When LeBron James returned to Cleveland eight years ago as a member of the Miami Heat, he was reviled. When he came back Wednesday night, he was celebrated. The difference? The wine-colored banner celebrating the 2016 NBA championship that hangs in the rafters at Quicken Loans Arena.
That spring, James delivered his city a championship.
It’s the defining moment of his time in Cleveland, an accomplishment that took the sting out of him leaving for Los Angeles two years later. But it wasn’t the most impressive thing he did while in town.
Taking the Cavaliers to last year’s Finals — where they were promptly swept by Golden State — looks more improbable every day, especially when you see his old team try to win without him, losing Wednesday for 14th time this season, this time 109-105 to the Lakers.
These Cavaliers, with an NBA-worst two wins, haven’t turned over much of their roster from last year’s Eastern Conference champs. And if LeBron could lead that team deep into the playoffs, couldn’t he do it with the Lakers?
The fact the he’s LeBron James is still the best argument.
“He’s done this everywhere he’s gone,” Cleveland coach Larry Drew said before the game. “He is such a dominant force. And his will to win, his will to compete — either you get on board or you don’t.
“…There’s no doubt about it, he’s a special player. He’s been a winner everywhere he’s gone.”
Seeing James play against the backdrop of his old team makes it seem so obvious. Even if the Cavaliers had Kevin Love and George Hill healthy, they’re still not a very good team even though only two players who scored in Game 4 of the Finals last season — James and Jeff Green — are no longer on the Cleveland roster.
In James’ absence, the team fired its coach. The Cavaliers sent shooting guard J.R. Smith home after he said the team was tanking. Things were so bad, Drew was even asked if he was coaching to win games.
That’s what he left behind. What does he have now? That’s still hard to know for sure.
Rival players and opposing scouts still aren’t sure if this Lakers team is any good, and nights like Wednesday show why that is.
The Lakers, knowing that Cleveland would play with energy, didn’t match it. They got beat on the boards, letting Tristan Thompson grab 10 offensive rebounds. They didn’t consistently compete defensively, half-heartedly closing on shooters and failing to even get a hand up on other occasions.
They were sloppy with the basketball, didn’t create turnovers and botched a late-game defensive possession that gave Kyle Korver, a marksman, a clean look at a game-tying three-pointer that, fortunately for the Lakers, he missed.
That was all bad.
But the Lakers also created many easy baskets, albeit against one of the worst defenses in the NBA. They came back from eight points down midway through the fourth quarter. They closed out a win on the last game of a road trip, and with a holiday waiting for them on Thursday, that’s not very easy to do.
That was good — but so much of that was because of James.
When he left the game in the first half, the Lakers went down by 11, and he was the one orchestrating the comeback, hitting a three, getting an assist, grabbing rebounds and making layups to tie the game. And in the fourth quarter, it was James who scored eight straight points to put the Lakers in position to win.
The real glimmers of optimism came from Lonzo Ball, who attacked the rim with an aggression that coach Luke Walton called one of his favorite aspects of the game.
Kyle Kuzma knocked down a clutch fourth-quarter three-pointer, and JaVale McGee had big plays on both ends of the floor in crunch time.
James might be able to drag the Lakers to the playoffs this season if those other pieces don’t fully contribute.
But it’d be a whole lot easier if they did.
James didn’t need much to get Cleveland to the NBA Finals a year ago, but that was in the Eastern Conference, where the competition is lesser than in the West.
This year, his first in the West, it’ll take more.
“He’s shown he can carry a ball club” Drew said.