When LeBron James made his Decision 2.0 and chose to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the local fans were quick to find ways to erase all those jersey-burning videos and welcome James as the prodigal son. After all, the relationship between Cleveland and its sports teams is one of pain, misfortune, and curses. The Cavs have never won an NBA title, same as the Browns who have never won a Super Bowl (though they won 5 NFL Championships), and even the Indians, whose last World Series win came in 1948. With LeBron back in town, it seems as if the city is cashing in on some positive karma and finally has hope for its first professional title in 50 years.
When he left 4 years ago to form a super team in Miami, Cleveland mourned the departure of the best player in the league, the one that transformed the franchise singlehandedly. In his 7 years in Cleveland, LeBron James took over one of the worst franchises in the NBA and made it a perennial contender, making the playoffs in the final 5 years, taking them to their only Finals in franchise history (2007), and winning two MVP awards to top it all off. His final two seasons saw the Cavs surpass 60 wins (the Cavs had never achieved this feat), but it all ended with two painful playoff departures.
After LeBron left, the Cavaliers immediately went back to their mediocre roots. The 2008-09 squad won 66 games, while the same franchise from 2010 to 2013 won 64 games total. In the meantime, LeBron continued to establish himself as the best player of his generation, reaching the Finals during his 4 years with the Heat, winning 2 titles and taking home 2 additional MVP's.
Still very much in his prime, LeBron will be embarking on a mission to add to his legend with a completely different squad in Cleveland than what he had in Miami. The public interest in this story is well represented in the early futures odds for the 2015 NBA champion, as the Cavs are the top bet on the board at 3/1, well ahead of the defending champ Spurs (9/2), and the Bulls and Thunder (13/2). With expectations being this high, will LeBron and the Cavs be able to break the curse? Today we take a look at the key factors that will determine just how good Cleveland can be.
Trusting on Youth
Before LeBron announced his return, the Cavaliers had experienced some good fortune of their own, as they won the NBA Draft Lottery even as they had very slim odds of doing so. This marked their third win in 4 years, so at least their recent failures on the court have led to a slew of prospects that certainly played a factor in luring back King James.
On their current active roster of 13 players, Cleveland features 9 that are 23 years old or younger, including their 3 first-overall picks: Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett, and Andrew Wiggins. With only LeBron and center Anderson Varejao expected to be the most prominent veterans on the squad, the Cavs will be sure to trot out one of the most dynamic lineups in the league, which is certain to be a huge competitive advantage in the slower Eastern Conference.
When LeBron arrived in Miami to form the Big Three, many questioned his decision to be Dwayne Wade's sidekick, even as he ended up becoming the alpha dog gradually. In this new stage, James will undoubtedly be the leader from day 1, helping his young teammates to improve alongside the league's top performer.
This surplus of young talent also has given the Cavs a lot of flexibility if they choose to go in a different direction with their roster, prompting the hottest trade rumor of the offseason.
Looking for Love
LeBron's two title teams in Miami featured a very strong veteran supporting cast, so even as it may seem tempting to trot out a bunch of twenty-somethings and outrun everybody, the NBA has shown us time and again that experience is essential during the playoffs. And this is why Kevin Love to the Cavs just appears to make perfect sense.
Early reports suggest that both sides are negotiating seriously, with the Minnesota Timberwolves asking for Bennett, Wiggins, and 2015's first-round pick to hand Kevin Love to the Cavaliers. While it may appear to be a hefty bounty, with LeBron's window to chase championships becoming smaller, Love could become the perfect companion to form the new Big 3 with James and Kyrie.
The caveat for Love is that he has never been to lead his previous teams to the playoffs during his 6 years in the league, but even then the numbers show that he has been among the best players in the NBA. He is a physical force that averages a double-double for his career and that is about to hit his prime at age 26. If the blockbuster trade is consummated, maybe the 3/1 odds will be reduced a bit more and make the Cavaliers an even bigger favorite.
Remembering the endless heartbreak of Cleveland sports makes it hard to trust any team from this city, but the Cavs will try to change the narrative and fulfill LeBron's promise of delivering a title in his home state.
With the Eastern Conference being a mess in 2013-14, the Cavs will enter next season with a nice head start. Also, teams like the Heat and Pacers have weakened their rosters, while the Knicks are still in rebuilding mode despite the presence of Phil Jackson, and only the Bulls appear to be in position to challenge Cleveland.
The problem is that while LeBron can cruise all the way to the NBA Finals, the West has many threats. With Oklahoma, San Antonio, Houston, Golden State, and the Clippers on track to be the forces of the Western Conference, it is clear that even the fifth or sixth-best team of the conference is better than the top team in the East.
If the Love trade ends up happening, and especially if he signs long-term as he has suggested, Cleveland will be in better position to win than it is now, though I think it will take at least an extra year for the Cavs to hit their stride and fight for an NBA title. LeBron is far and away the best player of his generation, but he cannot win it all by himself.