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90 Minutes to Save a Season, and Era, in Cleveland

LeBron James in a game against Toronto in 2016. (Dalton Christopher)

Last night LeBron James blocked Jimmy Butler’s potential game winning shot to set up a game winning mid range jumper with exactly one second left on the clock.

It was a much needed overtime win for a mightily struggling Cavaliers team. The season had come off the rails in the month of January with embarrassing losses on national television to top teams in the league, and some teams that weren’t exactly close to being the elite of the league.

The realization had become the writing on the wall. The Kyrie Irving trade had failed.

While Cleveland had added former MVP Derrick Rose, former Finals MVP Dwyane Wade, noted defensive specialist Jae Crowder and elite breakout superstar Isaiah Thomas, they hadn’t quite replaced what they lose with Irving.

While Irving had led Boston to the top spot in the East, Cleveland had plummeted after a long winning streak to close 2017. Beginning with a Christmas Day loss to Golden State, Cleveland’s entire narrative had changed.

The season started with LeBron James being named a favorite for the MVP award, now that conversation had transitioned to James Harden. While LeBron James had promised to invest in the future and restoration of Derrick Rose, Rose had missed significant time to another injury. During his time away, he discretely got married while telling the team he was evaluating his future. Jae Crowder had come into the season motivated to win a championship, but had fallen short of his past performances. Isaiah Thomas had become a glaring issue. While he had only played fifteen games this season, his health was still in question. He hadn’t performed to his standards, shooting abysmally low from the field.  His defensive efficiency had dropped to last in the league.  While Wade had been a highlight of Cleveland’s second unit, it was clear he had struggled transitioning into the role of a reserve and had begun looking towards making things right in Miami as he entered the twilight of his career.

The problems didn’t end with the new additions.

J.R. Smith had noticeably declined his performance from past seasons, going scoreless in several games while commenting to the media early in the season that he felt Wade shouldn’t start over him. Tristan Thompson had stopped his emergence as a star after the 2016 NBA Finals and had become a sticking point in the media and sports circles for his relationship with the Kardashians. Iman Shumpert had missed the majority of the season with small injuries over and over again. Kevin Love had a mysterious illness that caused him to leave the Quicken Loans Arena in the early moments of a blow out loss on national television, a decision that prompted an air it out meeting the following Monday at practice. He then broke his hand in a meaningless loss that will sideline him until the final two weeks of the regular season.

Then there was the media. Thomas had consistently taken digs at Love and other members of the roster and coaching staff in interviews. There were the reports that despite LeBron’s alleged lack of a relationship with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, Thomas had grown quite fond of Gilbert and was meeting with him on a regular basis. Far more than that of James of head coach Ty Lue. Thomas had also spent the majority of his time in Cleveland discussing Boston, and how he never wanted to leave. Media members accused of him of being stuck on an issue that had long past.

LeBron James had begun the season at Media Day telling reporters his intentions to retire in Cleveland had not changed, and prior to the Orlando game last night he was answering questions about declining to waive his no trade clause to help Cleveland reset. He’d even shot down rumors of an alleged planned meeting with the heels of the NBA, the Golden State Warriors, this upcoming summer.

Safe to say, in a matter of 30 days the entire season had taken a sudden and vicious turn, taking the entire era of LeBron V2 into an even more sudden and violent screeching halt.

Then LeBron hit the game winner against Orlando.

A moment that left the entire bench in joy, celebrating with one another. It was a moment the team needed.

When the clock approached noon on Thursday, ahead of the 3 p.m. trade deadline, everything changed.

Cleveland sent Channing Frye and Isaiah Thomas to Los Angeles in exchange for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. They threw in their 2018 protected first round draft pick to seal the deal, hindering them from using their lucrative Brooklyn pick, a pick that could help reset the franchise in June, or add to the new depth of young talent Cleveland added Thursday.

Minutes later, Cleveland unloaded Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert and Jae Crowder in a deal that resulted in the acquisitions of George Hill and Rodney Hood.

In a surprising move, Cleveland dealt Dwyane Wade to Miami for a protected second round pick. Wade had expressed interest in returning to his second home of Miami as he was informed his role would be reduced in favor of rookie Cedi Osman. The deal was the first transaction Cleveland had made with Miami since the sign and trade that sent LeBron James to Miami in 2010.

