's dribbling and cutting back against a defense that's not set.

"Even if you eliminate them from moving the ball from side to side and you're able to keep pushing them out -- so all of a sudden they're 28 feet from the basket as opposed to 23 feet -- then you have to worry about the backdoor cuts that they're so good at making for each other. You push them out farther and farther, you deny and deny, but that makes your susceptible to getting beat on the backcuts.

"The Mavericks have to match San Antonio's transition scoring. You have to go back at the Spurs just as hard as they're going at you, because the Spurs are very good at getting back and playing team defense in the half court with Tim Duncan setting up as the anchor. When the opportunities aren't there to push it back at them and take it to the basket in transition, you have to make jump shots against them in the half court. That's what Oklahoma City did to beat them in the playoffs last year."

All-Carmelo Anthony Team

The Knicks' star resolved to be a better leader this season, and so far he's come through. The players on this team would do well to follow his example by carrying out an important resolution in the new year.


C DeMarcus Cousins, Kings: Look around, everybody else is controlling their emotions. Why can't you?

F Blake Griffin, Clippers: Approach every day as an opportunity to persuade Chris Paul to re-sign.

F Pau Gasol, Lakers: Remember your unhappiness in Memphis? Adapt, do anything you can, but don't let the Lakers trade you.

G Kevin Martin, Thunder: Keep putting the team first and maybe you'll help OKC go further than James Harden ever did.

G Derrick Rose, Bulls: Don't return until you're ready to become the NBA's version of Adrian Peterson -- which undoubtedly happens to be your goal anyway.


C Roy Hibbert, Pacers: Forget about expectations; play as if you're on a rookie contract.

C Andrew Bynum, 76ers: Focus. No bowling. Focus. No inciting of neighbors. Focus. No anti-Kobeisms. Focus, focus, focus.

F Tim Duncan, Spurs: Whatever it is you're doing to shave 10 years off your game, keep doing it.

F Amare Stoudemire, Knicks: Seek to be a champion, regardless of your stats, and all good things will come your way

G Deron Williams, Nets: You wanted to be a franchise star in the biggest city: Make it happen.

G Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers: No matter what Anthony Davis does in New Orleans, believe you should be rookie of the year.

G Ray Allen, Heat: Pack earplugs when traveling to Boston.

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