Workers begin to take down the iconic LeBron James banner from the Sherwin Williams building on July 3. Photo Credit-Jeff Lansky
Four years ago, when LeBron James announced his return to the Cavaliers in an essay in Sports Illustrated, he made his goal clear: to bring the city of Cleveland their first championship since 1964. Two years later, he delivered on that promise with arguably the greatest comeback in NBA history. Now, almost four years later LeBron James has left the Cavs for the second time in his career, this time to join the Los Angeles Lakers. No, there is not the level of vitriol that was present when James “took his talents to South Beach” in 2010, but there is a wide sense of disappointment amongst Cavs fans. In his essay he wrote “I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when.” And a few weeks later he would say “I don’t plan on going nowhere. I don’t have the energy to do it again.” As emotional as the essay was, it now looks like a brilliant PR move than a love letter to Cleveland. But even though LeBron has departed for a second time, Cavalier fans should still feel great appreciation for a man who came home and kept his promise of bringing us a title.
This past season was perhaps the most tumultuous in Cavaliers history. It started with Cavs owner, Dan Gilbert and general manager, David Griffin mutually parting ways, followed by star point guard, Kyrie Irving’s trade request. The two decisions proved to hang over the team for the entire season and may continue to do so for years to come. The arrivals of Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, and injured point guard Isaiah Thomas culminated in an explosive team meeting in January. Then there was the total roster reshaping done by first year GM, Koby Altman on trade deadline day swapping out six players and adding George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson. The moves reinvigorated LeBron after he slowed his effort down on the court for the good part of a month in protest to the team’s disfunction. The Cavaliers would finish as the four seed in the Eastern Conference and what followed would end up being a magical farewell tour to Cavalier fans from King James.
LeBron had the best statistical regular season of his career this past season averaging 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, and a career-high 9.1 assists. He finished as the runner-up to James Harden in the MVP voting. His postseason performance was the most dominant and arguably the most memorable of his 15 year career. He averaged 34 points, 9.1 boards, 9 assists per game. James scored over 40 points eight times in the playoffs including a 51 point master piece in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. He had two iconic buzzer beaters: a game winning three pointer over Thaddeus Young in Game 5 of the first round against the Indiana Pacers and a running one-handed bank shot against the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. LeBron celebrated both buzzer beaters by standing on the scorers table at half-court and pounding his chest. These displays of emotion were the first time that James had ever shown this kind of acknowledgement and passion towards his hometown fans. Looking back on it now it was poetic and a way to say goodbye to the Cavalier faithful.
Yes, LeBron has left Cleveland for the second time and it is extremely bittersweet. As I look back and reflect on having the privilege to watch him over his 11 seasons in a Cavaliers uniform, I feel a sense of pride and gratitude to have witnessed the brilliance of the greatest basketball player of my generation. I was fortunate enough to be present for 3 of his 5 buzzer beaters with the Cavs and to experience a number of NBA Finals games. Because of LeBron returning home, I was able to experience a championship with my dad, a lifelong and die-hard Cleveland sports fan, before he passed away. The 11 seasons LeBron James spent in Cleveland are filled with memories I will never forget and will share with my children one day. So as “The Kid from Akron” heads to Hollywood, all I can say is Thank You LeBron for making good on your promise and giving me the best sports years of my young life.
The NBA regular season wraps up this week, as the Cavs prepare for their first playoff appearance since 2010. The Cavaliers will finish the season with a homestand against the Detroit Pistons on Monday and the Washington Wizards on Wednesday. The Cavs officially clinched the Central Division and the two seed in the East this past Wednesday. Like many experts, I believe that Cavs will win the East and advance to the NBA Finals for the second time in franchise history. Let’s take a look at the road the Cavs will have to travel to achieve the ultimate goal of winning a NBA Title.
The Eastern Conference Standings as of April 12. Credit to nba.com
Three days remain in the regular season and the Cavs are still unaware of who their first round opponent will be. Four teams are still alive for the final two spots in the East. It appears that the Celtics will be the seventh seed after they won back-to-back games this weekend over a resting Cavs squad. It is possible that the Brooklyn Nets or Indiana Pacers could jump into the seven spot, but I think Boston will hold on. The Celtics are the more desirable opponent for the Cavs in the first round. The Cavs easily could have swept the Celtics in the regular season, but wisely chose to rest LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and J.R. Smith. The Cavs have a clear advantage and will make short work of the Celtics in 4 to 5 games.
The second round will provide a more intriguing matchup for the Cavaliers. The Cavs would play the winner of the Toronto-Milwaukee series. The Cavs won the season series over the Raptors 3-1. A Cavs-Raptors series would display some great one on one matchups. Cleveland’s Timofey Mozgov would face Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas in a battle of bigs. Another fun matchup would be Kyrie Irving versus Toronto’s Kyle Lowry. I could see this series going 5 to games 6 with the Cavs winning due to the play of the big three. Even though, Toronto has an advantage over Milwaukee, don’t count out this Bucks squad. Milwaukee has a talented young team that could give the Raptors a tough time. If the Bucks shock the Raptors, I think the Cavs would easily win the series. Milwaukee lacks playoff experience, while the Cavaliers have plenty of it.
The Eastern Conference Finals will obviously be the toughest challenge for the Cavs. I expect a Hawks-Bulls matchup in the Conference Semifinals. I would rather see the Cavs play the Bulls because of their longtime rivalry. However, I think the Hawks are more likely to advance to the Conference Finals. Regardless of which team advances, I can see the Cavaliers going six to seven games with either of these teams. Chicago can be a very dangerous team, but their biggest problem is staying healthy. Derrick Rose just returned this past week after a successful surgery that repaired a medial meniscus tear in his right knee. Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler both missed some games due to injury. The Cavs won the season series against the Bulls 3-1. In all four games, the Bulls were missing one of their three stars. A Chicago team at full strength would give the Cavs a good series, but I think the Cavs would still come out on top. The Cavaliers dropped the season series to the Hawks 3-1. Some people would find this concerning, but the first three games came before the trades for Mozgov, Smith, and Iman Shumpert. LeBron James also sat out the third game, which is another reason why Cleveland struggled. The Cavs improved in the final meeting with Atlanta, but still lost the game 106-97. At the time of that March 6 meeting, David Blatt was still tweaking his bench and defensive sets. The Cavs have been on a roll since then and have a won a NBA best 32 of 41 since mid-January. The Hawks play as one team which is key, but they lack star power and a good bench rotation. The Cavs have plenty of star power and a bench that is deep with playoff experience.
My bold prediction is that the Cavaliers will win the Eastern Conference and will play for a chance to bring Cleveland it’s first professional sports championship since 1964.