The unsung tragedy of LeBron James’ westward move leaves his hometown team in the darkest of depths.
On November 2, 2016, the Cleveland Indians lost Game 7 of the World Series, throwing away a 3-1 series lead against the Chicago Cubs.
On December 31, 2017, the Cleveland Browns lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers to cement them in NFL history as just the second team to drop 16 games in the regular season.
On July 1, 2018, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost hometown wunderkind LeBron James after he signed a lucrative four-year, $153.3 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.
James delivered the city of Cleveland its first professional sports championship since 1964—the year in which the Cleveland Browns defeated the Baltimore Colts in the NFL Championship Game, two years prior to the creation of the Super Bowl—after, relatively ironically, overcoming a 3-1 NBA Finals deficit versus the Golden State Warriors.
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James’ second stint with the Cavaliers ended late Sunday evening, and Cleveland’s basketball future looks as bleak as their sports past.
The Cavaliers roughly owe a combined $194.13 million to a laundry list of sub-tier one players through the 2019-20 season: Kevin Love, George Hill, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Jordan Clarkson, and Kyle Korver.
The soft salary cap for the 2018-19 season was set on June 30, 2018 for the upcoming season by the league office at $101.869 million.
James’ big arrival in LA has already brought up plenty of speculation, but the lack of monetary wiggle room for the Cavaliers almost certainly will leave them either in NBA purgatory—not good enough to contend, not bad enough to get a top pick in the draft—or in the basement of the league for at least the next two seasons.
Love’s blossoming time in Minnesota before being shipped to Cleveland after James’ re-arrival in 2015 leave some disappointed in his tenure with the Cavaliers thus far, but Love’s statistical stagnation could be contributed to James’ style of play, not allowing Love to create with the ball and in pick-and-roll/pop scenarios, though justifiably so.
Love still received All-Star selections after averaging 18.3 points and 10.2 rebounds in the past two of his three years in Cleveland combined, and while his production fell short of his late days with the Timberwolves—when he averaged 26.1 points and 12.5 rebounds his final year in Minnesota—the Cavaliers certainly boast some talent in a depleted Eastern Conference.
While nobody can top LeBron James’ impact, though, the Cleveland Cavaliers seem less than eager to start another rebuilding project.
Sources close to the organization assert that the Cavaliers have no intention of moving Love, and it’s not unreasonable for the organization to assume they retain a solid chance for the postseason as much of the NBA’s top talent now competes in the west.
The roster, though, simply falls short of the emerging eastern powerhouses in Boston and Philadelphia, and it also bodes poorly for the future, with all of the team’s big money being locked up in players 26-years-old or older.
It’s hard to blame the Cavaliers for wanting to put themselves back into rebuilding mode considering the team and city’s past with professional sports failure.
The Cavaliers’ all-time record of 1829-2059 ranks them 22nd in win percentage among all 30 modern NBA teams. The team qualified for the postseason in just 13 of its 33 seasons before acquiring James in the NBA Draft, making it beyond the first round just three times in that span.
Today’s Cavaliers have two options for the future: putter through the next two seasons, probably treading around .500-level basketball and start anew after their payroll empties for the 2020-21 season, or dump salaries coupled with pivotal future draft picks to gain some leeway in the meantime.
Either way, it’s a far walk from downing the reigning NBA champions with the help of a man hellbent on finishing a job he started after being drafted number one overall in 2003.
By: Oscar Rzodkiewicz, @ORzodkiewicz on Twitter