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LeBron James’ appreciation of Kyrie Irving sparks rumors

One of the most memorable moments of All-Star Weekend was watching LeBron James celebrate the three-point championship of Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving.

For a growing number of NBA players, executives, reporters and fans around the country, it was more circumstantial evidence that James’ days in Miami might be numbered. A prominent national story line has been brewing for some time that James wants to return to Cleveland and play with Irving after next season.

The subject was so prominent in Houston it was impossible to ignore, and James’ effusive praise for Irving during the weekend only served to fuel speculation.

Considering the way James left Cleveland in 2010, the idea of him returning less than five years later once seemed preposterous. But while James has shot down every question regarding his future, he has never ruled out a return to Cleveland. In fact, James began attempting to smooth things over with Cleveland last year.

“It would be fun to play in front of these fans again,” James said in February of 2012 before a road game at Cleveland. “I had a lot fun times in my seven years here. … I’m here as a Miami Heat player, and I’m happy where I am now, but I don’t rule that out in no sense.

“And if I decide to come back, hopefully the fans will accept me.”

The Heat will be major contenders to keep James in the summer of 2014 when he can first opt out of his contract, but All-Star Weekend added yet another chapter to the ongoing narrative that James loves the young Cleveland guard’s game.

On cue, the Heat plays the Cavaliers on Sunday after a quick three-game road trip that begins in Atlanta on Wednesday.

A rising superstar in the league, Irving competed every day in Houston and did something memorable every time he stepped onto the court.

On Friday, he dominated the Rising Stars Challenge, scoring 32 points in his team’s loss. For fans of South Florida hoops, it was an eye-opening performance. Late in the second half, Irving crossed up Fort Lauderdale’s Brandon Knight so thoroughly on a step-back three-pointer that Knight slipped to his knees.

On Sunday, Irving started alongside James to begin the second half of the All-Star Game and finished with 15 points in 26 minutes on 6-of-11 shooting from the field. The multitalented guard was 3 of 6 from three-point range and had four assists and three rebounds.

Afterward, James gushed about Irving and singled out the youngster when asked who he enjoyed playing with.

“It’s always fun playing with [Carmelo Anthony], and it was awesome to play with Kyrie,” James said. “I watch Kyrie a lot. … It’s always great to play against those guys, but when you get an opportunity to play with them it’s even better.”

But James’ biggest thrill of the weekend seemed to be cheering on Irving. On Saturday, James was seated courtside for the three-point competition and dunk contest. Irving won the three-point competition, racking up 23 points in the final round, and James was on his feet cheering for Irving throughout the exhibition.

“He’s gonna be unbelievable,” James said of Irving on Sunday. “He’s already unbelievable in this league, first of all. What he’s doing right now, and what he’s going to do in the future, it’s going to be crazy.

“With his weekend, he had a great game Friday night, came in here and won the three-point competition and had a great game tonight. … He’s one of the best players that we have, and it’s awesome to have him here. He belongs here.”

Taken separately, the many examples of James’ appreciation for Irving’s game are innocuous. But nothing happens in a vacuum in the life of James. When you’re the best player on the planet, everything is scrutinized, dissected, analyzed and decoded.

James can opt out of his contract with Miami after next season. He could head back to Cleveland and play with Irving full-time, re-sign with the Heat for more money or other teams, like the Lakers, could be in play. James’ next big decision is still more than a year away, and gossip throughout the league is already in overdrive.

Reporters with Cleveland ties have been writing about James’ “likely” return to the Cavaliers since last season, and insiders around the NBA have been quick to point out that James has never fully embraced Miami and still considers Akron, Ohio, his true home. (He doesn’t like the traffic in Miami, or haven’t you heard?)

And, of course, there’s Irving, who now seems to be one of the biggest pieces to the puzzle. James and Irving have an association through Nike, and James has been closely involved with the guard since he was a junior in high school and attended James’ summer camp in Akron.

For now, the future of the Heat involves James, but the story of his impending contract decision isn’t going away. Just like his final two seasons in Cleveland, James’ future with the Heat will be major news from now until the summer of 2014.

Heat president Pat Riley wooed James in 2010. His next great task will be keeping him in Miami.

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