On Friday, LeBron James announced his decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, spurning the Miami Heat and sending shockwaves through the NBA.
For Cleveland, a sports town routinely snakebitten, it’s hard to overstate the importance of this moment. When James, famously “took his talents to South Beach” in 2010, jilted fans burned jerseys in the streets like letters from an ex-girlfriend. Traitor, they called him, and much worse. The team’s owner penned a childishly angry, all-caps Comic Sans letter condemning the Akron, Ohio, native.
None of that vitriol went away as James won two titles with Miami and became the undisputed best player in the game.
But now he’s back, and with James and rookie Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel, Cleveland has arguably sports’ two most-talked-about athletes. The spotlight shines bright on Northeast Ohio, where, as James said in his announcement through Sports Illustrated, “nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
The politician in James understands the need to coax the community back to embracing him, but from the looks of the spontaneous public celebrations throughout Cleveland, he needn’t have bothered.
He’s been welcome back with open arms.
With James on the court, the Cavaliers instantly become a favorite in the Eastern Conference. Surrounding James is all-star Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett and rookie Andrew Wiggins. All four of them No. 1 overall draft picks, and none of them has reached their full potential.
The unknown variable is the team’s front office. First-year general manager David Griffin will have to fill out the Cavaliers’ roster with the kind of proven role-players that won James his two titles in Miami. On the sidelines, rookie head coach David Blatt has the benefit of James to help tutor his promising talent, but little room for error if the team unexpectedly flirts with mediocrity.
Without coaching a game, Blatt’s seat is already a little warm.
The biggest loser, however, is Miami. In addition to losing James, the Heat are expected to lose Chris Bosh to the Rockets, leaving them with a battered Dwyane Wade and a host of supporting players with no one to support.
Elsewhere across the league, the move will trigger an avalanche of roster transactions. Teams that lost the LeBron lottery will race to snatch up the best players remaining on the free-agent market.
The economics of the NBA are an obfuscating spiderweb of rules, restrictions and exceptions. A lot of unpredictable moves will happen very quickly now that James has made the first move.