It’s true, the aging Miami Heat faced an uncertain future when LeBron James announced his return to Cleveland in what Charles Barkley called “the greatest thing I’ve ever seen a jock say in my life.”
Now at No. 5 in the East, heartwarming has turned into underwhelming with Kyrie Irving learning to stay out of Bron’s way; Kevin Love, an afterthought in the offense who could leave as a free agent; and Coach David Blatt, whom Bron seems to regard cooly.
Early as it is, there’s enough potential for trouble to ask the musical question:
The Cavaliers can’t lose this guy again, can they?
There’s no doubt that James came home, intending to stay. The Cavs have at least this season and next to make it work… but better have something to show Bron by 2016 or that big free agent class with Kevin Durant may get bigger,
Their dominos are already lined up in case of disappointment. There’s little doubt as to who will take the fall (Blatt) or who will take his place (assistant coach Tyronn Lue).
Lue, the NBA’s highest paid assistant at $1.4 million, was the Cavs’ second choice to Blatt, who was reportedly chosen at the direction of owner Dan Gilbert.
The Cavaliers thought it would be good to hire Lue, rather than let the new coach select his own No. 1 assistant. If they meant to help get Blatt up to speed, they signaled the players that Lue, a former NBA player they knew, would take over if something happened to Blatt, a former Princeton player they didn’t know.
Yes, it’s the same Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans who wrote that open letter accusing “the self-styled former King” of “a cowardly betrayal” when James left in 2010. Rather than being embarrassed back into his suite, Gilbert become ever more assertive, making calls on draft picks (Tristan Thompson over Jonas Valanciunas) and hires (Blatt over Alvin Gentry).
If his moves tend toward the disastrous, Gilbert is a whiz at p.r., charming all when he sent his 14-year-old son, Nick, to the 2011 lottery to draw the No. 1 pick that became Irving. Gilbert, the elder, is also smart enough to do it behind the scenes, unlike Sacramento’s Vivek Ranadive who falls on his face in the open.
Hiring Blatt was part of Gilbert’s new direction to put James behind them, having finally given up hope of luring him back… just before James decided to come home on his own, without being pursued.
(The Cavs hadn’t even saved a maximum salary slot. To get one, they had to give up promising young players Tyler Zeller and Sergey Karasev, plus a No. 1 pick.)
Hiring an international coach—owners short on savvy now often dismiss experienced NBA coaches as “retreads”–could have been OK for a young team with limited expectations. With James there, it was something else.
James has yet to fall in line behind Blatt, lodging no complaint but making no move to embrace him. A month after announcing he’d go home, Bron hadn’t sat down with his new coach. That’s a long time for someone like James who lives 30 minutes from the team’s practice facility.
Unrest is in the air. At the end of a game in New York where Blatt called time out as Irving set up a last play, Kyrie pitched a fit on the floor
As to who’s in charge, that’s easy: James. Frustrated at their problem moving the ball with Irving at the point, Bron simply grabbed the ball and took over without informing Irving or Blatt.
Putting the maraschino cherry atop the sundae of dysfunction, James acknowledged having done it. Asked if he ran it past Blatt, LeBron said, “Nah, I can do it on my own. I’m past those days where I have to ask.”
Even with center Anderson Varejao out for the season, the Cavs are in the East where nothing too bad can happen, whether Blatt goes all the way or Lue is called out of the bullpen. After that, things will get harder. As things stand, the Bulls would be favored over them and would have home court if they meet in the East draw.
Love, who has never gotten much love, is expected to take the Carmelo Anthony Memorial Free Agent Tour in 2015, when he’ll be courted as if he was LeBron by the Lakers and Knicks, to name just two.
If Love leaves, it will be no cinch to get back to where the Cavs are now for the 2015-16 season, adding to James’ burden. The press has already moved past his heartwarming homecoming and praising him for speaking out on social issues to re-examine his greatness with an ESPN.com piece asking, “LeBron James starting to slow down?”
If ESPN’s site is ever more stat-driven, this process is the same for the LeBrons and Kobe Bryants who are either winning titles or getting it in the neck. Now the longer it has been, the more “advanced stats” they dig up.
James is expected to sign another one-year deal after this season, which would make him a free agent in 2016. That, of course, leaves open the possibility that he could put himself on the market, and, leave again
“It definitely can happen,” says an Eastern GM. “That’s what happens when you have to trade so many assets to get him, like Andrew Wiggins [dealt to Minnesota for Love]. You’re capped out. You’ve made committments to all these players. Then it becomes no different than Danny Ferry bringing in Shaq.”
In 2009, Ferry, then the GM, brought in 37-year-old Shaquille O’Neal in a last-ditch attempt to shore the team up in James’ last season under contract. The Cavs bombed spectacularly, falling to the geriatric Celtics in the second round.
There should be a special niche in NBA history for losing the same all-time great twice. Unfortunately, owners who fail to learn the lessons of their own history have every chance of repeating their mistakes.