Shedding the Cavaliers’ Defining Delusion

We shared a delusion once. That delusion makes us, in spite of our numerous differences, comrades.

Like any folie-a-plusieurs, we would describe the details of our Summer 2010 delusion differently, but knowingly recognize a vague description – we recognize that dream where you are futile chasing something, but everything beyond the theme vary dramatically. Such was the case four years ago: in June and July 2010, we saw a Cleveland team built in the sky, lofted by LeBron James and The Definitive Supporting Cast™, but we differed whether we would be pairing god-king Shapur I James with Bosh, with Amar’e, or with Joe Johnson. Different perspectives of the same dream.

This is a story to which we know the ending. Fans chased a tantalizing future, as though each honest keystroke on a message board or call to ESPN 850 brought us a step closer to grasping that dynasty; we looked with pride on our patiently constructed sandcastle rationalizations. But we were chasing something we could never catch; our earnest pursuits, stretched breathless though they were, fell short of this delusional dynasty that took smug root in Miami.

After seven years of being unable to recruit more than Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall to Cleveland, some of us believed that we could have assembled an unprecedented superteam. Cleveland fans built up expectations; they collapsed. Contrasted with the intricacy of our plans, we learned a very simple lesson.

Mistake: We tried to rationalize an incapable supporting cast.

Solution: Don’t do that.

Perhaps the author should clarify whence and for whom he speaks: LeBron James was not the first player that this John Grimm has seen leave Cleveland, but eleven-year-olds are not known for their prowess in concocting Xanatos schemes to ensure Jim Thome’s return. Nor did every single Cleveland sports fan in Northeast Ohio partake in the insanity of the LeBron scenarios – some kept more sober evaluations. Perhaps it’s difficult for that demographic to relate to the delusion. However we arrived at the conclusion, Cleveland’s formerly mad and sane alike have agreed to avoid starting up insane schemes four years later.

Unfortunate, then, that insane schemes found us from without.

The spectacle that has taken form in the Cleveland blogscape of late, The Return, was not a Cleveland creation. It couldn’t have been: Cleveland fans got the point pretty clearly on this author’s birthday four years ago, July 8th, 2010, when James tried to tax-dodge public opinion on a team change through a charitable organization, while making himself unmistakably clear.

With this image still clear in Cleveland’s mind for years after the fact, Cleveland could not possibly have been the first to raise the prospect of a LeBron James return to Cleveland, flagrantly counterfactual in a way that our innocent if not innocuous assumptions of 2010 never were. Cleveland was decisively instructed that LeBron James didn’t want to be here, and if the jerseys as bridges ablaze were any indication, the feeling was mutual. Cleveland’s residents have had no reason to believe LeBron James would return while he was still a title contender unto himself, and many didn’t want him to – many still don’t want him to.

The Return is too out-of-place rhetorically to be a Cleveland creation. Those who witnessed the events of four years ago – LeBron’s departure and Dan Gilbert’s homeric hymn to Comic Sans slamming the door behind him – would not have any reason to believe that the return is possible. If it’s a fantasy, it’s one transplanted from a foreign psychoscape.

The narrative is so foreign that it’s almost overkill to note that The Return has concrete origins, which Mike Mayer detailed over at Rebuilding Since 1964, with national Yahoo! writer Adrian Wojnarowski, who connected James’s agent Rich Paul with Tristan Thompson and the Cavaliers and explained why LeBron’s return to Cleveland would be logical. Thus the origins of The Return, thus the extrinsic creation of fantasy.

So if it were a creation of Wojnarowski, then his later criticism of Cleveland for entertaining the idea of the return would be inane – being the set-up man for his own joke. This tired double-bind, which Mayer suggested, would be that Woj invented a narrative that outlived its usefulness, at which point Woj turned on it as being foolish. This would have been a tremendously disconcerting act by a national writer: creating a fantasy, imposing it upon Cleveland, and then criticizing Cleveland for having a fantasy imposed upon it. It would make any sense for a non-sociopathic sapient human to do this.

So rather than accuse Wojnarowski of being a sociopath or non-sapient, there would need to be something more to the tale that Woj created The Return narrative in 2013 and then took that same narrative out back for a down-home whooping. Indeed there is: Woj was not its creator, and it was not born in 2013. This was no national media invention, and its origins were much earlier – in January 2012.

The Return received life at the hands of Sam Amico from Fox Sports Ohio.

It’s an article that no longer exists on the Fox Sports Ohio website, and remnants only exist of portions posted on message boards. In its entirety, it is preserved here. The excerpt that garnered everyone’s attention, however, was the following:

Now, there is talk that James is less-than-thrilled with certain aspects of the Heat organization. Sources in Miami say that while James still thoroughly enjoys playing alongside fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he doesn’t particularly care for the heavy-handed and disciplined style of team president Pat Riley.

James can opt out of his contract at the end of the 2013-14 season, and speculation is he will strongly consider it if Riley remains in his current role. And the team James would be eyeballing most in free agency, say those close to the situation, would be the Cavs.

This was it. An article on FSO heralded the origin of The Return, from those unnamed few who are “close to the situation.” This was back in January 2012, when Cleveland’s hatred for LeBron remained rather uniformly fervent. If the prospect of a return makes no sense due to Cleveland’s continued disdain for LeBron now, in 2014, after LeBron has opted out of his contract, the barriers to credence were unfathomably high in 2012.

Predictably, reception of the article ranged from disbelief to extreme disbelief. Amico’s job is to report what he hears; granted, of course, the surprisingly effective secrecy of the LeBron ring creates plenty of reason to doubt sources’ reliability, but Amico reported what he heard, that this report existed is nevertheless tremendously interesting. Someone close to LBJ believed LeBron to Cleveland in 2014 was a possibility when the Cleveland-LeBron tension was at its most fervent. It was an absurd proposal at that time – so absurd, so implausible for an Ohio sports reporter to throw out there that one can deride its inherent nonsense or assume that there was some measure of impossible truth to it.

