When LeBron James announced last summer that he was returning to Cleveland, the key theme of his Sports Illustrated essay with Lee Jenkins was summed up in the second to last paragraph: “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
In the piece James laid out how his final great mission as a professional basketball player was to win Cleveland that championship it’s been yearning for for over fifty years. He tempered any perception that he was making a promise or a declaration by stating that the team was not ready to win this year. That it would be “a long process.”
Yet only a few weeks later when the Cavaliers traded for Kevin Love all that tempering of expectations went out the window. NBA pundits were falling all over themselves declaring the Cavs to be the favorites to win the 2015 Finals. And, truth be told, most Cavs fans allowed themselves to believe this as well. And why not? We were bringing back LeBron, the best player in the world. We had Kyrie Irving, All-Star and FIBA MVP winner. We had Love, a three-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA player. Some even were willing to go as far as to call this new “Big Three” even better than the one LeBron joined with in Miami in 2010.
As the team hit their stride in January and essentially rolled over all on-comers through the end of the regular season and into the first round of the playoffs against Boston, it looked like the 2015 championship was the Cavs’ to lose.
And then Love’s arm got ripped off. And then JR Smith cold-cocked Jae Crowder (after Crowder had body-checked Smith in the lane and thrown his forearm into his back a half dozen times). Kyrie hurt his knee. Then he hurt his ankle. Then he hurt his knee again. Iman Shumpert hurt his groin. LeBron got banged up. And suddenly the Cavs didn’t look anything like a lock to even make it to the Finals anymore, let alone win yet.
And yet, here we are, in the Eastern Conference Finals, with LeBron essentially carrying the team on his back, just like he did the last time he donned the wine and gold in the playoffs five years ago. This probably is not what LeBron wanted or expected when he came back to Cleveland.
There are plenty of people who never truly bought into the “Coming Home” narrative of LeBron’s return to Cleveland. Many believed it be a nice publicity stunt to mask what was really just a smart career move in trading in his banged-up and aging former “Big Three” partners for younger and hungrier versions in Kyrie and Love. Instead of carrying Wade and Bosh like he did last year he would be able to lean his younger running mates and in turn win more championships while prolonging his career. For the skeptics, it was the same motivation that took LeBron to Miami—manufacturing an easier path to championships by creating a super team—that took him back to Cleveland. The fact that it was his former team made for happy coincidence and a chance to do a little cleanup of his public image—especially in his hometown.
Well things certainly have not gone according to plan. And the Cavs quest for a championship this season will be anything from easy. In all likelihood, they probably won’t win. Especially given how unstoppable the Warriors have looked out West.
But in an odd way, this actually the team that Cleveland, and LeBron, probably deserve right now.
Sure, Cleveland fans, having been deprived of a championship squad for half a century would love nothing more than to have the juggernaut of a team that we watched from mid-January through the Boston series. We would love any team that wins us a championship. But something about winning that way is almost too easy. It wouldn’t have felt earned.
But winning without Love and with a hobbled Kyrie? That would certainly feel earned.
Because what LeBron said in that letter really is the truth. Northeast Ohio isn’t the easiest place to live. It’s cold and hard. It’s not as productive and extravagant as it once was. It’s a place where people work hard for what they have without taking shortcuts. And that’s why winning with this team would mean more.
The Cavs didn’t dispatch the Bulls because they were so much more talented. Sure, a big part of it was the simple fact that we had LeBron and they didn’t. But the Cleveland squad outworked Chicago’s. They busted their butts on defense (as evidenced by the final three quarters of the deciding game six), killed the boards, and scrapped for every lose ball. The Bulls won just two games in the series. They took Game One when the Cavs were trying to learn on the fly how to play without two starters, and the other when a career 30% three point shooter hit an off-balance, fading 30-footer with a hand in face on an unintentional bank (read: “lucky shot”). The Cavs, in the end, proved to be the better team not just because they had LeBron but also because they Tristan Thompson, Shumpert, Smith, Mozgov, Delly, and even James Jones. Those guys were the difference in the series.
And it’s going to take more of that kind of team play to get to the Finals. The Cavs are going to need LeBron to carry the load offensively to set up his teammates and score himself. It’s going to be old-school LeBron. As long as Kyrie is hampered with his leg injuries LeBron won’t have another star to lean on when things get tight like he had with Wade and Bosh. And that’s why this is the team that LeBron really deserves.
He’s already recognized as the best player in basketball. He’s widely accepted to be at least a top five player of all time if not top two. But there will always be some who discount his accomplishments (read: “championships”) because he had other stars to help him. He didn’t do it all by himself like Jordan (who had Pippen and Rodman), Bird (McHale and Parish), and Magic (Jabbar and Worthy). Look narratives are mostly stupid contrived media crap. But they can skew public opinion because there are people who are still dumb enough to listen, care, and actually give credence to anything that Skip Bayless says. LeBron’s the best but still somehow hasn’t won the league MVP for three years because people have come to expect more of him. But if LeBron wins with this team as it currently sits? No one gets to say anything anymore. If he wins with this hobbled and broken team LeBron will be further cemented as an All-Time great, possibly leading being the All-Time Great. It will become the lead of his career profile instead of his time in Miami. For a guy who has already had like a dozen career-defining moments, this championship would be THE defining moment. Because the perception will be that he did on his own…and maybe even more so because he did it for Cleveland.
And that’s where this whole trip really takes on a great significance. I love Kyrie. He was our shining light during a very dark four years. He’s magical.
I love Kevin Love. I mean, he’s white, obviously I love him. I’m kidding, I’m kidding…but seriously.
The other cast of characters on this team are so lovable. Tristan’s workmanlike effort. Mozgov’s exuberance. Delly’s scrappiness. Shump’s hair. JR’s pipe. But in the end it all comes back to LeBron. Because we wouldn’t be here without him. And the great significance and spotlight that has shined on Cleveland and on the Cavaliers over the past twelve years wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for our prodigal son.
The Diddy song “Coming Home” became ubiquitous for obvious reasons this past summer and even culminated with Skylar Grey playing her signature chorus at LeBron’s homecoming celebration in Akron. The third verse of that song reads as follows:
It’s what made me, saved me, drove me crazy
Drove me away then embraced me
Forgave me for all of my shortcomings
Welcome to my homecoming
Yeah it’s been a long time coming
Lot of fights, lot of scars, lot of bottles
Lot of cars, lot of ups, lot of downs
Made it back, lost my dog
And here I stand, a better man!
LeBron came home claiming to be that better man and we embraced him both because we’re a forgiving people who could never truly turn our back on one of our own, but also because we needed him even more than he needed us. We have a better chance of winning if we have the best player in the world on our side.
So this is what we both deserve. For the hopes of a championship to rest on the shoulders of our native son as he’s surrounded by a group of beat-up and cast-off guys who want it more than their opponent. It’s a chance for LeBron to showcase the strength and grind and determination of this region that made him who he is.
Cleveland deserves this team.
LeBron deserves this team.Follow @ClevelandFlack