Cavaliers, WWW

Bracing for a post-LeBron life: While We’re Waiting


Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

I was on vacation last week, so this marks my first While We’re Waiting for July. This seems significant for a couple of reasons. First, July is by far my least favorite sports month.1 Second, it’s my first WWW since LeBron announced he’s leaving. So, yay.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to bore you all with another LeBron article. Not in the sense that you might think, anyway. The topic has already been covered so well here and I don’t have anything interesting or unique to add. I’m super bummed LeBron left, I’m incredibly annoyed that he immediately gave the Lakers a four-year contract2, and I’m also tremendously thankful for everything LeBron has done for the Cavaliers franchise. I’ve said it before and I’ll reiterate it here: watching LeBron James play 11 seasons for the Cleveland Cavaliers including an amazing Championship win over the 73-win Golden State Warriors was the privilege of a lifetime. I am going to miss watching LeBron play night in and night out and I’m sad we won’t get to see him break all kinds of incredible records while wearing a Cleveland jersey. I’ll always wish he finished out his career in Cleveland, but that’s not how life goes in Ohio. And that’s ok. The greatest basketball player I’ve ever seen played the majority of his career in Cleveland and nothing can ever take that away from us. I’m proud to be a LeBron James fan and I’m proud to be a Cleveland Cavaliers fan.

Now that I got that out of the way, what should we talk about instead today? Well, I suppose I wanted to briefly talk about what the Cleveland Cavaliers are in a post-LeBron world. We’ve been here before, of course. Losing LeBron is something the Cavaliers excel at, so none of this is completely new to us. But this time does feel pretty different from the last time LeBron left for a variety of reasons. But the fact remains the same as last time, without LeBron things will never be quite the same.

I had always hoped LeBron would keep his word and finish his career in Cleveland. I felt like it would have given the franchise a degree of legitimacy that it otherwise lacks. It would have signaled to star players that it’s not only ok to play in Cleveland, but it’s actually a great thing. A first-class organization with world-class facilities and amenities, playing in front of a rabid fanbase. I wanted to see a LeBron James status as the steward of the franchise, ushering in future generations of players. See, everyone thinks losing LeBron stinks because of what it means in terms of wins and losses. And sure, that part matters. But to me, what really stinks about LeBron leaving is what it says about the Cavaliers franchise.

I’m sure some would disagree, but on the surface, this really doesn’t feel like LeBron left for basketball reasons. Is trading in Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, George Hill, Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, and Larry Nance Jr for Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram a sure upgrade? I would argue it’s not. Perhaps Kawhi Leonard eventually makes his way to the Lakers and changes this narrative, but if there’s any truth to reports that Kawhi doesn’t want to follow LeBron, then who knows. Maybe this is just more or less the team LeBron is going to roll with.

So if LeBron didn’t leave Cleveland to team up with a bunch of other stars to take on the Warriors dynasty, then why did he leave and what does it have to do with Cleveland? LeBron leaving for Los Angeles implies that from a marketing perspective Cleveland isn’t good enough. This isn’t some inferiority complex thing, either. The truth is, Cleveland is very much not Los Angeles. For those of us who enjoy living in Ohio and what that means to us, that’s fine. But if you want the spotlight and to play in front of celebrities and the movers and shakers of the business and entertainment worlds, there’s no better place to be than LA.

Does this mean that no star will ever want to play his whole career in Cleveland? Of course not. But in the last two offseasons, we’ve seen two of the game’s best players in LeBron James and Kyrie Irving choose not to play in Cleveland anymore. There’s no way to sugarcoat that and what it says about the Cavaliers organization.

There’s a certain irony to how this all played out. Once upon a time, we were legitimately concerned about Kevin Love choosing to leave Cleveland to go play for, you guessed it, the Los Angeles Lakers. There were rumors galore in 2015 about Love and his UCLA teammate Russ Westbrook wanting to join back up on the Lakers. Of course, Westbrook ended up choosing to stay in OKC and now Love has reportedly said he wants to stay in Cleveland. For now. Yet the funny thing is, the smartest thing for the Cavaliers to do now is to trade Love. That’s the messy side of blowing things up.

I said earlier we’ve seen this before. We know what Dan Gilbert wants in a post-LeBron world. He doesn’t want to rebuild. He wants to make the playoffs now. He wants to show LeBron that the Cavaliers had good players around him. That it wasn’t just the LeBron James show. We remember how that went in 2010-11, of course. I don’t think this year’s Cavs team is anywhere near as bad as that one was, but I do think it’s always tough for a team built to support LeBron to find success when LeBron is removed from that equation.

I do think the Cavaliers can be a middle of the road Eastern Conference team. I think they could possibly fight for a playoff spot if a few things break their way. I think they could even be a somewhat fun team. You never want to take Summer League too seriously, or seriously at all, but we’ve seen some things from Cedi Osman and Collin Sexton that warrant some muted excitement.3 There will be things to watch for and the regular season will actually matter for once, which will be an interesting change. Things will go on for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But eventually, a rebuild is inevitable. At some point, the franchise is going to have to go through the pain of losing. A lot. The draft is going to matter again. Forget about the free agent market. That stream is shut off to the Cavaliers for now. There are no winners in LeBron’s wake. Just a lot of memories of what once was and painful realization of what lies ahead.

  1. Sure, Wimbledon is always cool and The Open is a classic, but with baseball having its All-Star break, football so close but yet so far away, and the NBA on break, there’s usually not much for me in July when it comes to sports. Thankfully this year we have World Cup to keep me occupied and it has been a great one. And in case you haven’t heard, It’s Coming Home! []
  2. I know, it’s really three plus an option, but still, you get the point. []
  3. And I do mean ‘muted excitement’. I think both have shown signs that they can play in the NBA and be solid players, but nobody should be expecting All-Star appearances for either guy. []