LeBron James' Return To Cleveland Highlights How Much His Departure Hurt Cavaliers

MIAMI FL - DECEMBER 01: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat looks on during a game against the Detroit Pistons at American Airlines Arena on December 1 2010 in Miami Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

While the world focuses on Cleveland's anger with LeBron James' departure, don't forget that his flight really killed this basketball team.

As the world's turns its gaze to Cleveland for LeBron James' return, most of the attention focuses on the humanity of it all: Ohio's scowl, LeBron's grimace, Dan Gilbert's sneer. But the action itself will be on the court, and while Miami hasn't yet blown the doors off of basketball (and may never), it should be easy to see why LeBron's split mattered so much.

While the Heat smolder, Cleveland burns. All manner of observers have appropriately smacked Miami for failing to live up to its billing as a team worthy of persistent main-event status. And, more sympathetically, pundits have snarked that the Cavaliers, now 7-10, aren't so bad without LeBron.

That just proves that everything is relative.

Because, compared to life with LeBron, this season has been pits for Cleveland. Through 17 games, the Cavaliers are being outscored by more than five points a game. Last season, with LeBron, Cleveland outscored opponents by 6-1/2 points a game. It's nearly a 12-point swing, absolutely huge. With LeBron, the Cavs had the league's No. 6 offense and No. 7 defense. Without James? No. 29 in offense, No. 16 in defense. For anyone that complained about the BOUNCE-BOUNCE-BOUNCE-SHOOT A 20-FOOTER offense run by LeBron's Cavs, just try to watch that outfit score now.

Cleveland hasn't yet proceeded to implode the LeBron-less foundation of those title-chasing teams; only Shaquille O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West left, with Ramon Sessions and, if you want to be thorough, Ryan Hollins arriving. Sessions has offset West well, and while Shaq certainly produced on offense in his season with the Cavs, Cleveland does not at all miss his defense. Also, the Cavs were overstocked up front anyway.

If Cleveland had gone Minnesota-post-Garnett and ripped the team apart, this existence in the NBA's nowhere wouldn't be so troublesome. This is not a "retool" league; attempts to rebuild on the fly result in full-blown, full-pain rebuilds at a later date. You chop off that infected leg now and look for a prosthetic, or you tie on a tourniquet and hit the bowling alley for nachos and beer. Both will be painful, but one's on the path to healing. Right now, Gilbert and his basketball guys are inspecting the wound. Trust me, dudes: cut it off.

If they don't, something like a 24-58 record is in the works, and no manner of moral victories in the LeBronageddon planned for Thursday night will matter. Even if the Heat continue to shrug through their debut, the schadenfreude won't be enough to make Cavs fans forget of what they really lost: the heart and soul of their franchise, and one of the greatest players in the game.

Because while Scott Raab raps and Charles Barkley slings, and while the people of Cleveland plot chants or fake laughs or summon up all their booing strength, while all the angry from the night of The Decision and the months since, while we all consider the very soul of a man -- this man -- and how empty it is or is not ... with all that swirling around The Game, it's still a game, one that LeBron James is very good, and one that he now plays for the Miami Heat.

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