LeBron James left the Cavaliers, yet again. The first time, he left Cleveland for sunny skies out in South Beach. This time, he found the same on the West Coast.
James signed a four-year max contract with the Lakers that will have him wearing purple and gold until his son becomes eligible to play in the NBA.
And as it turns out, the reason the King left Cleveland this time might be the same as it was years ago.
With teammates like Zydrunas Ilgauskus, Eric Snow, Donyell Marshall, Drew Gooden, Boobie Gibson, and Anderson Varejao, James dragged the 2006-07 Cavaliers to a 50-32 record and the NBA Finals. They were swept out of the building by the Spurs.
The Cavaliers were a one-man act, and even though management found better role players — like Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, J.J. Hickson, Danny Green, and an aging Shaquille O’Neal — it wasn’t enough. James was tired of shouldering the load. And down in Florida, he wouldn’t have to.
Dwyane Wade had been recruiting James to Miami all along, and at the same time, he was convincing Chris Bosh to leave his post in Toronto and take a lesser role as part of a Big 3 in South Beach.
The Heat lost their first NBA Finals appearance to Dallas, then won two straight, defeating Oklahoma City and San Antonio. The following year, the Spurs walloped the Heat in the Finals, exposing that hero ball doesn’t always work: a structured game plan and offensive system does.
The loss sent James back home. And things seemed good enough for awhile.
The Cavaliers had watched Kyrie Irving morph into an offensive superstar, and Cleveland traded top pick Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota in a package for Kevin Love. The East had a new Big 3.
Cleveland could have won the 2015 NBA Finals, had everyone been healthy, but Love’s shoulder injury against Boston followed by Irving’s fractured kneecap in the opening game against the Warriors doomed the Cavaliers. James pushed the Dubs to six games, but it wasn’t enough.
The Cavaliers and Warriors returned to the NBA Finals the following season, and James, Irving, and Love delivered Cleveland its first NBA championship. It was a moment none would forget, especially not the Warriors.
Golden State did something Cleveland didn’t. When the salary cap spiked in 2016, the Warriors took advantage and signed Kevin Durant, after having eliminated his Thunder from the Western Conference Finals. The Cavs’ offseason additions were Derrick Williams and rookie Kay Felder, and when James cried for a playmaker midseason, they swung deals for Deron Williams and Kyle Korver.
It wasn’t even close. Durant and the Warriors washed the Cavaliers in the 2017 NBA Finals, 4-1.
Then when Irving left Cleveland last summer, things started falling apart. The Cavaliers traded him to Boston for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Brooklyn pick that would become Collin Sexton. When things didn’t go according to plan, Cleveland blew it up midseason and traded all their new players for George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson.
That team, along with Love, Jeff Green, J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson, was the squad James took through two grueling seven-game series, first against the Pacers, then in the conference finals against the Celtics. And when they made it out alive, there the Warriors sat like a vulture, perched and waiting for prey.
Truth be told, there wasn’t much the Cavaliers could have done to keep LeBron in town.
They needed to import big talent, and fast, and as promising a prospect as he is, Sexton alone wasn’t enough. The Cavaliers didn’t have attractive enough assets to pull off a blockbuster trade for another superstar, and after Cleveland fumbled away its opportunity to secure just a single game in the Finals, there wasn’t much for James to look forward to if he came back.
James didn’t have enough help, much like he didn’t have enough help back in 2010. And he left Cleveland just like he did years ago. Only this time, he did so after delivering a championship. And only this time, it doesn’t look like he’s heading back any time soon.