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Date

July 11, 2014

The Pitch – Chicago Bulls

CHICAGO — Joakim Noah had better get used to seeing Cleveland a lot more in the spring again.

The Bulls always knew they were going to have to get past LeBron James in order to win a championship. Now they’ll just have to do it by going through Cleveland the next few years.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James and Joakim Noah

Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY SportsJoakim Noah will have to deal with LeBron James a lot more now that he is returning to the Cavaliers.

With James’ decision to return to the Cavaliers, the Bulls must hope against hope that Carmelo Anthony will turn down almost $60 million in guaranteed money from the New York Knicks, or find some way to work out a sign-and-trade. The Bulls got encouraging news in the aftermath of James’ announcement, when sources toldESPN’s Stephen A. Smith that Anthony had eliminated the Lakers and is deciding between the Bulls and Knicks.

If the Bulls don’t land Anthony, they are looking at the very real possibility of heading into next season as the third-best team in their own division. James’ choice makes the Cavaliers the new favorite in the Central. TheIndiana Pacers, despite all their dysfunction at the end of the season, still have Paul George and a core that has been to the Eastern Conference finals the past couple of seasons.

If Lance Stephenson decides to sign elsewhere, that will change the dynamic within the division, but it won’t change the fact that James’ presence in Cleveland remains the biggest roadblock facing the Bulls.

James’ decision has other ramifications on the Bulls — namely, the backup plan of trying to acquire Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Sources told ESPN.com’s Marc Steinthat Love is “intrigued” by the possibility of playing with James, and would be open to signing a long-term deal with the Cavs.

If the Bulls don’t land Anthony, the next best option is to continue calling Timberwolves president and coach Flip Saunders to see if they could work a deal to bring Love to Chicago.

The Bulls’ offer figured to include Jimmy ButlerTaj Gibson and/or Nikola Mirotic along with a future draft pick or two. If the Cavaliers offer Andrew Wiggins, the first overall pick in last month’s draft, along with a few other assets, will that be too good of a deal for the Timberwolves to pass up? Gibson and Butler are great defenders and solid players, but they don’t have the potential star power of Wiggins.

No matter what happens in the coming days in free agency, the Bulls know that James remains in their path more than ever. Like it did in Miami during his first season there, it’s going to take him some time to learn the intricacies of playing with new teammates likeKyrie Irving and company, but James is the type of player who makes everyone around him better.

The Bulls have the same kind of talent in Derrick Rose — a player who opens up space for everyone else on the floor — but Rose has played in only 49 games in the past three seasons because of various injuries. James’ move doesn’t change much in that regard. Rose must continue to work on his game and hope his body can withstand the grind of a long NBA season. Until he can prove that he is healthy — and playing at the same level — it’s foolish to believe the Bulls are a serious contender to win a championship. Even if Anthony signs in Chicago, the Bulls still need an elite-level Rose to be a serious title contender.

The key for the Bulls becomes simple now. They must hope that Anthony signs with them, which would give them the superstar scorer they’ve been missing throughout the Tom Thibodeau era.

Anthony’s presence would take a lot of pressure off Rose and the rest of the team, and it would be an antidote for the intense defense James has played against Rose in the past. The Bulls have to hope that Anthony remembers what their pitch was — that Chicago offers him the best chance to win right away.

The Knicks can offer the most money, but they are still selling hope. Anthony must buy into the notion that the Knicks’ new kingpin, Phil Jackson, can turn around the roster in summer 2015, when he’ll be working with a lot more cap space.

The Bulls have to hold onto the belief that Anthony knows that the best way to get through Cleveland and to a championship is to join forces with Rose and Noah. The reality for all parties is that they are much better equipped to do that together, not apart.

Melo Needs to make his Mind…

Carmelo Anthony has narrowed his options down to the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls. He is no longer considering the Los Angeles Lakers, sources told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith.

 

 

Knicks president Phil Jackson said Thursday that he hadn’t heard from Anthony in recent days but remained confident the All-Star forward would re-sign with the Knicks. Jackson said the Knicks have made five different contract offers to Anthony, one of which is believed to be a maximum deal of $129 million over five years.

As of Friday afternoon, the Lakers had yet to be informed they were out of the running for Anthony, a league source told ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin.

Anthony’s agent, Leon Rose, told ESPN.com on Wednesday afternoon that his client “hasn’t made a decision yet.”

KING JAMES BACK TO THE CAVS — IM HOME

LeBron James is heading back to Cleveland.

The four-time league MVP told SI.com on Friday that he is returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sources told ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Broussard the deal is expected to be four years for the maximum of $88 million.

 

 

“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” James told SI.com in a first-person essay. “I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

For James, it marks a complete turnaround from his original free-agent decision in 2010, when he bolted Cleveland for the Miami Heat, creating a Big Three with Dwyane Wade and Chris Boshthat went on to win two NBA titles in their four years together.

