Cavs See Ghosts: King's Return Closes This Chapter of Cleveland Basketball History
On the eve of the Thanksgiving Holiday, LeBron James will make his return to Cleveland to face the franchise he elevated to NBA champion just three seasons ago. Given that history, this return to the Land should go far better for James than it did in 2010 when he was a member of the Miami. But it will nonetheless be a bittersweet reunion, as it will serve as the appropriate bookend to the most successful run in Cavs' history, culminated by that magical 2016 championship run.
The First Return
Tonight’s festivities should have a different feel from the December 2010 contest. That game was after the infamous Decision telecast, the “not one, not two…” pep rally and a slow start for the South Beach super team. Cavaliers fans were still bruised by James’ departure and were ready to let him know about it.
What followed was an awkward moment where James was not on the court for the player introductions. The PR spin after the game was that James was receiving attention in the back prior to tip-off. To most observers, it looked as though James, who was in a much different place in 2010 than the self-assured space he occupies today, did not want to face the music that evening.
Miami prevailed in that contest as expected, but the riff between Cleveland and James would exist for the next four seasons until he returned in 2015.
The 2016 Title Run
ESPN writer Brian Windhorst often talks about how valuable the 2016 title becomes for Cleveland with each passing Cavs’ game, and he is right. It may have been the most improbable championship in all of sports. You can throw out college championships and the Super Bowl for consideration because in both instances the underdog, no matter how overmatched, just has to be better than the favorite for one game.
That is not the case in the NBA. And that was especially not the case for the Cavs in the 2016 Finals against a 73-win Golden State Warriors team. After falling down 3-1 to a team that was in the discussion as the best ever, Cleveland managed to rattle off three impressive wins and clinch the city’s first title in over 50 years. That series produced some memories that will be forever etched in Ohio sports fans’ minds: The Block. The Shot. The Stand. All plays that will live on in Cleveland lore for generations.
But in the end, that’s all those plays are – memories. For all the excitement those plays conjure in their recitation, they are also reminders that the 2016 championship feels both like it happened yesterday and so long ago. The current state of the Cavs’ organization only exacerbates the longing for days past. Head coach Ty Lue was fired early into this season. Kevin Love, the team’s newly anointed franchise player, is out with injury. And J.R. Smith, a key piece in the title run (and foil of Game 1 of the 2018 Finals) has been sent home this week while a deal is worked out to send him elsewhere.
Cleveland has been here before. In 2010, when James left the first time, the Cavs took a nosedive. Despite Gilbert’s proclamations, they were not better than James and the Heat in the intervening years. Ironically, their futility netted them Kyrie Irving and the necessary draft picks that would entice James to return in 2015. That transaction netted them a title and four consecutive appearances to the Finals. But that was then; this is now.
The Next Chapter
Now, James dons the Lakers’ purple and gold and is looking to build upon his legacy with one of sports’ most storied franchises, and with James locked in with L.A. for four years, a return back to Cleveland for one last run seems unlikely. The Cavs will have to chart the path forward without the luxury of the game’s best player being an Ohio native and based on the most recent evidence, their ability to do so is questionable.
That fact makes the confluence of events that led to the 2016 NBA championship even more special.