On Wine and Golden Pond: LeBron’s Costly Search For Swan Songs

— November 8th 2017

With a lackluster support system and the future weighing heavy on his mind, beating Golden State now would be LeBron James’s greatest achievement yet.

By: Trevor Harris

The Cavs have come out of the gate like an aging, drunk, gun-slinging bandit, spilling out of a saloon. Three years of exhausting resources, assets and relationships have finally caught up to a franchise that has arrived at a cliff on the back of an unbreakable horse. Success hasn’t come to fruition as of late, and with every new move they seem to have only gotten worse. The cost of those missteps has hamstrung their potential, and has subsequently despoiled their ability to really fix it.

During the offseason, the Cavs had to come to terms with the fact that some players in this league aren’t willing to feel like they are a co-worker’s child forever. Kyrie Irving was not elated with LeBron’s return from the start, and during their tenure together it only became more apparent that their relationship was not one worthy of adoration. As the divorce proceedings commenced in the form of a Kyrie Irving trade request, the Cavs–oddly enough–found themselves in a lucky position. They actually had a valuable asset, and enough leverage to receive adequate compensation. They never used it.

Instead they fired their general manager, blew two potential deals for either Jimmy Butler or Paul George, took a huge gamble on a seriously injured player that could make their 30th ranked defense worse, and also bet on a first round draft pick attached to a team with no incentive to tank. Usually betting on the future isn’t that bad of an idea, but the Cavs doing it when they have almost zero control of their own franchise is quintessential non compos mentis.

The fate and direction of the franchise has always rested on the shoulders of the man who resurrected it, twice. Rumors of LeBron’s second departure from the franchise began as a soft distant drum beat before the end of last season, and the volume of those rumors has continued to increase since. Now that the season is underway, history has started repeating itself. LeBron James, once again, has no help. It’s like a big budget sequel to a disaster movie closely following the formula of its predecessor. In true sequel fashion, the destruction has been dialed up to 11 and the star of the movie has enough leverage to turn the production into a train wreck. If this season ends up being a flop, Executive Producer LeBron James is going to be largely to blame, and right now it’s not looking like a hit.

The Cavs are not a basketball team right now. They are LeBron James’s collection of damaged basketball cards from 2011. For two years, James leveraged the Cavaliers into giving up assets in hopes of receiving a swan song in return. When it was just a small piece here, and a small piece there, it wasn’t all that big of deal, and actually made former GM David Griffin look savvy. They never stopped, though. They just kept collecting rust-covered antiques they got from various fledgling franchise’s estate sales. Whether it be old signs, table lamps, or Derrick Rose, junk is junk, and some things in life–no matter how cheap–aren’t even worth the effort of consideration. What’s even more mind boggling is the complete neglect of their biggest flaw: defense.

Last year Cleveland’s defense was a putrid platter of salted slugs, and to start this season their defense is even worse. They look like five blind, deaf and mute, legless tortoises rolling around on their shells. In their home loss to Atlanta, you could feel Cleveland broadcaster Austin Carr’s blood pressure rise from the comfort of your own home. They are the 30th ranked defense in the NBA, and if they could be 31st, they would be. They don’t have a player not named James or Crowder putting in anything close to the inconsistent effort on defense that they have demonstrated. J.R. Smith, a more than serviceable defender, isn’t even at the basketball game most of the time. His body might be, but the rest of him is as absent as their ability to field a point guard.

Kevin Love plays minutes at center so he doesn’t have to guard other forwards, and it doesn’t work. Tristan Thompson is hurt, but prior to that he looked like any athlete in a serious relationship with a Kardashian.

Dwyane Wade is, well, 35 years old.

Then there is Derrick Rose, and he is pretty much flat-out unplayable. The fact that Jeff Green is one of dimmest of bright spots on a supposed championship contender should be sounding every alarm bell from here to Middle Earth.

We can point all the fingers at LeBron for influencing this roster, but the embarrassing lack of communication, execution, and sense of urgency also points to Ty Lue.

