CLEVELAND (AP) — When the Cavaliers shipped off Zydrunas Ilgauskas this week and welcomed Antawn Jamison and Sebastian Telfair, it severed one of the last remaining ties to Cleveland's NBA finals appearance in 2007.
As the Summer of LeBron draws near, general manager Danny Ferry's creative moves and owner Dan Gilbert's wallet have turned over the Cavaliers' roster in an attempt to give James plenty of reasons to remain in Cleveland.
"(Ferry) has done a good job of bringing in players and trying to build something," James said. "I think we all know how important it is to win around here and we have high expectations every year. The front office has done a great job of bringing in guys that want to win and want to do what's right for the team."
Cleveland's payroll for this season is near $83 million, ranking among the top five in the league. But it was the final two years on Jamison's contract, worth a total of $28 million, that allowed Ferry to acquire him at the trading deadline.
It's a move he has mastered. While teams around the league continue to shed payroll either for economic reasons or to make room for this summer's strong free agent class, the Cavaliers continue to welcome the rich and famous.
Ferry overhauled the roster in 2008, trading six players one minute before the trading deadline for Joe Smith, Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West. It remains perhaps the most vital of all his moves, since it laid the groundwork for what was to come.
Smith was traded to Milwaukee for Mo Williams when the Bucks didn't want to pay him through 2012. Ferry turned Wallace into Shaquille O'Neal when the Suns were trying to get out from under $20 million.
Now Gilbert has allowed Ferry to turn Ilgauskas into Jamison, while leaving hope the Cavs could get 'Z' back if Washington, as expected, buys out his contract.
"This is Dan Gilbert's commitment to winning," Ferry said. "He supported us to make any move we think makes this organization a championship-caliber team."
Now Gilbert must hope it's enough to keep James, who can become a free agent in July.
In trying to get to know his superstar a little better, Gilbert brought James and his family to Idaho last summer for a convention featuring some of the biggest names in business, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
It created a bond between Gilbert and James, since it was the first time the pair had spent significant time together. They talked about life, philosophy and business over the five days, but they didn't talk about James' future in Cleveland. Gilbert, a comedian at times, won't even joke with James about this summer.
"I joke about a lot of things, but probably not that," Gilbert said. "This time of year, we're focused on trying to have the right outcome."
If basketball is James' first passion, business is his second. It's why he embraced the chance to spend a week among the high level executives from around the world. James is a self-taught businessman, having never gone to college after taking the leap from high school to the NBA. Yet he was ranked fifth earlier this month on Forbes Magazine's Fab 40 list of the most powerful figures in sports.
"Great experience," James said of the trip. "I learned a lot about business, did a lot of networking, it was a great time for not only myself, but my kids enjoyed it. A lot of things I brought home not only bettered myself, but bettered my company and bettered the things I do."
Added Gilbert: "He's got a high level of awareness and a high interest in business. He takes very good notes. He's the kind of guy that wants to learn not just about basketball, he always wants to improve what he's doing. And that lines up with our culture and philosophy."
It doesn't take business acumen to understand the numbers of the NBA. On a maximum contract this summer, the Cavaliers can offer James an extra year and about $30 million more than any other team. James has maintained his decision will be based not on money, but on what gives him the best chance to win.
Cleveland certainly appears to be that team, given Gilbert's history of spending.
"You have to understand, Dan Gilbert spent a lot of money," Williams said. "It shows the commitment they have to us. It's not about how much a guy makes. If the player fits the team, they've never shied away from the contracts, even though other teams are trying to shed money. They're taking on more money. The goal is clear what we want to do."
Teams around the league are positioning themselves for James and the rest of the free agents this summer. The Knicks, Bulls, Wizards, Kings, Heat and Clippers are among the teams that will likely make a run at a marquee free agent.
Some of those teams are more appealing to James than others. He quit talking about next summer early on this season and has kept his word, sidestepping a question about whether it was good for so many teams in the league to clear cap space before Thursday's trading deadline.
"I think it all depends what their plan is for the summer," James said. "I don't think too much and get involved much with teams clearing cap space."
Short of winning a championship, Gilbert has done all he can to keep James happy. He called acquiring Jamison Cleveland's big free agent signing, since the team won't have any cap space to take part in the summer frenzy — other than retaining James.
Gilbert, who successfully steered a campaign recently to bring casinos to Ohio, likes his odds.
"I don't lose any sleep over it," he said. "I feel very good about where the franchise is, all the moves we've made. I feel good about our odds of winning. How do you build it and give it its best odds? How do you put it in the best position to win? I think overall we've done that. Whether it's LeBron or anybody, we believe this franchise would be attractive for anyone who wants to come play basketball."