This week LeBron James makes his return to Cleveland for the first time since “The Decision” back in July. Needless to say, this will be a landmark moment for the city as we officially come face to face with the ramifications of “The Decision.” Since this is such a huge event I will be focusing the majority of the week on “The Return.” Today’s entry, part 2, will focus on the honeymoon phase between LeBron James, the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland… for Part 1: The Marriage click here.
On opening night of the 2003 NBA season LeBron poured in 25 points, 6 rebounds, and 9 assists. Cleveland was living on cloud nine. The Cavaliers had instantly restored credibility to the organization. LeBron became an overnight sensation and took the basketball world by storm. Any questions about how he would perform were answered quickly and with authority. The honeymoon had officially begun.
In Lebron’s first year the Cavaliers improved from a pitiful 17 wins to 35 wins. The team finished 9th in the Eastern Conference and just barely missed out on making the playoffs. LeBron won the rookie of the year award and averaged a solid 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assist. He was just as advertised coming out of high school and for the first time in a long time Cleveland had a growing sense of optimism. Things would only continue to get better from there.
During the next three seasons Cleveland watched LeBron become not just a man, but THE MAN in the NBA. He was everywhere. His face was plastered on billboards. He was appearing in commercials. He was endorsing products left and right. He was bringing the spotlight to Cleveland, something no one ever thought they would live to see. Cleveland mattered, the Cavs mattered… we mattered.
In addition to all of the off court accomplishments, LeBron was doing just as much if not more on it. The Cavaliers increased their win totals and standing in the conference each of Lebron’s first four years. The Cavaliers also managed to make the playoffs in both the 05-06 and 06-07 seasons.
In their first playoff run, the Cavaliers would fall to the Detroit Pistons in the conference semifinals. However, this was looked at as an accomplishment rather than a disappointment. The Pistons had a championship core in place. The Cavs were still trying to find their way. Despite the fact that a championship was the ultimate goal, losing to the Pistons was seen as a learning experience. It was this type of experience that all of the great players in league history had to face before achieving greatness.
The following year saw the Cavs face off against the Pistons in a playoff rematch from the year before. However, this time it was for the conference championship. The Pistons were favored once again. The Cavs had stormed out to one of the best seasons in franchise history and had high hopes going in. Cleveland believed that this was the year. This would be the year that the Cavs would exorcise the ghosts of Cleveland’s playoff past and take the title. Little did we know what we were in store for.
The 06-07 conference finals will forever be remember in the annals of Cleveland sports lore. Not only were the Cavaliers able to upset the Detroit Pistons 4 game to 2, but we would witness one of the all-time greatest performances in NBA Playoff history… “The 48 Special.” I still get goosebumps watching the highlights from that game.
During game five LeBron put on a show. He scored 48 points, a new cavalier playoff record, and single handedly led the Cavs to victory. He scored 25 straight points for the Cavaliers and 29 of 30 overall down the stretch. It was an array of circus shots, the likes of which are normally reserved for a backyard game of horse. LeBron was in the zone and in doing so took a gigantic leap towards greatness.
This performance was, and quite frankly still is the defining moment of his NBA career. It ranks up their with Jordan’s 63 in the Garden, Magic playing all 5 positions during a single NBA finals game, or Reggie Miller’s epic 8 points in 9 seconds. If there were any questions remaining as to how good LeBron could be they were officially answered. For any other fan of any other team in the league it was a terrifying performance. “He did what?” “He can do that?” LeBron had figured it out and it was amazing… because he was ours.
Gone were the days of fearing the superstar coming in and ripping out our hearts. Gone were the painful memories of “The Shot.” All of that was history. We officially had the best basketball player on the planet wearing Cleveland across his chest. We would finally become an unstoppable force primed for an epic championship dynasty. If Jordan could achieve all that he had achieved despite a 2 year absence, what could a bigger, faster, and stronger version accomplish? We were ready to find out.
Unfortunately, the Cavs would go on to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the finals. It was agonizing. Again Cleveland was so close, only to fall ever so short once again. But this time it was different. It felt different. It looked different. It even smelled different. This wasn’t a team that broke through just before a championship window closed. This wasn’t a team that was built to win the title and fell short. This was a team still being built. It was a team that was still a few pieces away from being what many would consider a title contender year in and year out. LeBron carried the Cavaliers on his back to within 4 wins of the NBA title, the closest they had ever been. There was reason to be optimistic. If he could do that with a team of castoffs and lower tier free agents, what could he do with elite teammates?
There was a new-found sense of hope within the city and within the Cavaliers. LeBron had made the leap to greatness…this was our time as a city to achieve what we had dreamed about for so long. Looking back now it’s clear that the sweep at the hands of the Spurs was the end of the honeymoon period.
Gone were the expectations of continued improvement and simply making the playoffs. The playoff run of 06-07 ushered in a new era for Cleveland basketball, looking back now it almost seems as if the run to the finals killed the innocence of the Cavaliers. From this point on they were expected to compete for a title, anything else was a failure. Now there was pressure. Gone were the days of being the underdog. And in a way, gone were the days of true excitement and being able to enjoy this team. Every move was scrutinized, every loss raised red flags.
There was also a more alarming issue involving LeBron…
The following season would be the first of a three year contract extension that would keep him a Cavalier through the 2009-2010 season. It was a surprising decision as LeBron chose to leave two years on the table. As an extension of his original rookie deal, LeBron could have signed for 5 years. Following the lead of LeBron, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade would do the same. At the time it was viewed as a revolutionary business decision; leaving money and years on the table in order to leave their options open sooner rather than later.
However, thanks to this decision, a black cloud was cast over the Cavs and the city. The countdown was on until the day LeBron would become a free agent. The time to win was now at all costs. Despite all of the awards and accolades in his first four years everything was about to change for LeBron, the Cavaliers, and the City of Cleveland. We just didn’t know it at the time.
With the end of the 2006-2007 season and the loss in the NBA Finals to the Spurs, things would never really be the same…
The honeymoon was officially over…