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Why LeBron James Is in for Rude Awakening in Return to Cleveland Cavs

FILE - In this Dec. 25, 2009 file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James reacts during the second half against the Los Angeles Lakers in an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles. James told Sports Illustrated on Friday, July 11, 2014, he is leaving the Miami Heat to go back to the Cleveland Cavaliers. (AP Photo/Lori Shepler, File)
Lori Shepler/Associated Press
Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 14, 2014

LeBron James is back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and for now, the Rust Belt is alive with the pure jubilation that comes from a sense of the world being back in its proper alignment.

But that won't last forever.

Eventually, expectations will creep into the picture. Fans won't be content merely to have James back, and they'll want something else from him—something they never got the first time around. They'll want a championship.

To James' credit, he did a masterful job of dampening expectations in his now-famous announcement. He said explicitly that championships weren't a realistic goal right away. Through Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, James counseled patience:

I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.

That's a brilliant piece of expectation management.

The Cavs aren't ready—James is dead right about that. They've been one of the worst teams in the league for the past four years, and although that ineptitude has yielded lottery picks aplenty, the Cavs can't be said to have made the most of those selections.

Right now, Cleveland's second-best player is Kyrie Irving, an undoubtedly talented but utterly unproven guard who hasn't yet played in an NBA game that actually mattered. We know he can shine in All-Star exhibitions, but if he's anything like other young stars in the league, he'll need a few postseason slips and falls before he's ready to perform when the stakes are serious.

Apr 5, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) reacts after missing a shot in overtime against the Charlotte Bobcats at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

And even that step in Irving's development seems miles away. James can help him mature faster than he otherwise would have, but let's not forget that Irving hasn't displayed a shred of the leadership or two-way intensity required of a legitimate playoff contributor.

In addition to potentially boosting Irving's developmental pace, James will also invigorate arenas outside the game itself. He laid that out in his heartfelt announcement as well:

But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from.

James cares about the home to which he's returning. And even as he promised to help his community grow, the raw financial information lent support to his claims.

Per Mark Niquette of Bloomberg.com:

The return of the star forward to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers will have a $500 million a year impact on the local economy, with a boost from additional ticket sales and other spending, County Executive Ed FitzGerald said today.

James has made a point of saying his return is about something bigger than basketball, and that will buy him some time before Cavs fans inevitably decide that, for them, basketball is bigger than anything.

No matter how much underselling James does for the Cavs, and no matter how moving, commendable and real his pledge to be more than an athlete truly was, fans are eventually going to want what all fans want.

Remember, this is a fanbase that went all Lord of the Flies when James left in 2010. Jerseys burned, billboards came down. Oaths were sworn and grudges harbored.

All of those feelings are still there in Cleveland, though they're now dulled by a sense of closure and an abundance of hope. But sports are an escape, and when it really comes down to it, we don't actually care about what Player X is doing for City Y.

NEW ORLEANS - FEBRUARY 14:  LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers poses with neighborhood children at a playground dedication by State Farm Insurance and the LeBron James Family Foundation at the St. Bernard Recreation Center February 14, 2008 in New Or
Skip Bolen/Getty Images

If we did, we'd keep statistics on charitable donations, hours spent visiting kids in hospitals and rec centers built. We'd know who led the league in appearances at Boys and Girls Clubs as quickly as we could name the scoring champ.

But we don't know those things because ultimately, we want sports to be a happy escape. And winning championships is the happiest escape of all.

So despite James' best efforts to make his return about more than basketball, impatience is bound to creep in if and when the Cavs are, you know, somewhat disappointing as a basketball team. Eventually, James will be held to the same title-or-bust standard he was in Miami, which is a burden that comes with being the game's best player.

Steve Yeater/Associated Press

And sooner or later, we'll hear people questioning whether James can win rings without a tailor-made team and help from other superstars in their primes.

Plus, James will turn 30 this coming season, and he's logged an impossible number of miles over the past four years. Superhuman though he may seem, decline is inevitable. It could even begin this year.

Look, there's absolutely nothing bad about James' decision to return home. It's refreshing, it came from his heart and it will enliven a sports town that was dying without him. Right now, optimism is overflowing.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

James won't deserve the criticism that's coming. He's done enough on the court to make even the most vocal detractors look foolish. And he's shown the kind of class and perspective off it to shield himself from that nonsense.

Make no mistake, though; that nonsense is coming. Expectations are coming, and when they arrive, James will find himself facing a dispiriting truth.

His decision to come home gave Cavaliers fans all they could ever ask for, but they're going to ask for more.

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