Cavaliers' LeBron era can be summed up in two words: The Incompetence

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

CLEVELAND – The Cleveland Cavaliers rode LeBron James to the 2016 NBA championship, and when you represent a city that hadn’t won squat since 1964, well, yeah, that counts for a lot.

So, they’ll always have that, at least. They’ll always have LeBron’s block and Kyrie Irving’s three and a parade that saw all of Northeast Ohio turn out.

And that’s about all they’ll have.

Around here they label their sporting failures with brief descriptions, so they can be summoned and cursed quickly. The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot.

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Maybe the greatest disaster in Cleveland sports history, though, is this one: The Incompetence.

The Cavs drafted LeBron James in 2003, and all these years later it seems all they’ll have to show for it is one NBA title.

One.

The greatest (or second-greatest) basketball player of all time came here, and the franchise — through an ill-fated parade of front-office staff, coaches, trades, draft picks, free-agent signings and so on — never could build much around LeBron.

LeBron James coasts to the basket in Game 3, but didn’t have a lot of help Wednesday night. (Getty Images)
LeBron James coasts to the basket in Game 3, but didn’t have a lot of help Wednesday night. (Getty Images)

Wednesday was more of the same. Cleveland lost 110-102 to the Golden State Warriors and now hopelessly trails 3-0 in the NBA Finals. LeBron had 33 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists, his 10th career triple-double in the Finals (a record, of course). It still wasn’t enough. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combined to go 3 of 15 from behind the arc, and the Cavs still couldn’t win at home.

You could say LeBron needs to score 50 for Cleveland to win, but he did that in Game 1 and the Cavs lost anyway.

Game 4 is here Friday, and with LeBron again a free agent, there is a strong likelihood it will be his last game in Cleveland as a Cavalier. He isn’t winning another one here. With Boston rising fast, he may not even be able to get back to another Finals to give it a shot. It’s why the final-minute mood inside Quicken Loans Arena was something from a wake, with fans shuffling out, sad and solemn.

It felt over — the game, these Finals, the LeBron era, even.

This will be the second time the franchise’s inability to build a team to put around James will run him off to greener pastures.

In 2010, he took his talents to Miami and won two titles with the Heat. He returned for the 2014-15 season and has been back in the Finals ever since. Now he’s expected to leave again to chase a title somewhere with the potential to beat the Warriors: Houston, Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Lakers.

In total, Cleveland will have had James for 11 seasons and won just one trophy. The Cavaliers only got a second chance because LeBron grew up down the road in Akron.

Through the lens of history, it’s almost impossible to fathom and will only get worse. Chicago had Michael Jordan for 13 seasons and won six titles. The Lakers had Magic Johnson for 13 and won five. Larry Bird delivered three to Boston in 13. Tim Duncan won five in 19 seasons for San Antonio. Kobe Bryant got five for the Lakers in 20. It goes on and on.

The great ones win titles, and the great franchises find ways to complement them with the needed tools. Cleveland was never really able to do that.

The Cavs never really got him a great coach. They never found him great supporting casts. The best superstar they ever paired with him was Kyrie Irving, who was critical in that lone championship. Cleveland traded him to Boston last summer in what might be a microcosm of what went wrong all these years.

For Irving, Cleveland received Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and what turned out to be the No. 8 pick in the 2018 draft.

Thomas had a busted hip, of course, and needed the ball way too much to be able to play alongside LeBron. He was such a liability, Cleveland had to package Channing Frye and its own first-round draft pick to ship him to the Lakers for Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson.

Nance Jr. has some potential, but he’s a bench player who’s scored 16 total points in these Finals. Clarkson has six points on 3-of-13 shooting in this series and did not play Wednesday.

Crowder didn’t fit well, either, and Cleveland gave up on him early in the season. He was packaged with Derrick Rose to Utah for Rodney Hood, who had 15 in Game 3 but barely played earlier in the series. Hood’s a free agent after the season. As for Zizic, he’s a project big man who’s played three garbage-time minutes in the Finals.

To recap: In terms of helping LeBron win in these Finals, in a critical season with the championship window closing, Kyrie Irving essentially netted the Cavs some decent substitution minutes from Larry Nance Jr. and one good game out of Hood.

And you wonder why LeBron has to leave?

Good luck with the No. 8 pick.

This has been going on for years, and while there is always this excuse or that explanation (and some of it is on the decisions coming courtesy of LeBron), the reality is it just didn’t work. Don’t let that one glorious June cloud reality. There have been long playoff runs and heroic efforts, but while much was won, so much potential was lost.

After the game, LeBron talked about the pressure of having to play the Warriors, or any team with so many weapons, so many leaders, so many options. He talked about old battles against the Spurs, where “Manu [Ginobili], Tim [Duncan], Tony [Parker] and [Gregg] Popovich will make you pay.” Or how against these Warriors, it’s “Draymond [Green] and Klay, Steph and K.D.”

He spoke wistfully about what it’s like to have such teammates.

“If one of them has a bad game, they have three or four guys who can pick up the load,” LeBron said.

That’s how championship teams are built. That’s what he had in Miami. That’s what he had, fleetingly, here. That’s what he may have again somewhere else. Good players. Good coaches. Good chemistry. All surrounding a great player.

Fifteen years after they drafted maybe the greatest player of them all, the Cavs are about to watch him jump town for a second time.

They’ll have just one title to show for it. Just one, and eternity to try to explain how and why.

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