- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
A week has passed and life has moved on for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat since the earth stopped for LeBron's return to Cleveland.
The Heat have won five straight ahead of Wednesday's game at Utah and likely feel emboldened to take their place back in the championship conversation, even if they have yet to actually earn that role. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers -- losers of four straight by margins of 19, 28, 34 (to Minnesota!) and 10 points before Tuesday night's game at Philadelphia -- look worse than ever, shorn of seven years of swagger and of national interest now that the Big Guy is gone and the Big Game has passed. Thanks to that performance last week in which hardly any of them showed up when everyone was watching, they're shorn, too, of the chance to gain revenge on the one who scorned them. Ten of Cleveland's 13 losses have been by 10 or more points. After seven years of lurking near a title, the Cavaliers have become an exceptionally bad team in a league full of them.
James may always be the easy target of Cleveland's anger. But now that the LeBron jerseys have been burned, the extra security has returned to writing parking tickets and the traitor has exacted his revenge in the form of 38 points in a blowout win, it is obvious that the real culprit for the smoldering pile of ashes that is the Cavaliers is their owner, Dan Gilbert.
Gilbert has been riding a populist anti-LeBron wave since his comments shortly after the star left town, and it has allowed him to escape virtually all criticism and culpability for what at this moment is looking like a lost season.
Watching Cleveland lose at home to Boston last week in the game before the team fizzled in the showdown with the Heat is proof enough that the Cavaliers did not have a Plan B in the event that James left, a responsibility that falls on the shoulders of the owner -- who not only lost his best player, but also fired the coach and parted ways with the general manager last offseason. Those three were responsible for the two best years in Cavaliers history. It is Gilbert, and not James, who is primarily to blame for the state of the franchise.
During the epic night last Thursday, there was hatred on the faces of the some of the fans, frighteningly contorted expressions that suggest James represented more to them than a player who changed teams. Some wore T-shirts that read "The Lyin' King" -- a play on his "King James" nickname -- along with a James quote promising his determination to bring a title to Cleveland. Maybe they believed James belonged to them forever.
Or maybe the anger -- psychologists call it a "secondary emotion" -- was the manifestation of another reality: It may be generations before this team gets close to the peak again.
The Cleveland franchise has been in existence since 1970; and only twice have the Cavs ever been serious NBA title contenders -- first with the Mark Price/Ron Harper/Brad Daugherty teams of the late-'80s/early-'90s whose playoff runs always seemed to end at Michael Jordan, and subsequently during the LeBron era. In 40 years, the Cavaliers have been to the conference finals three times, twice with James in uniform. In 2006-07, LeBron led them all the way into the Finals, where they were swept by San Antonio.
But the day James signed with the Heat, the franchise fell back to the pack where it has spent too much miserable time, too many grinding years -- the Bingo Smith days, the laughingstock days of former owner Ted Stepien, the days of Shawn Kemp and Terrell Brandon. When LeBron left, it seems as if the right to think big -- to think about basketball in June -- was erased. It was LeBron James who gave the fans hope, and it was LeBron James who took it away. That is behind the anger displayed by Cavs fans last week.
But Gilbert had three years to prepare for the day James left. If he truly believed James would remain in town, then he might be the worst owner ever at reading the tea leaves.
Gilbert, it turned out, had long been angered at the demands of James and his entourage, his star-level distance, his ambivalence to the organization. He also believed that when the Celtics (a determined professional team that took its rivalry with Cleveland seriously) pounded them out of the postseason last spring, James had quit on his team -- though Gilbert didn't make that belief public until after LeBron had left for Miami.
Few charges are worse to levy on a superstar player than challenging his desire to win. If that's what Gilbert thought, he should not only have prepared for life without James, but he should also have welcomed the opportunity to build a new team with a new attitude and a new star, or at least a collection of very good players. If he believed James had quit against Boston, he certainly could not have thought (as he later claimed) that James had given him every indication that he wanted to remain in Cleveland.
Successful organizations must adopt and believe in an institutional philosophy. The Cavaliers had won 66 and 61 games the previous two seasons, the two best win totals in franchise history. Gilbert sent the message that he did not believe in his front office, firing coach Mike Brown two weeks before general manager Danny Ferry resigned as the possibility of losing James as well hung over the team.
The takeaway is that Gilbert is blaming everyone but himself.
But in preparation for a potential James departure, Gilbert stood pat, let James control the negotiation and then was left without a chair when the free agent music stopped. Judging from his actions and his words, Gilbert apparently believed that his team wasn't very good, that his star was a quitter and that his coach and general manager weren't good enough to win a championship -- harsh assessments for a team that crossed 60 wins in consecutive years. What is more likely is that Gilbert clearly did not know what he wanted after the tough playoff loss. The result is a 2010-11 team without a compass and a fan base of season-ticket holders who thought they were going to be watching championship-level basketball paying to see a team that might not even make the playoffs.
The Cavaliers' payroll this season is $51.8 million, down from $80 million last year. Their highest-paid player is Antawn Jamison, whose $13.5 million salary represents more than a quarter of the team's total payroll -- and he doesn't even start. Nor is their fourth-highest paid player, Daniel Gibson, in the starting lineup.
This is why bad organizations remain bad.
Gilbert chose to cast James as the public enemy who spurned his home town and gave his loyal fans a bad team to watch on the court.
Gilbert no doubt hoped that James -- like a Tim Duncan or a Derek Jeter or a Michael Jordan -- would become an ambassador for the franchise and the city and serve as the force to attract players and uplift the fortunes of a broken franchise with his talent and with his emotional, personal investment in the team's long-term success. What he wanted, actually, was for James to be Dwyane Wade, for it was Wade who actually recruited LeBron and Chris Bosh to play in Miami, who used his own star power and free agent year to send the message that he plays in a destination city, not a place to flee.
But James has clearly never been that player. Gilbert had to have known that, had to have seen that James' mind was elsewhere -- the warm breezes of Miami, as it turned out. He also had to have known that asking Mo Williams to lead the Cavs would leave them woefully underpowered.
The window in Cleveland is closed. The owner is the only star now. He couldn't keep James, and he didn't trust his coach or general manager to rebuild without him. Gilbert's greatest asset is the hope that the city will continue to blame James, who is long gone, the hope that the loyalty of the fans will buy him enough time to come up with a plan for a future that keeps the Cavaliers from repeating a mediocre past.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.
The anger in Cleveland is still aimed at the player who left. But how much longer can Dan Gilbert, the owner who didn't, avoid responsibility for the Cavs' descent into irrelevance?