By Nathan C. Vance
Thursday night, LeBron James passed Michael Jordan as the all-time leading scorer in NBA playoff basketball history. He did this in the closeout game of the Eastern Conference Finals where he led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their fourth lopsided win over the Boston Celtics in five games. The victory means that for the third consecutive year, the Cleveland Cavaliers will play the Golden State Warriors for the NBA championship. This year will be a sort of rubber match as the teams have split the last two championships. There is intrigue on all sides and storylines galore, but today I wonder, how did we get here?
Full disclosure, I am a lifelong Cleveland Cavaliers fan. I was the child in the 1990s who begged his parents for a Chris Mills jersey for his 10th birthday. I thought it was so cool. In hindsight, there were much better jerseys to ask for (Shaq, Barkley, Hakeem Olaguwon, MICHAEL freaking JORDAN, etc.), but I digress. Point being, I am such a Cavs homer that I remember exactly where I was when ESPN radio announced that the Cleveland Cavaliers won the first pick in the 2003 NBA draft and I knew exactly who they were going to take. His name was LeBron James. In December 2002 I had seen King James’ high school team, Akron St. Vincent St. Mary’s, pummel the number one ranked high school team in the nation, Oak Hill Academy, and I had started to dream. And like a fairy-tale, the dream that had birthed in my 18-year-old heart actually came true. As of July 2003, the King was officially an NBA player and he was staying home and playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Talking heads speculated for months wondering if he could possibly be as good as all the hype. Of course we know now that the hype only motivated him to play the game of basketball in a manner that had never been seen previously. He walked in Day One and carried what was then a strange and mediocre Cavs roster. He lifted the team immediately and within two years, he dragged the Cavs into the NBA playoffs. But his incredible gift quickly became a curse.
In the 2007 playoffs, LeBron took his game to a new level, putting on the playoff performance of a lifetime and willing his Cavs team past the superior Detroit Pistons and into the NBA Finals to play the juggernaut San Antonio Spurs. The games were competitive but the series was not. San Antonio swept Cleveland. It was obvious to the world that LeBron was only human and could only take his team so far alone. He needed help.
Over the next three seasons, the Cavs manipulated the roster. They traded pieces and made free agent signings and did everything they could to give LeBron the supporting cast he needed to realize his full potential but, in many ways, it hurt the franchise. In the team’s haste, they impatiently spent money on players who had seen better days. They built a roster that was acceptable for the grind of the regular season but could not overcome the other elite teams from around the league in high-pressure playoff series. Ordinarily, a team like the Cavs would have multiple young players added through high draft picks as they slowly ascended to the top of the standings but LeBron had elevated the franchise so quickly that they were never in the position to put other young players around him.
And then came the summer of 2010. Burdened by the weight of unrealistic expectations, it appeared that LeBron had given up during a playoff game against the Boston Celtics. His body language told us that something was different about him. But it wasn’t until IT happened that we fully understood. IT was the moment that stopped the Sports world. IT was the nightmare that I hadn’t bothered to consider back in 2003 when my dream of getting the next great NBA star had been realized. IT was the ESPN special when LeBron James, the hometown hero, the king of the NBA, the biggest star in sports, said the words that will live in infamy. I went into shock when he nervously said, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.” With that, he ripped the collective heart out of Northeast Ohio and all of Cavs nation.
He was our guy or at least we thought he was…He was our Luke Skywalker, destined to restore balance to the sporting world that had been so cruel to the city of Cleveland since the retirement of the great Jim Brown. He was the big brother that defended us when all the big bullies from Boston, LA, New York, and Chicago came to take what was ours. He was Cleveland — until he sold us out to join a super team with other stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in paradise. LeBron James had abandoned…us.
In the days leading up to “The Decision,” I had read literally hundereds of rumors about potential players that the Cavs would to try to lure to Cleveland in their attempts to pacify LeBron. The best name of the bunch was Chris Paul, LeBron’s longtime friend and future hall-of-fame point guard. Looking back, the reality was that Paul was never going to Cleveland, and LeBron knew it. The Cavs roster didn’t have enough firepower to get a player of his caliber in a trade and it was never likely that he would sign to play on our team.
I hated LeBron. I was the biggest Miami Heat basher in the world. I hated him because he was too good to join someone else’s team: they were supposed to join him, in Cleveland. I hated him because he chose them over us. I was angry because he was supposed to be our Larry Bird or Magic Johnson; the guy who spent his entire career with one team and was the face that identified that franchise. I hated him because I couldn’t understand. I was the definition of a fan. Better stated, I was a fanatic.
