2009 was the defining season of LeBron James' career, from start to bitter end. The season he chose to become the best basketball player he can be.
2009 will also cement his career as a Cleveland Cavalier. THE Cleveland Cavalier.
Regardless of which baseball cap he prefers to wear.
If not for a miracle buzzer-beating, three-point shot in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, this series becomes a sweep and perhaps this article is not written because James must flee the embarrassment as quickly as his Nikes will carry him.
But Cleveland's Game 6 loss to the Orlando Magic serves only as the latest checkpoint in the evolution of LeBron James. The King received no help from his court in the series' deciding game Saturday night in Orlando, and little aid in the rest of the series.
That will assuredly have to change next season.
Contrasting the teams, the reason for Orlando's dominance over Cleveland is clear: the depth and youth throughout their roster. Cleveland lacks both of these traits, particularly on their bench, and were not helped by the play of the rest of their starters.
Cleveland may have no individual answer to Dwight Howard, but no team in the league has an answer to LeBron James. On most every night, Cleveland wins that statistical match up. The problem clearly lies with the remainder of the team.
LeBron's supporting cast was a dismal failure in the Conference Finals, and for the entire post-season averaged a total of 56.7 points for every 48 minutes played, compared with LeBron's 40.9.
Intangibles such as interior defense and rebounding were also hard to come by against an active Orlando squad, save for some key plays by Anderson Varejao. The names Wallace, Szczerbiak, and Smith did little to shake Orlando's confidence.
James was not selfish in his accumulation of his gaudy stats either, averaging over seven assists per game throughout the playoffs and over eight against Orlando. His teammates simply did not perform when needed most.
But much as he did during his run this past summer with the USA Redeem Team, LeBron seems likely to motivate himself to greater heights after this setback.
James has already shown how he has internalized his quest for a title with his storming off the court after defeat, not acknowledging Orlando's team or the media.
As James noted in an interview session on Sunday, "It's hard for me to congratulate somebody after you just lost to them. I'm a winner. It's not being a poor sport or anything like that. I'm a competitor."
Fight or Flight?
Of course, the speculation of LeBron leaving Cleveland will now continue with far greater fervor as many believed his departure from the Cavaliers (namely to New York) would hinge upon whether or not Cleveland won this NBA Championship.
To this, James responded, "I feel great about this situation that's going on. You want to continue to get better, that's all you can ask. We got better and I feel this team will be better next season."
Obviously, LeBron James makes any team he joins vastly better than they were without him, the Knicks included.
It is clear that Cleveland must improve their roster further and should have the ability to do so quickly given their owner's willingness to spend money on a winner.
But if they were to make no adjustments to their current team, Cleveland is still infinitely better than every team in the Eastern Conference and possibly the West too.
Financially speaking, we also know that no NBA team can offer James more money than Cleveland can according to the rules of free agency.
With the collective bargaining agreement expiring soon and a battle between owners and players almost sure to explode in some fashion after 2010, perhaps James signs a maximum contract extension now rather than wait only to find his market, and credibility in Cleveland, dried up.
But let's face facts, regardless of his location, LeBron James will not lack for endorsements or show business opportunities, regardless of what the media and sales pitches tell us.
These riches and opportunities are to be the keys to his departing Cleveland for the world's largest media market, and one only has to study James' words and career thus far to understand that his ties to Cleveland are far greater than extra money on his Nike contract or being able to say he plays at the "World's Most Famous Arena," Madison Square Garden.
More to LeBron's Legacy Than Money
Without King James there is no basketball in Cleveland, as the franchise was facing sale and possible relocation before winning the NBA Draft Lottery (coincidentally and luckily enough) and the "LeBron Sweepstakes."
The hometown kid has made much more than good, and every step of the way James has taken the chance to acknowledge his Ohio upbringing and his ties to the community.
With his status at 24 years old as already the greatest player in franchise history and the inevitability that he will retire as the most successful Cleveland or Ohio sports figure ever, one has to wonder if the grounded James would discount this immense legacy for a few dollars more or television cameos.
In this day and age that finds people almost breeding professional athletes, a talent such as LeBron James is still rare. He is prodigious in what he does on the basketball court, and a breath of fresh air off of it.
He is already an icon in his hometown and is assured of retiring in nothing less than a blaze of glory.
James also has the chance to realize that, as many of his predecesors failed to understand, his legacy would be tainted if he wore any other jersey, or worse, one day became a rented player simply to win a championship.
His career will be judged in the media by how many titles he wins, but in search of greatness and satisfaction, LeBron James will ultimately weigh how meaningful his legacy or any potential titles would be if they weren't won in Cleveland.
And he'll stay home where he belongs.
Credit: The Associated Press for quotations