When the Cleveland Cavaliers were eliminated from the NBA playoffs by Orlando Magic in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season, it’s safe to say fans across the NBA felt a shred of sympathy for the Cleveland faithful. After enduring more than four decades of futility in three major professional sports (the NBA, NFL and MLB), this was the year a Cleveland-based franchise finally seemed destined for greatness.
The 2008-09 Cavaliers appeared to have all the ingredients for success. They had the star player (All-Galaxy MVP LeBron James), the strategy (Coach of the Year Mike Brown), the sidekick (All-Star Mo Williams) and the role players (Delonte West, Anderson Varejao and Joe Smith, to name a few). They also had the backing of an entire city, a 66-16 regular season record, and first and second round sweeps in the playoffs. While Kobe Bryant and the Lakers seemed to pose a threat in The Finals, the Cavs were a lock to breeze through the Eastern Conference for their date with destiny (and Kobe). Right? Think again. Nike can finally trash “The Puppets” commercials once and for all (at least until next season).
The Cavs must now face the reality that they find themselves sitting at home thinking of what could have been. The culprit for their early exit? A number of things which any analyst could blab about for weeks: the dominance of Dwight Howard, the versatility of Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu and the disappearance of (No) Mo Williams. However, I am not writing about LeBron & Co. to reminisce on what might have been. I’m instead interested in exploring what they can still accomplish.
With that said, the most important question facing the Cavs right now is James’ contract status beyond the 2009-2010 season. For his part, James says the Cavs’ playoff exit won’t affect his future with the team. However, a championship is the ultimate solution for any dysfunction within the franchise. In other words, championships are the duct tape of the pro-sports world. Any problem plaguing your franchise (financial, moral, etc.) will disappear when your team wins it all. For the Cavs, this has yet to happen.
So, what now? Has this year’s heartbreak all but punched James’ ticket out of Cleveland? Or is this latest defeat only more fuel on the fire that is James’ competitive spirit?
There is ample evidence to suggest that Cleveland fans can back away from the cliff. The Cavs are in as good of a position to retain James as ever, if for only one reason: Cleveland still remains the perfect setting for James to cement his place as one of the most revered players in the history of the NBA. To understand why, look no further than the career of one Michael Jordan.
It is impossible to deny the fact that Michael Jordan has had a tremendous effect on the world of professional basketball. But it is also safe to say that no group of players has been so greatly affected by His Airness as the elite ballers in the league today. During Jordan’s glory years (1990 to 1998), James and his peers (Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony etc.) were at the age when you really begin to appreciate, and imitate, professional athletes. James falls into this group of players who couldn’t help but grow up idolizing Jordan’s MVPs, game-winners, high flying dunks and clutch playoff performances. James wears #23 and wears Nike sneakers. Coincidence? I think not.
But the most impressive aspect of Jordan’s career wasn’t his ability to win. It was his singular dominance of what appeared to be a team-oriented sport, where a great team is always supposed to prevail against a great player. Sure, Jordan had a great coach in Phil Jackson and a Hall of Fame teammate in Scottie Pippen. But what people remember most about the Chicago Bulls of the 90s is Jordan’s dominance. Jordan not only won six MVPs, but he was also named Finals MVP during every championship run. To put it simply, the Bulls were Jordan’s team, and the NBA was Jordan’s league.
Flash forward to 2009. With visions of MJ flashing in their heads, how could the top players of today not want to win like MJ did? Yes, they know they need successful offensive and defensive schemes, a savvy front office, and blue collar players to win it all. But they want a team built around them so that they (like Jordan) can be the toast of the league.
Why is this relevant to The Chosen One’s future? Because Cleveland presents James with the perfect chance to write his own Jordan-esque narrative. Not only are the Cavs James’ team, but Cleveland is James’ city. James grew up and played high school ball in nearby Akron, and many Clevelanders joke today that their economy is based around The King’s presence in their city. However, such a statement may not be far from the truth.
This rust-belt city (nicknamed the Mistake on the Lake) needs a hero, a phoenix to rise from the ashes of more than forty years of pro sports fruitlessness. James fills that role better than any player ever will. While the bright lights of New York, Los Angeles and Miami might beckon, LeBron could never create a legacy in those cities like he can back in Ohio. All those locales have already seen all-time sports legends pass through their doors (Ruth in N.Y, Magic in Los Angeles, and Marino in Miami to start).
The King may seem a little moody lately, and his allegiances may sometimes be questioned. Furthermore, even the most stubborn Clevelander can admit that Shaker Heights is not Hollywood or South Beach. But when it’s all said and done, James recognizes the fact that his legend can only reach its full potential if he stays in Cleveland to finish what he has started. At 24 years-old, and entering his seventh season in the league, James still has plenty of time to write his story book ending. The city of Cleveland may in fact witness something special after all.
David Lieberman is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. He also has a blog called The Glyde where he covers a variety of topics in the sports world. You can catch up with David in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of dlieberman.
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