David Blatt took the Cavs to a title in LeBron’s first year back in Cleveland and his first year as an NBA coach. Riddled with injury, and pitted against a young, hungry Warriors team they fell short. In year two, the Cavs were still overwhelming favorites to return to the Finals and the popular narrative “It doesn’t matter who the coach is” was in full swing. To start the year, the Cavs were rolling–and had a strong grip on the one seed in the East. Regardless of their more-than-adequate 30-10 record, rumors of LeBron’s discontent with David Blatt began percolating. Then on January 18th, 2016, the Warriors went to Cleveland and buried the Cavs 138-98.

Blatt was fired the next morning. Ty Lue stepped in and led the team to a championship in a series that played out like a picturesque example of a reversal of fortune. Since then Ty Lue’s squad has stopped taking the regular season seriously, built horrible defensive habits, and has demonstrated nothing to make anyone think he can lead them to another title. So the question is, should he be sacked? He certainly hasn’t improved anything. The team is worse, and Blatt was fired for much less. In a normal situation his performance as head coach of the second-best team in basketball would warrant a serious discussion about his future as early as last year. He may be LeBron’s guy, but after their loss to Atlanta, he should at the very least be on notice. What good would that do, though?

Who is going to come in and fix this? Mark Jackson? Wouldn’t that be something? I’m 82 percent joking, but he might at least get them to try on defense. Even if they found a better coach and there was a massive turnaround, the Warriors are still waiting at the end. This basketball club, as a whole, looks to be light years away from being able to rattle the defending champs. They have to ask themselves, “if it’s a futile move, then what good would more instability do anyone?”

The Warriors have essentially reduced the expectations of the Cavs to “just get to the Finals.” Barring something completely catastrophic, this Cavs team wouldn’t even be the hardest matchup for the Warriors that could come out of the East. The length of the Bucks coupled with the addition of Eric Bledsoe won’t be anything to laugh at, and the great guard defense in Boston coupled with the Horford-Kyrie two-man game would put up more of a fight than this LeBron led team in a seven-game series. How much of a fight? Who knows. Maybe they could get lucky and land a hit or two, but if the pervious Cavs of today get to the Finals, they look like they’d get rained on so hard they’d erode in four nights.

The Warriors may have started the season like a flight leaving Vegas during the hottest part of a summer day, bumpy and full of hungover passengers. But after 10 games they seem to have already hit cruising altitude. Their vice grip on the league is at its apex, and somehow, someway, they found a way to get better, younger, and more versatile while they were celebrating. The Warriors’ increasing separation from the pack has made the Cavs cannibalize themselves, just like they did the Clippers

Once Kevin Durant signed with Golden State, any efforts to win the Larry O’Brien trophy for the next few years became futile in the eyes of many. LeBron, to his credit, isn’t one to succumb to futility. He pressed the Cavs to make any and all moves possible to give his team a chance at what would be his greatest achievement yet. Unfortunately for him, there have been no immediate answers, and all of their resources and assets have pretty much dried up. Players have come and gone at a rate faster than any perennial Finals participant with no real tangible results. To make things worse, the players still on the roster are a step slower, and the new players have caused the team to regress. Despite all of this doom and gloom, a chance at success is not as lost at sea as the Cavs are, currently.

If they can climb their way into the Finals with this roster, it will be a major accomplishment–one that LeBron should be proud of even if not entirely satisfied. What he was able to accomplish in Cleveland, for Cleveland, was nothing short of remarkable. He fulfilled his promise. All things eventually come to an end, and his hold over the Eastern throne may be deteriorating.

The teams that have sat in his shadow for the better part of a decade have been hard at work building an entirely new era of basketball. They are acquiring talent in a time where it seems to be growing on trees, but unlike the Warriors, they are all raw and untested. Until LeBron cedes his place in the East, he is still the king and the greatest player on the planet. If he and his middle-aged Cavs can right the ship just enough to use their old man strength against their adolescent challengers, they could very well book one last date with the Warriors in June.

After that? Who knows

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