Will LeBron James Be to Cleveland What Barry Bonds Was to Pittsburgh?

CJ HempfieldContributor IJuly 8, 2010

BOSTON - MAY 13:  LeBron James #23  of the Cleveland Cavaliers tries to rally his team in the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics during Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2010 NBA playoffs at TD Garden on May 13, 2010 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeated the Cavaliers 94-85.  NOTE TO USER: User Expressly Acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Tonight might just be the night which the Cavaliers fall off the cliff.  Why?  Let’s consider the Pittsburgh Pirates following the 1992 season. 

Barry Bonds spent his first seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates and during that time he amassed a very impressive list of personal achievements.  The list includes:

·         Voted an NL All-Star—1990 & 1992

·         NL Golden Glove—1990, 1991, & 1992

·         NL Silver Slugger—1990, 1991, & 1992

·         NL MVP—Finished first in 1990 & 1992 and second in 1991

This was before the team became the laughing stock that it is now.  It was a team with a proud history.  It had won five World Series since 1903—the last in 1979.  The team had been to the postseason many more times throughout its history.  Okay, enough of a trip down memory lane.

So while Bonds was hitting his stride as a player, he was also playing on a very solid team.  It was a team that made it to, but ultimately lost, three consecutive NLCS (1990, 1991, and 1992).  Following the '92 season, Bonds left the Pirates for the San Francisco Giants, a team that had just finished two back-to-back sub-500 seasons.  However, the issue here is not where he ultimately went to play.  The issue is what happened to his previous team after he decided to leave.

In the case of the Pirates, the team went into the toilet.  The very next season the Pirates began a streak of 17 consecutive losing seasons—which they have yet to break.  Now, to be fair, I will not blame all of that on Bonds departure.  Bonds left at a time when all of the Pirates' talent departed (players and management) and the team had yet to figure out how to build a successful team.  It is clear though, that a small market team like the Pirates, can easily fall off a cliff when its biggest star leaves.

LeBron James has spent his first seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers , and much like Barry Bonds, James has amassed some great personal honors .  He and his team have also had some postseason success—making it to one NBA finals and two Eastern Conference finals during this period.  James' and Bonds' careers, in two completely different sports, seem comparable.

If LeBron James leaves the Cavaliers, as many experts suspect, is it not reasonable to expect that the Cavaliers would fall into a multi-year funk?  If they do, I doubt that it would be nearly a generation like the Pirates—as the Cavaliers appear to have better management and ownership than the Pirates.  However, a departure of a player of his stature, much like Barry Bonds, appears very likely to have a devastating, multi-season impact on his former team. 

As a smaller market city that no longer can offer the draw of “playing with LeBron,” present the opportunities of the larger cities, or be a destination city—it will be increasingly more difficult to attract free agent talent.  This could easily create a situation in which the Cavaliers become a (best case) middle of the pack team or (worst case) routinely in the draft lottery for the next three to four seasons.

So here we are only a few hours from 9:00 EDT on July 8, 2010. It will be interesting to see if today marks the day that the “Pirate-like” downward spiral began for the Cleveland Cavaliers.