“The hardest thing to leave is what I built with those guys,” James said. “I’ve talked to some of them and will talk to others. Nothing will ever change what we accomplished.”

James informed Wade of his decision, sources told ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst. Bosh, who is out of the country, was informed through his agent, sources said.

 

 

The Heat were in the mix for James again this time around. Team president Pat Riley traveled to Las Vegas to meet with James on Wednesday in an attempt to lure him back to Miami after the All-Star opted out of his contract following the team’s NBA Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

But James said no to Riley and the Heat, instead choosing a Cleveland team that picked him No. 1 overall in the 2003 draft out of St. Vincent-St. Mary, where he starred as a high school player in his native Akron, Ohio.

“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked,” James told SI.com. “It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. 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.”

 

 

James spoke with Heat president Pat Riley and owner Micky Arison Friday morning on the phone before James’ first-person essay was posted, sources said. ESPN.com reported incorrectly earlier that the Heat did not know of the decision until it was posted and were not expecting it. The Heat had left their meeting with James earlier this week in Las Vegas feeling good about their chances to retain him, even if it was on a short-term deal.

“I’m not having a press conference or a party,” James said in his essay. “After this, it’s time to get to work.”

The decision certainly was cause for celebration in Cleveland, however. The Cavaliers have been mired in four losing seasons since their trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2010, James’ last year with the team.

Cleveland Browns QB Johnny Manziel was one of many fans expressing excitement on social media after receiving the news.

 

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who saw James earlier this week at the LeBron James Skills Academy basketball camp, also commented.

“LeBron has a huge heart,” Krzyzewski told ESPN.com’s Andy Katz. “This decision is a great decision for him because he’s following his heart and he loves his home.”

Nike, James’ biggest endorser, released a statement that said: “Like basketball fans around the globe, we are excited to support one of the world’s greatest athletes as he enters the next chapter of his career. We look forward to seeing LeBron step back on the court in Cleveland.”

In the days leading up to LeBron’s decision, much was made of the infamous letter that Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert had issued in the wake of James’ departure in 2010, calling James a “coward” for leaving. James addressed the letter in his essay.

“I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out,” James said. “Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”

Gilbert weighed in himself on Twitter minutes after James’ announcement.

 

“I’m thrilled with the news,” new Cavaliers coach David Blatt told ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman. “It’s exciting for the team, the state and for basketball. Life is full of surprises.”

Reaction to James’ decision was decidedly different in Miami than in Cleveland. Arison expressed disappointment on Twitter shortly after James’ announcement.

 

James, Bosh and Wade all exercised options in their contracts to become free agents this summer, but the thinking was that they would redo their deals to give the team financial flexibility in an effort to upgrade the roster.

Now, the future is uncertain in Miami. Sources confirmed to ESPN.com that Bosh is finalizing an agreement to return to the Heat on a five-year, $118 million deal after weighing a maximum-contract offer from  the Houston Rockets. The team also is making a push to re-sign Wade. Aside from Bosh and Wade, the Heat currently have just four players who will be under guaranteed contract for next season.

James has spoken with former Heat teammate and free-agent forward Mike Miller about joining him in Cleveland, a source told ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst.

 

 

 

James spent seven seasons with the Cavaliers, averaging 27.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists and leading them in 2007 to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Spurs. The goal for him now will be to get there again with a Cleveland team that boasts All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving and former Kansas star Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 pick in last month’s NBA draft.

Of Irving and James, Krzyzewski told Katz: “That will be a great, great duo … LeBron is a brilliant player and Kyrie is really smart, two players with great knowledge of the game and understanding of the game.”

James said he knows how hard it is to win a championship and that he is “realistic” about the team’s hopes next season — but optimistic.

“My patience will get tested. I know that,” James said. “I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys.”

Las Vegas sports books quickly adjusted their odds to win the 2015 championship. The Las Vegas Superbook made the Cavs the outright favorites at 3-1, while dropping the Heat’s odds all the way down to 100-1. The MGM moved the Cavs down to 7-2, co-favorites with the Spurs. William Hill and the Wynn sports books both moved the Cavs to 9-2.

Two months ago, the Cavaliers could be found as high as 60-1 to win the title, but money poured in over the last three weeks after James opted out of his contract with Miami. While the majority of wagers were small in size, the MGM, Nevada’s largest sports book, told ESPN.com that it took a $1,000 bet on the Cavs at 40-1. Sports book operator CG Technology said it took “some higher dollar amounts from respected guys” on the Cavs at 30-1.

ESPN.com’s Darren Rovell reported that the Cavaliers have confirmed they are not raising season-ticket prices in the wake of the news. The team sold $1 million in ticket sales on Wednesday on speculation alone, a source told Rovell.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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