While Cleveland attempted to put deals together involving J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and the Brooklyn pick for DeAndre Jordan and Kemba Walker, no deal was made as the deadline approached.

Cleveland now has a completely different roster. The average age of the team prior to Thursday was 30, it is now 27. Cleveland had previously been labeled as the oldest team in the league, a fact that became clearer as Cleveland struggled to defend or even score at times.

While they have gotten younger, they’ve also opened two roster spots that could be filled by players looking for buy outs as the playoffs approach.

They’ve also increased their payroll, but for Gilbert, it’s all an effort to retain James in June while remaining competitive in the long run. Either James leaves and Cleveland has the Brooklyn pick to help reset with a roster of contracted players with young ages and versatile positions, or James stays and the team improves to challenge Golden State over the next year until free agency strikes in 2019.

While it is heavily expected James will leave Cleveland once again in June, it is now a fair question to ponder where he would go. Los Angeles has been heavily rumored for over a year, and they have space for two max contract players with the loss of Clarkson and Nance Jr. off their books. A run at Oklahoma’s Paul George and LeBron James could be a target for the Lakers. Recent reports indicate Los Angeles will shift their focus towards 2019’s class of Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard, or even Anthony Davis. George has repeated to the media this season he very well could resign with Oklahoma to continue to play with Westbrook and Anthony.

Houston comes into play, but that also presents challenges. Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza will be free agents, and with James refusing to take anything less than a max level contract, that could present challenges in the books to resign Paul and Ariza while signing James. A trio of James Harden, Chris Paul and LeBron James could be interesting, but would need a lot of maneuvering to work.

San Antonio continues to be inserted into the conversation, but with rumors of Kawhi not wanting to sign an extension and test free agency, the main attraction would be the opportunity to play under James’ first true elite head coach in the NBA, something that has eluded him his entire career. The Spurs would need to find another elite star, but that’s never been an issue for them.

2019 seems more reasonable to expect larger free agent moves, but James will likely opt out of his current deal regardless if he stays in Cleveland or not. James has never opted in to the next season of his deals since returning to Cleveland.

Many of Cleveland’s problems go back to a stalemate between Dan Gilbert and LeBron James. Gilbert has opened his checkbook to bring in all the talent James has requested, and but continues to insert himself into basketball operations including not resigning GM David Griffin and agreeing to deal Irving, a deal against James’ preferences. A deal was on the table for Paul George and Eric Bledsoe for Irving, but James refused to commit long term to Gilbert, so Gilbert didn’t pursue the deal. The problem is clear. James has insisted upon his return he is here for the long term, saying multiple times since 2014, even this season’s media day, he intends to finish his career in Cleveland. The problem is James refuses to give leverage to Gilbert. James has opted out of deals in 2015 and 2016 to create new deals. He refuses to sign long term deals with the Cavaliers out of fear of losing his maximum earning potential as the salary cap continues to grow, and the fear of committing long term and the franchise getting too comfortable with him, making them lose their drive to continue to keep the roster at it’s absolute peak. James often felt in his first stint in Cleveland that Gilbert was unwilling to bring in the help he needed to compete.

James now is faced with an ultimatum, so is Gilbert.

James has a versatile roster, a roster full of young wing players and mainstays from the 2016 Championship run. With no Irving, he is the clear number one option. If he stays, he has a roster built for the long term with young improving players and the opportunity to bring in free agents in 2019.

If he leaves this summer, it is a cloudy future. No team presently constructed offers a win now opportunity. 2019 could offer more options, but James will enter his 16th season in 2018-2019 and turn 34 years old.

Father time is undefeated, and James now must decide if one more grand move to build one more super team for another run at a Championship is worth leaving home one more time, or does he stay home and continue to compete in an improving Eastern Conference into his twilight years in Northeast Ohio? Cleveland will undoubtedly always be a contender as long as James is on the roster, but without a veteran GM and an owner willing to place his faith in that said GM, there will never be certainty in Cleveland.

The decision is mighty, and time is running out.

Thursday’s move however, may make the decision a little more difficult.

LeBron James in a game against Toronto in 2016. (Dalton Christopher)

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