CLEVELAND — “My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio…. In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”
LeBron James wrote that (with Lee Jenkins) in Sports Illustrated in 2014 to announce his return to Cleveland — and he lived up to that goal. He brought Cleveland a championship two years later, the first that city had seen in any sport in more than five decades. The hometown boy delivered.
Two year’s later, things feel decidedly different.
Is Friday night LeBron’s last game in a Cleveland Cavaliers’ uniform?
Will he leave Cleveland again as a free agent in 2018?
Nothing is set in stone, I don’t believe LeBron James has made a decision or picked a direction yet.
However, the more time spent around the team through the postseason, the more time spent watching the interactions of LeBron with teammates with management, the more time feeling the vibe around the franchise, the more it feels like the end of the relationship. It’s hard to ignore the vibe that he is leaving again. The two sides look tired of each other, or, to use the great phrasing of ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, there is an “organizational fatigue.”
It’s not something picked up in one key moment but rather in countless little ones.
It’s in the phrasing of comments LeBron has made, even over the course of these Finals. Any one of them, by themselves, could be dismissed, but taken as a group they point a direction. One headed out of town.
LeBron is too polished in interviews, too careful in his words and actions to have this many little things slip through.
“So I put our team in position to try to win a championship, to compete for a championship,” LeBron said after Game 1. “You know, it’s my job to make sure that we’re as focused, laser focused as possible, do my job, and continue to instill confidence into my teammates until the last horn sounds. That’s my job. That’s my responsibility. That’s my obligation, and I need to continue to do that, which I will.”
“Job,” “responsibility,” and “obligation” are not the words someone enjoying their situation uses. Taking out the trash or mowing the lawn are obligations.
Or, there is LeBron’s comment when questioned about not giving some kind of motivational speech to his team between the devastating end of the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 1.
“I mean, we’re in the NBA Finals. I mean, how much more picking up of teammates do you want me to do?” LeBron said.
Or, there is LeBron’s cold reception to team owner Dan Gilbert in a handshake line during the Finals.
Or, on Thursday, there was LeBron talking about the first time he left Cleveland, when that team was completely overmatched in terms of talent by the teams it had to beat. Those Cavaliers’ squads also lacked the mental skill of the teams they faced — a clear echo of this series.
“I felt like my first stint here I just didn’t have the level of talent to compete versus the best teams in the NBA, let alone just Boston,” LeBron said. “When you looked at (Rajon) Rondo and KG and Paul (Pierce) and Ray (Allen), you knew they were great basketball players. But not only great basketball players, you could see their minds were in it, too, when you were playing them.”
Then there was LeBron after the Game 3, talking wistfully about the ability of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to have an off night and the Warriors to have other stars (Kevin Durant, this time) who picks the team up. Unlike Cleveland, where LeBron has to play like Superman for the Cavaliers to even have a chance.
“You know, that’s why they’ve retooled this team, went out and got K.D. to where there’s really not much pressure on — you know, I won’t say any of them to score, but if one of them has a bad game, they have three or four guys that can actually pick up the load…
“So the best thing about their team is that if one of their stars goes down, they have two or three other stars that are still able to hold the ship until everybody gets back. Steph’s injury, him going down, K.D. and Klay (Thompson), who never misses a game, and Draymond (Green) still being in the lineup — if you look at the previous time when K.D. went down, the rest of those guys were in and held it until K.D. came back for the playoffs the year before that.”
It’s more than those comments and those moments. It’s the feel, the vibe around that team right now. It feels like the end of a relationship. The end of an era.
There’s no answer to where he will go, right now it’s as much an NBA intelligentsia parlor game as anything. The Lakers are a long shot. It’s hard to put a deal together to make him going to Houston work so that seems highly unlikely. Philadelphia has to get its own house in order first but may be the cleanest option. Maybe LeBron stays another year.
Fans in Cleveland recognize the end, and unlike 2010 seem to accept it — LeBron brought them the promised title, he has spent his money on education and charities in the region, he has not forsaken Cleveland and Akron. This time if he moves on, the feeling will be resignation rather than anger.
It feels like that time is coming.
But not for one more night. At least.