The premises of the proposal have changed over time, making things simultaneously more and less likely. Cleveland’s hostility to the idea has faded, as has the then-Romantic perception of Kyrie Irving as a nascent superstar; two first-overall selections have joined the Cavaliers since 2012 as have two new head coaches. Just as importantly, Miami’s calculations have changed; Wade has faded faster than was thought likely but Miami has won two championships. Ultimately, it was this last fact that has likely made the greatest difference; Ringe über Alles sent LeBron packing for South Beach, and moving to Miami did not change that overriding priority. LeBron had no loyalty to Cleveland, and there’s no reason to believe that he’ll show loyalty to Pat Riley unless Riley can put together a more attractive championship package than any other team.

This is not an indictment of LeBron; the nature of professional sports breeds this nihilism. He will earn more or less the same amount of money with any team, since no team can offer him more than the max, and no team will offer him indefinite max contracts, which is as much a result of the owners making business decisions as much as the fact that a fanbase will turn against any star whose contract stands in the way of a championship. Loyalty would need to be mutual for fans’ cries to be meaningful; failing that, LeBron’s mercurial nature is not morally wrong: it simply is. It makes no more sense than tearfully whispering ‘Benedict Arnold’ to a gas station nozzle.

It was unpleasant that the transactionality of professional sports was so bluntly articulated on July 8th, 2010, but it was an intervention. Four years ago, the Cleveland zeitgeist had a problem; we recognized it and corrected it. Our drunken delusions of Summer 2010 have been slapped sober; Cleveland was clearly instructed that projecting karmic justice onto occurrences was inconsequential. Whether it dulce et decorum for Cleveland to receive three top picks in four years because of poor roster management is of no more consequence than to ask whether it was fair that Cleveland could not recruit even one top-flight free agent because of simple disinterested geography, whether it was fair that the Cavaliers fanbase was saddled with management incapable of delivering a title when the best basketball player on Earth is on one’s team.

Attempting to say that what has occurred is right or wrong – as some Cleveland fans tried to do in 2010 and as Simmons did in May – provides an adorable example of the bargaining stage of mourning; despite the retroactive amusement, the moralizing remains otherwise uninteresting. Cavaliers fans were dealt a tough break in 2014, and Cavaliers fans did not have any moral high ground; Cavaliers fans were thereafter granted substantial luck in the 2011 and 2014 lottery selections, and these same fans should not apologize for this perceived karmic debt any more than Spurs fans should organize apology tours because the S.S. San Antonio is captained by the sea-tested Gregg Popovich.

So facts it shall be: four years ago, this author figuratively hallucinated. He looked upon a terrible roster, tried to rationalize it, and believed that there was a good chance LeBron James would return – the 2010-11 Cavaliers would be abysmal without him, this was clear, but it was not at that point clear that victory was LeBron’s holy of holies.

Victory was LeBron’s sanctum sanctorum. The Cavaliers were abysmal. Effect, meet cause.

Facts once more: Cleveland fans may never move forgive the Akron native, but the team has moved past the sad reality of the past several years, a truth that haunted the team from 2010 until Thursday, June 26th, 2014: the Cavaliers were a team defined by one player who was not on their roster.

After drafting Andrew Wiggins and hiring David Blatt, the Cavaliers fanbase has a very solid, very compelling team in front of them. This team has $13M in cap space, the potential to free up more, as well as Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, solid contributors in Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, and a roster filled with players that might uncontroversially be described as unknowns – reasons for optimism exist in the cases of Karasev, Bennett, and Zeller, but neutrally, unknowns they remain. Despite the imperfections and lack of guarantees on the roster, this is a contender for one of the better teams in the East as-is. In 2014, one can regard the squad and sober conclude that the team – if they use all of their assets, including their cap space – could make a stirring run in the playoffs without LeBron.

Going into 2014 free agency, LeBron James is far from irrelevant. Any team that acquires James receives a franchise-altering boost. Cleveland is no exception to this fact, but there is a difference, a substantial one, that separates the current Cavaliers from their past, as well as from Miami: LeBron would instantly become the best player on the franchise, but he would not be the franchise. Without LeBron James, the Heat as a dynasty collapse; without LeBron James, the Cavaliers did collapse. They were (in Miami’s case, are) teams sartorially focused on LeBron. With the Heat, he would be a centerpiece of a title contender; with the Cavaliers, the best player on an otherwise intriguing and extremely talented team. Cosmically sardonic though it is, the roster evolution that has led to Cleveland being able to leave James behind is the very same roster evolution that makes the LeBron to Cleveland rumors as plausible as they are.

As for the singular question that prompted all of this – will The Return occur? – it will draw forth a sea of ink. In the upcoming week, it’s all but guaranteed that information will come up from sources that range from unreliable to, perhaps, borderline unethical. Bosh and Wade have made substantial sacrifices to ensure LeBron’s return. Details will arise, and realities will be made clear.

More importantly, substantially, is the change that the past four years have ushered. Four years ago, this author shared a delusion with a great many Cleveland fans that LeBron would be willing to return to Cleveland based on loyalty. This delusion made us comrades because we were wrong about a great many things, and sharing a national audience for our folly is a lesson of the sort that is both unmistakeable and bond-forming. Four years later, we comrades can look on this same roster with the clear eyes that our penance granted us and realize that LeBron joining the Cavaliers would doubtless be franchise-altering. For the first time in a very long time, however, it would not define the franchise.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have outgrown their defining delusion.


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