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What changed for LeBron James? While We’re Waiting

Cleveland Cavaliers Big Three
Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer

Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

I took two weeks off from this normal Tuesday slot of While We’re Waiting as I went on a family vacation. A lot has changed since the last time I wrote here. At that time, I was still holding on to hope that the NBA Finals would be a pleasant surprise for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Unfortunately, we all remember what happened in Game 1 and the Cavs never recovered.

So now, here we sit with the draft on Thursday and LeBron James’ future once again in question. But I find myself wondering how we got here. I mean, sure, Dan Gilbert didn’t feel the need to retain David Griffin, Kyrie Irving asked for a trade, the Cavs promoted a rookie GM who proceeded to trade Kyrie for a draft pick and damaged goods rather than players who could help LeBron win, etc, etc, etc. LeBron is stuck carrying a team squarely on his back, and as he approaches the twilight of his career, this can’t be what he wanted. So I get why his return to Cleveland is in question. But I also keep thinking back to that letter. No, not THAT letter. I’m talking about the letter LeBron wrote when he announced his return home.

“I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when. After the season, free agency wasn’t even a thought. But I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.”

I’ve been thinking about that paragraph a lot over the last few weeks. In reading the tone of that letter, a couple things become apparent. First of all, LeBron fully intended for this to be his final move. He certainly never expected to look into free agency. Second, the Cavs had a lot more success than he expected, and they did so a lot faster than he thought they would.

“I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. And I can’t wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates.”

No way did LeBron think the Cavs would make the Finals his first season back. And never did he dream at that time they would win the Championship in his second season back. That accelerated timeline may be the thing that changed everything the most. Suddenly LeBron’s role changed from team building to competing for Championships, and with that, his goals changed. No longer was it about just trying to get one for Cleveland. Now, it was about legacy.

There’s a certain irony to LeBron winning a Championship sooner than expected actually making it easier for him to leave now. But his return to Cleveland was always bigger than basketball and legacy and Championships. Some may scoff at that, but if we take LeBron at his word, it’s true.

“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

LeBron’s relationship with northeast Ohio has always been the biggest blessing for the Cavaliers. They were so fortunate to have the best basketball player in the world happen to grow up just down the road from them. They were lucky to get to draft him. And when they mostly squandered his first term in Cleveland, they were lucky his passion for home exceeded basketball.

But has that passion for home changed for LeBron? Is that why he’s leaving now? I think anyone who has followed LeBron closely through the years would find that hard to believe. LeBron wears Akron and Ohio on his heart and on his sleeve. If the Cavaliers have any hope whatsoever of keeping LeBron, it’s solely because of this love for his home. It certainly won’t be the chance to keep playing with Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, and Rodney Hood (no offense to those players, of course).

So I guess the question really is, then, what is driving this decision for LeBron? Is it a basketball decision, a family decision, or a business decision? There are options for any of those factors. But as LeBron said, playing basketball in Cleveland was part of a larger calling.

“But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.

I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”

So now we wonder, is he leaving home? What changed for LeBron from when he wrote this letter in 2014 to now?

I think it’s clear that so much has changed. And if Kyrie Irving was still here, I don’t think LeBron would be thinking about leaving at all. I think Kyrie was always the plan. LeBron thought he could groom him and eventually pass the torch. This would slowly transition to Kyrie’s team and LeBron would be able to extend his career with another superstar capable of creating his scoring opportunities and shouldering the scoring load. When Kyrie left, LeBron’s role on this team changed. He now had to do more and carry more. And facing the end of his career, this may not be what he wants.

Chasing championships is one thing. And I think LeBron is probably tired of seeing his Finals record used against him despite the fact that he was the underdog in so many of these series. Indeed, nobody gave the Cavaliers any chance whatsoever in any of their five Finals appearances with LeBron. I don’t think anyone truly believes Michael Jordan would fare any better against those same teams with the same talent LeBron had on his teams.

But history loses context. Just as history will lose the context of Kevin Durant joining a 73-win team to take the easy path to his titles, history will lose the context of who was on LeBron’s teams and who he played against. It will just be about his Finals record. And standing at 3-6, LeBron might want to try to even that record out a little more.

It would be nice if eight straight Finals appearances would be properly celebrated for the accomplishment that it is, but it seems the losses carry more weight.

We likely won’t have answers any time soon. And I don’t know LeBron nor do I have any inside information. But I’ve heard enough and read enough about LeBron to know his feelings about Ohio are genuine. I think he would have loved to have finished his career in Cleveland. But things change. The league is different today than it was in 2014 when he returned. The Warriors dynasty altered his legacy to a certain degree, and if LeBron wants to compete with it, he probably has to leave Cleveland again.

And that sucks. As Cavs fans, it’s painful to have had to give up all flexibility to try to cling to competing for Championships, which ironically now makes it impossible for the Cavs to make the kind of moves to entice LeBron to stay. For LeBron, the decision is primarily home vs winning. In 2010 he chose winning. In 2014 he chose home. We’ll find out in a few weeks which side wins in 2018.