There was a time—a period of about a month, to be exact—when LeBron James could get away with calling the Cleveland Cavaliers’ title chances “a long process,” as the all-world forward did in his July 11 open letter announcing his return to the franchise.
The core was simply too young and the coach too inexperienced to expect James to magically carry Cleveland to its first professional sports championship in 41 years. Close as they might come in Year 1, the Cavaliers were a team in need of time.
That was before Kevin Love.
With arguably the game’s best power forward now in tow, James and the Cavs are about to experience a different degree of pressure altogether:
Win now, win tomorrow, win often. Anything less will be second-tier rafter dressing.
In a recent column, Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor encapsulated the feelings of many a title-starved Clevelander, proclaiming in no uncertain terms that for the foreseeable future it’s championship or bust for this Cavs behemoth:
Thanks to biggest (sic) transformation the league has seen in one off-season, the Cavs, winners of 97 games the last four years, have gone from Eastern Conference doormat to the upper echelon of the NBA, and there's no reason for them to not win the title this season.
Getting to the playoffs is not enough. Neither is getting to the Finals. The talent has been acquired. The pieces fit perfectly. Now there's one thing left, and it's something the franchise has never done before: win the NBA championship. Anything less would be a disappointment.
Rest assured, Fedor’s sentiments will steadily become the emotional modus operandi in Cleveland, outfitted as it is with two of the game’s top five players and—in Kyrie Irving—a potential third in waiting.
The mechanic tasked with making sure the gears fit: David Blatt, the longtime Euroleague staple and former Princeton University standout renowned the world over for his robust basketball mind.
A few months back, Blatt spoke to Cleveland’s newly anointed general manager, David Griffin, about what he viewed as one of his top strategic priorities.
Consider the genie one wish the poorer:
GM Griffin: Head Coach David Blatt [a few months ago] said it would be real nice to get a floor-spacing big....— John Michael (@CavsJMike) August 26, 2014
#Cavs Love: I know from David Griffin that David Blatt loves to space the floor, so that's just fine with me......— John Michael (@CavsJMike) August 26, 2014
Just as Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra had in the first days and weeks of James’ South Beach stint, Blatt is sure to bear the brunt of the barbs—from fans and media alike—should the Cavs so much as mistime their gait out of the gate.
And like Spoelstra, Blatt has a chance to assert himself as one of the league’s premier pedagogues, should his distinctly San Antonio Spurs-like offense approach its Platonic potential.
Ultimately, though, this is James’ ship to sail or sink. It’s in his prodigal return that promise springs eternal; in his on-court genius that the Cavs’ image will be cast. This is no longer about making up for a poor public relations decision four years past. It’s about being the beacon of an entire region and the beastly burdens such an honor demands.
To his credit, James understands as much, putting it thusly in his letter for Sports Illustrated:
My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys.
Still, accepting a challenge isn’t the same as navigating it. From day one, the Cavs’ backs will be tattooed with bull’s-eyes, their every move scrutinized, every botched lob and losing streak set between the media crosshairs.
Whether the pressure will rival what James faced in the fervor following his South Beach sojourn remains to be seen. Rest assured, though, that even if the doubt’s of a different degree, the breed is bound to be the same.
Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale, in typically excellent fashion, underscored precisely this point in a column from August 18:
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.
Winning two championships in Miami might serve to ease the pressure as it concerns James’ legacy. The perspective of Cleveland fans, on the other hand, is precisely the opposite. To them, those banners represent not only stolen titles, but stolen time as well—four of LeBron’s best years spent in the service of some other house.
It’s precisely because James has proven himself something much more than an individual talent—a breed beyond the comparably banal basketball legends of a Karl Malone, Charles Barkley or Tracy McGrady—that his return reaches beyond the prodigal and toward something far more redemptive in nature.
James won’t weather the spotlight alone, of course. Between Love’s year-long power play and Irving’s somewhat tumultuous relationship with the city that drafted him, there will be plenty of media heat to go around.
Fair or not, somehow even these matters will manage to be filtered back through LeBron himself, as a reflection of his leadership and legacy, as reasons to buy or sell Cleveland’s odds at a thousand different junctures from now until next spring.
On a certain level, it’s all in a day’s work for King James, who’s had more eyes and judging minds trained upon him than perhaps anyone in the history of professional sports. From prep showcases on ESPN to 18-year-old hometown hero, playoff sputters to South Beach promises, LeBron has quite literally felt, seen and heard it all.
This time around, though, the attention he receives will be less about eyes looking for a headline and more about the millions of hearts aching for a hero.