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Sports Then and Now

Playing to Win Now Cost The Cleveland Cavaliers

Posted on July 09, 2010 by Dean Hybl

Reaction to LeBron James' decision was swift in Cleveland where some fans chose to burn his jersey.

Finally, the sideshow that has been the LeBron James free agency sweepstakes is over with the Miami Heat potentially as the big winner and the Cleveland Cavaliers (and potentially the rest of the NBA) as the big losers.

Even though the Heat currently don’t have enough players under contract to field a full roster,  on paper they quickly become one of the elite teams in the NBA with the addition of James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade in forming one of the best trios in NBA history.

James clearly has made this decision based on a desire to win multiple championships that will help solidify his place as one of the best players in NBA history.

However, as one of the “faces” of the NBA, James has taken a major risk that his previously pristine image will be able to withstand his first taste of being seen as a villain.

As could be expected, the reaction in Cleveland was immediate anger and a sense of betrayal. After seven seasons in which he lifted the franchise to NBA relevance for the first time in more than a decade, their hometown hero has left without producing that elusive championship.

For a city that has withstood many sports heartbreaks since last winning a title (NFL) in 1964, this is just the latest and perhaps most devastating blow.

That was illustrated immediately after James’ announcement with footage of a burning number 23 Cavaliers jersey and some bitter words from the owner of the Cavaliers.

What Do You Think of LeBron James Now?

  • Boy did he make a big mistake (25%, 25 Votes)
  • What an Ego (24%, 24 Votes)
  • Better not go back to Cleveland anytime soon (23%, 23 Votes)
  • Really wants to Win a Title (17%, 17 Votes)
  • Still a Great Talent (10%, 10 Votes)

Total Voters: 99

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It is hard to really say if James seriously wanted to stay in Cleveland or if he was ready to move to a new chapter in his career and life. Given that James is very cautious about maintaining his global image and marketability, it is likely that we will never know the truth regarding when James knew it was time to leave Cleveland.

James was quick during his self indulgent TV special to emphasize that he chose Miami not because of anything Cleveland didn’t do, but instead because of what Miami could offer.

However, it really seems as if the city of Cleveland was put in a no-win situation by James and his “team” over the last several years.

While potential LeBron suitors were clearing cap room, the Cavaliers were forced to try and please James by signing over-priced veterans like Shaquille O'Neal.

Cleveland was under constant pressure to win immediately to show James that they could be a championship contender. The result was a series of player decisions that helped Cleveland post the best regular season record in the NBA over the last two years, but left them unable to withstand the rigors of the playoffs.

Based on the final decision James made, the Cavaliers might have been better off over the last couple years if it had followed the lead of other potential suitors and dumped salary with the goal of bringing Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade or Amare Stoudemire to Cleveland to serve as the sidekick for James.

Instead, the Cavaliers were pushed into playing for today with no guarantee about tomorrow. So, while James is shuffling off to a championship push in Miami, Cleveland must pick up the shattered pieces of a franchise that has quickly gone from the penthouse to the outhouse.

It will take quite a while for the Cavaliers to rebound from the James debacle and regain relevance in the NBA.

However, as Cavs owner Dan Gilbert indicated in his open letter, Cleveland will now work even harder to try and put James and the summer of 2010 behind them. It is unlikely that they will ever get back to the NBA penthouse, but you can bet they will die trying.

As for James, he has taken an image hit with some fans, but for those outside of Cleveland it is likely that his popularity will quickly rebound. The biggest challenge will be whether James can co-exist with Wade and Bosh and truly lead Miami to a title.

Individually there may be less pressure on James now that he is part of a superstar trio, but if that combination doesn’t lead to championships, it could prove that there were no real winners in the 2010 free agency sweepstakes.

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