ORLANDO — It was subtle. A tweet from Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins reporting that LeBron James was signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers, returning to his roots, to the place he made vogue for seven seasons.
He was stunning in his humility. He admitted fault in how he orchestrated his first “Decision.” He pledged his love for Northeast Ohio. He thanked Miami and proclaimed his work was done there.
But what James did with his 952-word address to the NBA community and sports world is again change the landscape of the league. The focus shifted from South Beach, white-clad, late-arriving fans, and winning championships while sipping pina coladas back to the frigid Midwest, to a loyal but historically voodooed fan base hungry for any semblance of success.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are relevant again after spending the past four seasons lost and abandoned, like a child crying hopelessly after falling down, unable to rise.
James has offered his hand to Cleveland, which suddenly becomes one of the most talented teams in the Eastern Conference. James was astute in this decision. While he said in his letter that it was about more than basketball, it was a basketball decision.
The Cavaliers have had three No. 1 overall picks since LeBron left, choosing Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett, and most recently Andrew Wiggins. They also drafted lottery picks Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters in that span. So the youth and talent is there.
Cleveland won’t win the championship with its current roster. Aside from James, oft-injured center Anderson Varejao is the lone seasoned veteran. But the Cavaliers aren’t done retooling their roster. They promised James they would look to acquire proven veterans, and they are in the process of negotiating with the Minnesota Timberwolves to acquire Kevin Love.
Love makes the Cavaliers a championship contender. Without him, they will be a talented team challenged by the likes of Washington, Indiana, and Chicago. But the Cavaliers will be better than the team that challenged the Celtics years ago, the ones that paraded LeBron and a bunch of no-names on the court, relying primarily on James’s prowess to reach one NBA Finals and two Eastern Conference finals.
This LeBron is more mature, with a more polished shot, a player who excels on more than his athletic ability. He has always been a supreme passer and facilitator, but this time he also will play mentor in Cleveland.
What was established during the Spurs’ domination of the Heat in last month’s NBA Finals was that Miami’s Big Three was aging and in decline. Dwyane Wade has been besieged with criticism because of his subpar performance in the Finals, and while he’s better than he displayed, he no longer may be a No. 2 option. And when the opportunity presented itself for Chris Bosh to emerge as a legitimate marquee player, he faded under the pressure of the moment, regressing to his third-option role.
Friday reports had Bosh returning to Miami for a maximum deal, and with Wade expected to return, the Heat may now have to rely on that Big Two as the Eastern Conference becomes more balanced. The Indiana Pacers could have unseated the Heat but their dysfunction took over, and talented guard Lance Stephenson is an unrestricted free agent.
The Washington Wizards made a surprising playoff push and will bring their core back with the re-signing of Marcin Gortat, but they may be a bit inexperienced. The Chicago Bulls have yet to bring in a big free agent as Carmelo Anthony has yet to make his decision. With a healthy Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, the Bulls will be a factor.
While these teams could all make a run, there is no dominant team in the Eastern Conference. Those days are over.
On the Celtics’ side, Danny Ainge’s involvement in the three-team trade with the Cavaliers and Nets helped facilitate the James deal, allowing Cleveland to clear enough salary cap space to sign him to a max contract.
The fate James has left Miami has to make Ainge smile a bit, and it brings some excitement and competition back to the conference.
While Miami entertained fans for the past four years with the brilliance of James, Wade, and Bosh, there was little suspense during the postseason.
It was difficult to watch a city such as Miami, which has been painfully slow to embrace the NBA, celebrate consecutive titles by compiling a team of superstars who accepted below-market salaries to join together.
James made this decision on his own, coming back to Cleveland with no press conference, runway shows, or lofty promises. But what is guaranteed now is the East will be more exciting and intriguing. A team such as the Cavaliers, who have never won an NBA title, now have a legitimate chance.
While James’s announcement will be lauded for non-basketball reasons, including his attachment to his home roots, it also changes the complexion of a league that had become a little too Miami-centric.
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