In some ways, the Cavaliers still haven’t gotten over July 8, 2010.
In infamous moments for both, LeBron James left Cleveland with The Decision, and the Cavs owner responded with his letter. Gilbert held a grudge for years, and LeBron didn’t seem to get over it, either.
Yet, they partnered again in 2014.
LeBron wanted to play in his native Northeast Ohio, bring a championship to Cleveland and add to and market his legacy with a homecoming. To Gilbert, LeBron was – by far – the best ticket to winning, revenue and relevance. The owner reportedly pledged to spend unconditionally for LeBron. They didn’t have to like each other, but they could help each other.
And it worked.
The Cavaliers won the 2016 title, in the middle of three straight NBA Finals appearances. Their payroll has soared over the rest of the league, Gilbert spending big on LeBron’s supporting cast. For the last three years, both LeBron and Gilbert got practically everything they wanted out of this arrangement.
But the cracks are beginning to show.
The third-place Cavs (30-21) are closer to ninth in the East than second. Their defense is atrocious, and the roster looks worn down. They want LeBron – who can opt out this summer – to commit long-term, but he won’t. In turn, Cleveland is reportedly extremely reluctant to trade the Nets pick. LeBron is reportedly frustrated by Paul George and Eric Bledsoe getting traded elsewhere.
These issues snowball, and it seems the Cavaliers are facing a boulder of a problem now.
But the Cleveland Cavaliers are out of time. It’s preposterous to say that in February for a team with a history of turning things around and doing it when they have to. However, they are in a preposterous situation.
They aren’t just looking at losing this season, but they are looking at losing LeBron James. If tomorrow were the beginning of free agency, there’s a good chance that would be the case.’
This is all a whirlwind around LeBron James vs. the Cavs’ front office, which is to say it’s about James vs. owner Dan Gilbert.
And the adversarial situation grows. And the team plays worse. And the pressure tightens. And the clock runs.
And the Cavs are culpable for allowing the trust and the relationship with management to crack. The Cavs know crisis better than anyone — they’ve been immersed in it on and off for four years.
But this is a different situation. Everyone can feel it.
Time is running out on their chances to change the roster. Even if it’s just to change the air in the locker room, time is running out.
As we’ve seen, it’s never too late for LeBron and Gilbert to find common ground. Winning cures all ills, and another championship run would erase a lot of damage.
But how likely is that if Cleveland is already bracing for a post-LeBron rebuild – especially in a world where the Warriors exist? They leave so little margin for error, especially considering only a title might satisfy LeBron.
There are definitely agendas behind these reports – from the more grounded (Windhorst’s) to the more sensational (Burge’s). But the underlying picture is emerging: Unless something changes soon – less likely considering the egos and stubbornness involved – the Cavs are headed toward a breaking point.