In his first attempt to recruit players to the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James was mildly successful. Remember the old Cavs teams? You know, the ones they’d patch together for LeBron every year. The Cleveland front office would always hope for someone to emerge as James’ “Pippen,” but it just never happened.
No offense to Mo Williams, who was an All-Star one season, and no offense to Antwan Jamison, who was a very solid NBA player — but they were nowhere near Pippen-caliber.
That’s why on some level you can’t blame LBJ one bit for taking his talents down to South Beach in 2010. He gave the old Cleveland way of doing things a fair run over seven seasons. Seven.
Is the better story staying at home and toughing it out? Or leaving and coming back?
You can argue either way, but the point is, LeBron learned from his first tenure in Cleveland. He not only went out and got help, he joined forces with some of the best players in the league to insure he’d at least be in legitimate title contention every season. Like it or not, James’ tenure in Miami was undeniably successful. Four trips to the Finals, two rings and one improved legacy. That’s basically what he wanted going into it, and that’s what he got out of it.
James’ power and talent definitely played a part in the formation of the Heat Big Three. But ultimately it was three guys getting on the same page in free agency and making it happen.
This time around the circumstances were much different, and LeBron’s power played a much bigger part.
Kyrie Irving was already in place on the Cavs’ roster, which had to be a nice selling point for LBJ the whole time. Even if the rest of the roster in Cleveland was terrible, Irving was a heck of a lot closer to being a Pippen than any of the first tenure LeBron teammates ever were.
Now, depending on your personality, who you know, what podcasts you listen to — you may subscribe to the ‘conspiracy theory’ that James went back to the Cavs on a handshake deal that they’d trade for Kevin Love. (It would explain why he didn’t mention Andrew Wiggins or Anthony Bennett in his ‘Coming Home’ essay.)
Whether a deal like that was truly in place, only a handful of people likely know. The end result is Love in Cleveland and another Big Three. A much differently-formed Big Three. One you can argue that was put together in more of a sporting fashion, but one that was ultimately the result of James’ ridiculous power.
The end result for the rest of the Eastern Conference is another juggernaut LeBron-led team to try and get through on the way to the top. Let’s be honest — few teams in the East are equipped to run with Cleveland right now. The Washington Wizards aren’t quite there yet, the Brooklyn Nets are still too old, the New York Knicks aren’t going to be good for awhile, the Toronto Raptors won’t be able to hang with the new Big Three.
Maybe, maybe the Miami Heat have a small chance of knocking off their former teammate. It all depends on Dwyane Wade. The supporting cast around Wade and Chris Bosh is pretty dang good, but it’s hard to see them being real contenders without at least a 2009-caliber D-Wade. Bosh and Wade don’t equal LeBron at this point.
The Chicago Bulls are nearly neck-and-neck with the Cavs, and should easily make for their best competition in the East next season.
One thing is for sure — there’s never been anything quite like these last four years with LBJ. The best player in the league left the team that drafted him, turned heel with the Heat, won two rings and then literally headed back to his home. There’s no Michael Jordan comparison here. This one is all King James.
His story now has the potential to wind down in spectacular fashion. He doesn’t have to win six. Not even five or four. He needs to win at least one in Cleveland to cement himself as a legitimate all-time great, and anything more will just be icing on the cake.
The Jordan comparisons will still be there. They’ll never go away. But if it’s not apparent at this point that LeBron is different, and that he’s going down a much different path than MJ ever did, I don’t know what it will take to drive it home.
It’s not unfair to compare the two. James is that talented. But even though MJ gets the nod in most categories, he never controlled the NBA like LeBron did over the past couple of months. The entire league was basically on hold until he revealed his decision. Heck, James’ influence and presence in Cleveland led to the last two No. 1 overall draft picks being traded away, which would be crazy talk in almost every other circumstance.
Yes, it’s a new and much different era of free agents and short-term deals in the NBA. But it’s an era controlled by James. He’s on an unprecedented path right now, and the end point of that path could be a top five spot in league history. Whether you agree with his path or not, at least it’s his own.