Pressure is a volatile companion.
LeBron James knows all too well how erratic pressure can be. It was by his side from the moment he was drafted in 2003 to when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010. Not only did it follow him to the Miami Heat, but it traveled—and stayed—there, while on his back, never dismounting.
Now James is back in Cleveland, with a whole new set of teammates, carrying and facing a different kind of pressure.
Is it a more daunting kind of pressure, too?
Weeks ago, the answer was, without question, "No."
The pressure James faced in Miami was unparalleled, as he himself was wont to remind the world when pressed about it.
Take what the King said in January 2013, when the Dwight Howard and Steve Nash experiment was still fresh for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Purple and Gold were drawing parallels to James' Heatles, per Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald:
No one will ever be able to compare what we went through. Even though they're not winning and they're losing a lot of games, it's still nowhere near what we went through.
Yeah, right. That level of magnitude was nowhere near where ours was two years ago. Nothing. Nothing compares to it.
The Heat James left were a coterie unlike any other. Three perennial All-Stars joined forces in their primes to chase down dynastic immortality.
Not one of them was at the mercy of trade negotiations, either. James and Chris Bosh were eventually signed and traded to the Heat, but they—along with Dwyane Wade—had complete control over the entire situation from start to finish.
When the deed was done, they emerged from the smoke, strutting their stuff, smiling from ear to ear, promising eager Heat fans the world.
James himself stepped out of that manufactured fog and initial spectacle as a new man—a boy who became the NBA's most prominent villain.
From 2010 on, the Heat had a target on their back. Even before they were actually crowned champions, they were chased, idealized and, in many instances, hated.
James' homecoming could not have been more different. He returned to Cleveland a maturated champion. There was no televised special, only an introspective first-person account of his decision given to SI.com's Lee Jenkins that doubled as uninterrupted justification and—to some extent—subtle apology.
There was no pressure-founding promise, no guarantee of a championship. There was the exact opposite.
"I’m not promising a championship," he said. "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. My patience will get tested."
At first glance, this wasn't James fast-tracking himself to something better. Joining the Cavaliers demanded great personal sacrifice. The 29-year-old James would have to endure growing pains he left behind. Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Andrew Wiggins didn't make for an instant juggernaut alongside James.
Signing with the Cavaliers meant James had escaped the pressure of Miami without actually fleeing the scene.
Then things—as they have a tendency to do when James is involved—changed.
Out went patience, in came Kevin Love, another top-10 superstar.
Love will be a member of the Cavaliers once the agreed-upon trade is eligible to go through (Aug. 23), according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. Then, officially, everything will change.
There will be no grace period for the Cavaliers with Love. They'll have three superstars and an accompanying cast consisting of James hanger-ons (Mike Miller, James Jones, perhaps Ray Allen, etc.). ESPN.com's Marc Stein also reported that Shawn Marion will join the Heat.
The time to win isn't off in the distance. It's, as Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster says, here now:
There's a difference between Cleveland's version of "must win" and that of other teams. Technically, the Cavs aren't in much of a rush. LeBron is 29, Love is 25 and Irving is just 22. All are healthy now and have avoided any real health issues that could have a long-term impact. This isn't a core with an impending expiration date.
However, simply put, Cleveland must win now after the Love trade because it's far too talented not to.
Talented, yes. The Cavaliers are too talented to do anything less than contend for championships now. But contributing factors that led to their pending roster matter just as much.
Wiggins projects as an All-Star—someone who, future contracts notwithstanding, could have served the Cavaliers for the next 10 to 15 years. They're solidifying their status of today at the expense of tomorrow.
And Wojnarowski says they're doing it because of James:
LeBron James has reached to tell Kevin Love of his desire for them to play together with the Cavaliers, front office sources tell Yahoo.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 17, 2014
If true, this is James making his own bed, then cannonballing into it. He had the opportunity to be the "old head" and wait for the Cavaliers to grow, but he seems to have opted for now while pontificating on the importance of later.
Such action creates pressure. Such action also requires unmatched control over the Cavaliers' decision-making process, which in turn creates even more pressure.
Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher says he was sheltered from it, even if involuntarily, while in Miami:
James has been subtle about it, but several coaching sources say he hasn't always been the most willing student, especially during his first turn in Cleveland. There were times, one source said, when Brown called for a practice after a long trip and James warned Brown he'd be the only one there.
It wasn't until he balked at Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's authority and team president Pat Riley made it clear he had Spoelstra's back that James was forced to fall in line. He has two championship rings to show for it, of course, but there are those in the NBA who believe one of his motivations for returning to Cleveland is that he tired of the buttoned-up way in which the Miami Heat operate.
These new-look Cavaliers are, at least to some degree, a spitting image of James' vision. They didn't want to trade Wiggins for Love, but that's just what they did. Both Wiggins and Anthony Bennett were excluded from James' return letter, and now neither is expected to start the season in Cleveland.
Can that be pure coincidence? Absolutely, though given all we know, it's unlikely.
In doing away with patience and purportedly binding himself tightly to the Cavs' governing body, James' smokeless entrance is no longer free of immense pressure. It is once again fraught with baggage that he may be riding like a chariot.
Different or More Daunting?
This is not to imply that returning to Cleveland ever represented a pressure-free decision.
Any team headlined by James is under the microscope. It doesn't matter where he would have signed. It could have been Miami or Cleveland, New York or Los Angeles, Milwaukee or Phoenix. Pressure would have found him regardless.
Only it was supposed to be different this time. There would be some, but not much. Not for a while. James originally absolved himself of win-now-or-you-fail expectations by returning to an imperfect, still-developing Cavaliers team.
Instead of entering next season under that guise, the Cavaliers have made the powerhouse-forging jump, complete with a laundry list of standards to meet and items to prove.
Irving is under a max extension and has never made it to the playoffs. Love is scheduled to enter free agency next summer and has never seen the playoffs, either. The Cavaliers are betting James is enough to keep Love in Cleveland while continuing to lure veteran free agents at a discount.
Above all else, they're banking on James' two-year contract being a business decision that also marks the beginning of a second seven-plus-year stint during which they will spend and assemble to appease their King, then hope to win.
Most of that is pressure the Heat never had to face. They never could have predicted the backlash they received, nor could they have foreseen the bar to which they were held.
Will the new-look Cavaliers face more pressure than LeBron's Heat?
James was 25 when he joined the Heat. It was all new to him. And back then, he was following Wade, already a champion. This time, he's the draw, the only glue holding this entire project together. Without him, it unravels.
No matter what is said, the Cavaliers are operating on an ambiguous window. Love's contract situation makes for a complicated game of wait-and-see, as does James'.
It's also putting constant pressure on all parties to win now.
Crash or burn, this group is considered James' more than the Heat ever were. That ownership puts a strain on everyone—James for having such control, the Cavaliers for giving it to him and Love for committing to it.
The stakes are different and, in this case, higher because of Cleveland's to-be-determined window and the prospect of a feel-good story being tainted by too much self-forged change and a failure to meet the new-look expectations it creates.