Standing in his way was a Chicago Bulls team that looked an awful lot like the team that James had left last summer. Like those Cleveland Cavaliers, these Bulls were built around an up-and-coming homegrown superstar who gave his fans a lot more reason to feel civic pride in their team.
Like LeBron did in his last two years with the Cavs, Derrick Rose was freshly minted as the league's MVP. Also like LeBron, Rose was the lone All-Star on his team.
His front office in Chicago—just like James' old one in Cleveland—had spent an excessive amount of money locking up glorified role players such as Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer to long-term contracts. Although Boozer was an All-Star in Utah, that may as well have been a lifetime ago, as any Bulls fan will tell you that he did not come close to justifying the $80 million Chicago threw at him last summer.
The one difference between that Chicago team and the Cleveland team that James left was experience. This was the first time Rose had advanced past the first round in his career. LeBron's Cavs had been getting out of the first round regularly since 2006. So any similarities between the two had to be short-lived.
But the Heat did not have to wait long until they faced a mirror image of their self-proclaimed king's old franchise.
The 2011 Dallas Mavericks fit those old Cavs to a T. Instead of surrounding their respective superstars—Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James—with an All-Star sidekick, they had veterans, role players, retreads, journeymen and absolutely everything in between.
Instead of Mo Williams, it was Jason Terry. Instead of Delonte West, it was a 38-year-old Jason Kidd. Instead of Shaquille O'Neal, it was Tyson Chandler. Instead of Shawn Marion, it was Anderson Varejao (who made the NBA's All-Defensive Second Team, mind you).
Each team also featured ex-Wizards, with Cleveland having Antawn Jamison, while Dallas had Brendan Haywood and an injured Caron Butler. Both teams were deep, well-coached and built to win a championship now.
Heck, both teams even had guys that went by the name "J.J.": Barea for Dallas, Hickson for Cleveland.
You could even draw parallels between the owners of the two franchises. Just as Mark Cuban has been making headlines as a transcendent, in-your-face owner since buying the Mavs a decade ago, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is not far behind as far as finding his way into the headlines.
There was, however, one glaring difference: the size of the heart of their respective superstars.
Dallas cashed in because of one of the best individual postseasons of all time from Dirk Nowitzki. Cleveland collapsed because LeBron James decided to mail it in during the team's alarming Game 5 loss in the second round to Boston. While James will cite the supporting cast as a reason for not winning, Dirk carried the franchise on his back and made sure the entire organization left with championship rings.
While these NBA Finals have been a combination of celebrating the career of the great Nowitzki as well as slinging mud at James, nothing symbolizes the difference between the two more than what they did with similar supporting casts. The fact that Nowitzki pretty much beat James with a supporting cast reminiscent of the one LeBron left behind in Cleveland underlines why James has a long way to go before he comes close to matching the expectations he brought upon himself after leaving the Cavaliers.
LeBron James probably will win a championship one day. He is too talented not to. That is what makes this all the more maddening: Anyone who has followed his career knows what this guy did in pressure moments for the Cavs in the postseason. What unfolded over the past week and a half made it seem like it was a different person out there.
When thinking of LeBron's championship prospects, remember that Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Think about how he averaged 38, eight and eight in defeat against Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals. He is bound to win one soon.
But ask Dirk if winning after leaving Dallas to go elsewhere would have tasted anywhere close to as sweet as this past Sunday tasted. Comparing those two experiences would be like comparing your high school sweetheart on prom night to your first one-night stand in college afterwards. Sure, you scored either way, but you know you did not feel the same after each time.
Now Nowitzki's name is synonymous with the Dallas Mavericks franchise. It took him 13 years to do it at the age of 32. LeBron is 26 and just got done with his eighth season. There certainly was no rush, especially for a city like Cleveland that has already been waiting 47 years and counting for a championship of any sort.
Many already think LeBron is one of the biggest wastes of talent in NBA history. That would be a bit premature. But what he is already is the biggest waste of a potential legacy. "Not five, not six, not seven" championships in Miami would have compared to just one in Cleveland.
Ask Dirk. He will be the first to tell you that it simply would not feel right any other way.