The Cleveland Cavaliers claimed their third straight road win Tuesday night and found themselves in a surprising, but familiar, position: first place in the NBA Central Division.
After watching this Cavs team during a 6-2 preseason and the 4-3 regular season start, one question keeps coming to mind: Is it possible that they’re better off without LeBron James?
It sounds crazy, and it has nothing to do with James’ ability. He is a force, an athletic specimen unlike any the game has seen before, a remarkable combination of speed and strength that has rightfully earned consecutive MVP honors.
However, he didn’t get the job done in Cleveland.
I understand the premise that Cavs management didn’t surround him with the players needed to win a championship. I don’t agree with it, but it’s one of those apples-and-oranges arguments.
As the weeks roll by, however, I’m inclined to believe that it was simply time for him to go. Joe Tait, long time radio broadcaster for the Cavs, said over the summer that LeBron never really accepted the mantle of leadership.
Tait has been at the microphone for 40 years, since guys like Chamberlain, West, Frazier and Reed were still lacing up their sneakers—long before Magic, Bird, Jordan or Kobe arrived on the scene. He didn’t make his comments about James in anger, just as a statement of fact.
The very notion that LeBron would leave without finishing the job in Cleveland supports Tait’s belief, particularly in light of James’ now-famous quote to ESPN The Magazine a few years ago about how he didn’t want to go “ring chasing” and was intent on bringing a title home.
Watching him during his last two years in Cleveland was, however, mystifying.
Yes, he won MVP awards both seasons. That’s what made the failure against Orlando in the 2009 playoffs so startling, and the rollover in against Boston last spring so distasteful.
He wanted to go, and he did. He never explained why Cleveland didn’t measure up. He never said that management didn’t do the things necessary to bring a title home. He never said that his teammates lacked talent. He never said that he didn’t like playing for the Cavs, or didn’t like the fans, or didn’t like his teammates.
He just left. Unfinished business aside, he packed up the Family Truckster and headed for the sun and sand of Miami. He made it clear he was less concerned about winning a title for Cleveland than he was about winning a title for himself, and for his “friends.”
Well, thanks for that.
The common refrain—that the problem isn’t that James left, but rather the way he left—is poppycock. Of course the problem is that he left! He said he was going to do one thing, then he did the other. “The way” you go back on your word isn’t the damning part; the fact that you went back on your word is.
Which brings me back to my point: The Cavaliers are doing fine without him. They don’t appear to be championship caliber, but what else is new? They weren’t with James around, either.
They are, however, playing spirited, team basketball. Every night, someone different steps up to provide a spark. Guys who were overlooked during the James era—Daniel Gibson, anyone?—are opening some eyes and proving they belong on an NBA court.
I know this is an indefensible argument to some, but I can’t help it. I like what I’m seeing from the Cavs.
I also know there will be bumps in the road. After all, I predicted they’d finish below .500, at 38-44. There are bound to be some dry spells ahead.
But, for now, the drama is gone. The cult of personality is gone. The requisite fawning and adulation are no longer required.
In their place? Good, interesting, fundamental basketball: teamwork, defense, passing, shooting, hustle, movement.
Most of all, smiles. Gibson is smiling. Mo Williams is smiling. So are Anthony Parker, Anderson Varejao, Antawn Jamison, and all the guys on the bench—including the often stoic coach, Byron Scott.
I’m enjoying it. They certainly seem to be enjoying it, and they seem to believe in themselves, and each other.
Don’t get me wrong. If James wanted to be here, and played like it, the Cavs would be a better team. He’s a once-in-a-generation talent.
However, since he wanted to be somewhere else, it’s just as well that he went there.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, we love our Cavs—and, right now, we love what they’re giving us in return.
As fans, you can’t ask for much more than that.