From First Pick to Conference Champs, Cleveland’s Native Son Strikes Again

By Vincent Frank

We witnessed history on Tuesday night. In his first season back as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James is leading his original team back to the NBA Finals. For the Cavaliers, it’s their first appearance in the Finals since the 2006-07 season.

For James himself, it’s a ridiculous fifth consecutive appearance in NBA’s championship series.

By virtue of a 30-point blowout win over the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland finished off an astonishing four-game sweep of a 60-win team. It did so with Kevin Love missing the entire series due to a shoulder injury. It did so with All-Star Kyrie Irving missing half the series.

In a true representation of why he’s the best basketball player in the planet, James absolutely took over. He dominated on both ends of the court, and at times, willed his Cavaliers to victory. He stood up to all the naysayers that indicated the first four in this string of five consecutive Finals appearances had more to do with his “supporting cast” in South Beach than anything else. In the process, James etched his name in the history book as one of the greatest basketball players to ever suit up.

It was less than one year ago that the Cavaliers won the lottery. Coming off yet another disastrous season, all hope seemed to rest on James’ decision. Would he return home for another shot at leading the team to a title? As the summer drew on, it became readily apparent that James was looking to return to his native Ohio. And once James did sign with the Cavaliers, expectations were ramped up. Could James bring more star power with him to Cleveland? Did he still have that type of pull?

Not too long after James returned to Cleveland, the team dealt No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and a former top pick in Anthony Bennett to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love. With all the components for a Big 3 on the roster, the Cavaliers set forth to bring that elusive title back to Cleveland.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t without hiccups and forks in the road. Halfway through the season, Cleveland stood at 20-20 and closer to ninth place in the Eastern Conference than the top seed. Drama started to unfold between James and new Cavaliers head coach David Blatt. There were also multiple reports that Ohio’s native son wasn’t fully meshing with Love.

As is the case in this social media world, everything was brought to the forefront—hyped up for page clicks, leading off news broadcasts. Meanwhile, there were widespread predictions of Cleveland demise. One would say, a false sense that this team was put together on a whim.

Was James the problem? Could Blatt be successful as a head coach in the NBA after spending most of his career coaching overseas? Was the “Big Three” an ill-fated attempt to duplicate what the Heat did with James? Overreactions turned into more pressing issues. Injuries piled up. The drama increased. More questions came to the surface.

But within less than two months, Cleveland was on a roll. From January 16th to February 26th, James and company won 17 of 19 games. This put the team right back into contention for one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference. It also proved that infusing so many moving parts into a real team couldn’t be done within the matter of a couple months.

Off the court, the biggest move came with James’ blessing. Picking up what many considered to be bad contracts and bad attitudes, the Cavaliers acquired Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from the New York Knicks for a bunch of used pieces. That move came in early January. It was also proceeded with Cleveland immediately losing four consecutive games—a result that led many to believe the Cavaliers were utilizing a fantasy basketball mentality to field a real team on the court. In addition to Smith and Shumpert, the team traded for former Denver Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov. That was also a move that many skeptics questioned. Multiple first-round picks for a backup center? Cleveland was surely in desperation mode.

Months later, Cleveland finds itself four wins from the first title in franchise history. It does so with Love sidelined and Irving banged up. It does so with so many skeptics still wondering how this team would perform in the vastly superior Western Conference. It does so with a 12-2 postseason record.

We sometimes fail to recognize greatness when it’s presented in front of us. James has now matched Michael Jordan with six NBA Finals appearances. He has led the team that had the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft to the brink of a championship. But none of this will matter to the skeptics. They will say he only has two titles to his name. They will then laugh at any type of comparison we want to draw to the greats of the past.

Unfortunately for those who love to hate on James, he’s back in the grandest of all spotlights for a fifth consecutive season. He’s accomplished a feat that very few before him have. And he’s only allowed this criticism to fuel his burning desire to bring a title back to Cleveland.

James looked us all in the eye with a poker face only a masked man could pull off, all the while dropping a royal flush on the table.

That’s the sign of greatness. And it has to be respected.

Photo: USA Today Sports