MIAMI - There seems to be a lot riding on Heat president Pat Riley’s trip to California.
Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra flew west Thursday to meet with prospective free agents, and the success of that venture could have a major impact on whether LeBron James stays in Miami.
James has been on vacation, but ESPN reported that his agent, Rich Paul, has been hearing pitches in Cleveland. The Rockets, Mavericks, Suns and Cavaliers all delivered presentations.
An anonymous official from one of those teams told Yahoo! Sports that James “seems ready to explore the market” if he is not content with whom Riley recruits, though another team employee who was in Cleveland believed it was “all a smoke screen” to apply more pressure on the Heat.
Late Thursday, Yahoo! reported that Paul said LeBron would meet personally with teams if Riley did not do enough to improve the Heat.
Riley is likely to meet with several Los Angeles-based players and agents this weekend and appears to be recruiting longtime star Pau Gasol. Riley also might be in the market for forward Trevor Ariza and others. Gasol, who averaged 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game last season, arguably would be the best player Miami has put alongside the Big Three since they joined forces in 2010.
Other than that, there do not seem to be many splashy moves left for Riley to make. Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry, possibly the most attractive free agent beyond Carmelo Anthony and Miami’s Big Three, agreed to re-sign with the Raptors at $48 million over four years. It appeared as though the Heat never got a meeting with Lowry, and his choice came down to Toronto or Houston.
Riley has not commented publicly on any free agents, so it is difficult to ascertain how much of a priority Lowry was. Either way, Riley has yet to solidify any deals as he hunts for additions that will satisfy James.
Yahoo! also reported that one person who sat down with Paul got the impression that there is “a breakdown in communication” among the Big Three. That likely refers to finances, given the multiple reports that James is looking for the maximum salary while Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are expected to take pay cuts from what they were slated to make in the next two seasons.
There has been no word from James publicly regarding his plans, and he was noncommittal about every facet of his free agency when he last spoke to the media June 17. It appears he has not met face-to-face with any teams.
That could change depending on what happens this weekend. Yahoo! reported that some organizations could be invited to meet directly with James early next week.
Phoenix was one of the teams supposedly trying to lure James and Anthony to play together, though Anthony has not visited the Suns and is not expected to. He finished his highly publicized recruiting tour with the Lakers and Knicks on Thursday.
ESPN reported that if Anthony is out of play, Phoenix would make a run at Bosh instead. Bosh has reiterated for months that he intends to stay with the Heat.
For James, returning to Cleveland would be a shocker considering the way his departure from the team went in 2010 and the current state of its roster. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert posted a letter on the team website torching James and describing his move to Miami as “cowardly betrayal.”
The Cavs organization seems to have partially made amends with James over the past few years, and he returned to Cleveland during the season to attend the jersey retirement ceremony of former teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
If James were to leave Miami he would be gambling on the unknown rather than putting his trust in Riley.
Riley has been a winner with three organizations in his three-plus decades as a coach or executive, and surrounded James with a strong enough cast to reach the NBA Finals four times in four years. James had never won a championship before leading the Heat to back-to-back titles in 2012 and ’13.