Ten years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers executed a trade that hand delivered them Pau Gasol. It would lead to two more titles that would cement the legacy of Kobe Bryant. Timing in the NBA and in life is everything. But maneuvering by a front office doesn’t always translate into extreme excellence. John Wooden used to tell his players, “be quick but not in a hurry.” And therein is the irony of the Cleveland Cavaliers one day after they took another guttural punch that has knocked their franchise more than a few steps backwards into the ditch. They were quick and were also in a hurry and the end was just like the beginning.
The beginning in 2003 was a Nike ad with LeBron James and his arms stretched out asking everyone to be a witness. But in the ad, his back was turned, a prophetic piece of symbolism as James always seems to be collecting places where he stays temporarily. He is always on the move. Arms outstretched ready to embrace the moment, yes. But always walking away.
In the foster care system they have a term for certain children. They call them runners. Those are the kids who once you place them in a home, they take off. It doesn’t matter what type of home they have been placed into, they are not going to stay long. They will take what they need and maybe will give something of themselves but they are not there for the long haul.
LeBron James is the NBA version of a runner, in one place and then not. His iteration of the short term contract was to leverage his power over the organization that paid him. If he wanted to leave, he could. It left the Cavaliers in an uncomfortable place, a marriage in which an annulment was always possible. The Cavs built their team and executed contracts based on LeBron James residency. Very few superstars in the history of the NBA have had that kind of impact on an organization because very few superstars were runners. Most stayed put until they aged or skills diminished, or an injury changed their careers, or there was some falling out ala Kawhi Leonard- and no one even knows if he is leaving and when- or money was in dispute. The truism about a NBA franchise is if you have a superstar he is yours barring some horrific wrath of God.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left the team that drafted him after winning the Milwaukee Bucks a title because he wanted to be in Los Angeles where he went to college, a social and liberal political world that fit his persona. Shaquille O’Neal left over money. The Lakers paid him and gave him the prestige he was looking for. Kevin Durant left because he was exhausted by the Russell Westbrook hurricane and wanted a team concept that fetishized happy basketball. LeBron left to win a title with players he trusted. He left again and he might not win a title and a lot is unknown except in four years his first born will graduate high school and perhaps enter the NBA and LeBron’s Cali residency may be at its end.
In the aftermath of a friendly divorce, there is still reflection that needs to be done to clear everyone’s head and to be able to move on. The Cavs never really built an organization separate from LeBron. When he was drafted in 2003, every move was with LeBron in mind and not the best interest of Cleveland in mind. When LeBron was gone, the Cavs drafted Kyrie but then had a lot of what?? moments like going out on a limb with Anthony Bennett, bringing Mike Brown back again, and not deciding what they wanted their identity to be. Who were they as an organization and a team?
When LeBron returned to his home state, the Cavaliers also returned to their idolization of him, allowing him to create their principles and it worked on the surface. They went to the NBA Finals and raked in a lot of money for the city of Cleveland. They won a title and it validated everything about the LeBron experience. But LeBron was still the puppetmaster pulling their strings until last night when that string broke.
It’s reactionary at best to link all of this to what happened in Game 1 of the NBA Finals with J.R. Smith and LeBron angry enough to injury his hand. If it is true what Barack Obama said that elections have consequences, then it is also true that panicking has consequences.
The Kyrie Irving tempest was an example of overreaction and not having principles. As in, we won’t trade a player if it doesn’t benefit us. We won’t succumb to his angst and pushing us towards an Armageddon that will ruin everything. But the Cavs were too emotional and not clinical and definitely not business-like. That one move, Kyrie to Boston, unraveled an entire house of cards and exposed to those watching that the Cavs were built on sand, not rock.
Psychologists tell you to write dreams down so you can savor them long after. But there is the opposite, the dark days of what you don’t want to accept. Here we are. This is us. This is us. As in starting over with a team of young players with upsides and several big contracts from players that don’t matter without LeBron. The Cavaliers gambled, decimated as they were when LeBron left the first time. They tried to make everything perfect but that is not how business is done. You don’t go for perfect. You go for right. When you aim for perfection, you may have ecstasy during the NBA dog days but the crash is coming. It is.
Cleveland has to tank to get into the lottery again and a top-5 pick, or maybe they can swing for the fences and pick up someone’s lottery mistake and nurture them into something. They need to trade their big contracts for picks the way Danny Ainge has done and make a decision on Ty Lue. Is he a coach for rebuilding? A college coach may be the way to proceed with a group of young players. But regardless, there is no denying how great it was with LeBron James tossing the chalk and how empty it will be now that that is over.
LeBron will get his statue and his jersey raised in Quicken Loans and he is a Cleveland legend and lifer just as Jim Brown is a Cleveland legend and lifer but it feels a little bit unfair the NBA and the modern world works like this. Someone is miserable because someone else is happy.
And so it goes. It’s 2010 all over again but without all the burning jersey’s and anxiety and depression. The fugue has lifted to a reality. The LeBron James Cleveland era is over.