The year he left, I spent long nights in my car listening to Cavs radio. I was so proud of the fan base that continued to support the team, defiantly, after the crown jewel left. It didn’t matter to me that the Cavs were horrible that year. I was loyal. Somehow, my loyalty, all of our loyalty, was going to “show him” what he was supposed to be. What I only realize now, seven years later, is that LeBron had to leave. He had no other choice. The same roster that had won over 130 games in the previous two seasons with him couldn’t even compete without him. What I’ve come to see is what LeBron knew then; the Cavs were secretly awful. He was single-handedly winning 60 plus games per year. He was shortening his career by expending so much energy chasing championships that his supporting cast wasn’t ever going to be good enough to help him win. I’ve come to see that LeBron was too smart and too talented to spend his career as a bridesmaid. And now I’m so glad he left.
Had LeBron stayed, we never could have drafted Kyrie Irving. You know, the Kyrie Irving that consistently outplayed MVP Steph Curry in the 2016 NBA Finals. The Kyrie Irving that hit the 3-point shot that for all intents and purposes sealed the NBA Championship victory in 2016 for the Cavs. The same Kyrie Irving that scored a playoff career high 42 points in game four of these Eastern Conference Finals and officially broke the will of the Boston Celtics. He is the same Kyrie Irving that the Cavs drafted number one overall in the 2011 NBA draft in a pick that Cleveland doesn’t have if LeBron James is on the team. He is the best player with whom LeBron James has ever played on the same team. Yes, that’s the Kyrie Irving to which I refer. We needed him.
Had LeBron never left, we don’t have Tristan Thompson…or Kevin Love…or JR Smith either. In the same 2011 draft in which the Cavs selected Kyrie Irivng number one overall, they also selected Tristan Thompson with the fourth overall pick. In 2011, with no LeBron on the team, the Cavs were in full rebuild mode and young players were the foundation for their future. Had LeBron James stayed, the Cavs couldn’t have acquired two picks in the first five draft slots in 2011. Tristan Thompson is now among the best rebounders and post defenders in the entire league, and his teammates and coaches brag that he provides the energy and hustle that makes the Cavs so dangerous. We needed him.
In 2012, the Cavs drafted Dion Waiters with the number four pick. Eventually, in a shrewd trade made by genius General Manager, David Griffin, Dion Waiters was sent to Oklahoma City as a part of a trade that netted the Cavs both JR Smith and Iman Shumpert. Both have been huge assets for this run of sustained greatness by the organization. They are the two best on-ball perimeter defenders on the entire roster and can make life miserable for opposing guards when they are locked in. In game seven of last year’s NBA finals, it was JR Smith who came out in the third quarter and cut the Golden State lead with his incredible sharp shooting. Without his flurry of offense, the Cavs probably don’t get past the Golden State Warriors. We needed him.
Kevin Love is a superstar. At least he was before he joined LeBron James and Kyrie Irving as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Kevin Love had established himself as a generational rebounder and had developed a reputation as an extremely valuable, high volume-scoring big man. He was the face of basketball in Minnesota. Prior to James’ return, the Cavs were futile enough to acquire three number-one picks in four years. That gave them the ammunition needed to acquire a player of Love’s incredible talents. Minnesota required two premium young assets for Love. The Cavs gave them Anthony Bennett, the number one pick of the 2013 draft, and Andrew Wiggins, the super athletic number one pick of the 2014 draft. While Wiggins is developing into a fine NBA player, he wouldn’t have been able to impact the Cavs the way Love has done the past three seasons. Bennett has floundered and is currently an unsigned free agent. Point being, the Cavs were smart to go and get Love. In him, Cleveland has a legitimate all-star willing to sacrifice his numbers for the greater goal: winning championships. If LeBron hadn’t left for Miami, the Cavs wouldn’t have had the assets to trade for a player of Kevin Love’s caliber. We needed him too!
By leaving, LeBron gave the Cavs a chance to build a young roster capable of competing. His return made him the perfect centerpiece for that roster. Together, this is now a historically good basketball team.
There is another reason LeBron James had to leave. People speculate that he left so he could “learn to win,” but that’s just garbage. LeBron already knew how to win. He had spent a lifetime to that point winning at everything. In one season of high school football, he was named Mr. Football for the state of Ohio. He had to leave to learn how to be a man. In his first stint with the Cavaliers, LeBron James was the hometown hero who was afraid to make a mistake. He made decisions based out of fear that might disappoint people. When he announced on national television that he was “taking his talents to South Beach,” he let an entire state down. He let them down so hard that, like me, they hated him. They despised him. He had done the seemingly unforgivable. And he learned from it. As I watch LeBron play in these 2017 playoffs, I see someone who has no fear of mistakes. He doesn’t worry himself with letting other people down. I see a man who knows that whatever he does for the rest of his life, he’ll never let anyone down like he did in 2010. Because of that, LeBron plays basketball like a free man. Its a better LeBron than could have ever been had he stayed.
And so, in passing Michael Jordan’s playoff scoring record Thursday night, and moving on to his seventh straight NBA Finals, I appreciate LeBron’s journey. It’s made him the player that he is today, and it has made the Cavs the team they are today. And now that he’s back, I think we all appreciate him more than we ever could have before. We are witness.