LeBron James went back to Cleveland because he felt it was the right thing to do—for himself, the team and the city.
Insofar as an inherently trivial act in the sports world can have significance in the real one, James' decision does. He's going back to play ball, but he's also doing it as part of an effort to rebuild a few things: his relationship with the fans who turned on him four years ago and the infrastructure of a sports town in need of rehab, to name two.
But there's also that basketball stuff which, ultimately, is going to matter most to fans in Cleveland. After all, noble gestures like LeBron's homecoming—with all its positive effects on the region's economy and general happiness of the Rust Belt—are going to slip gradually from the conversation if the Cavs can't deliver on the court.
Fortunately, James' new team is set up to succeed...eventually.
The Cavs aren't ready yet. We know that because they're young, inexperienced and, most of all, because LeBron said so, per his letter through Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated:
I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.
There's youth all over the place in Cleveland, which is a good thing for the team's long-term prospects. More immediately, having as many as nine players under 24 means there will be mistakes and growing pains aplenty this season.
Kyrie Irving, the best player not named LeBron in Cleveland, has lots to prove. Realistically, we should be expecting another year or two of development before he's the kind of leader and defender James will need as a top sidekick. If Irving reaches his potential, we'll likely find ourselves referring to him and LeBron as the leageue's best one-two punch.
But that's not going to happen overnight.
Generally speaking, though, there's still much more promise on this roster than there was on any of the squads James played with in his first Cleveland stint, per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:
His old Cleveland teams didn't have anywhere near the same youthful potential, and those Cavs teams were constantly trying to jam pieces around James to make it work. On the Cavaliers' 2007 NBA Finals team, James had Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Sasha Pavlovic and Donyell Marshall as main supporters.
When the Cavaliers had the best record in the league in 2008-09, Mo Williams, Delonte West, Daniel Gibson, Varejao and Ilgauskas were key contributors.
Say what you will about the youth and inexperience of the Cavs' current personnel, but don't make the mistake of confusing a lack of reps for a lack of talent. Eventually, the core of Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Irving will become the best group to ever surround James in Cleveland.
Plus, the Cavaliers have a coach who, though totally unproven in the NBA, is at least regarded as an adaptable tactician who'll strategize to the strengths of his roster. David Blatt, wildly successful in Europe, has what it takes to maximize Cleveland's talent.
There are two schools of thought in coaching, and neither one is more right than the other. There are coaches that have their system, and they are gonna use that regardless of what the team makeup is. And there are coaches that are adaptive, and take their roster, and play according to their skill set.
"I’m more from the adaptive school, with a few principles that are consistent throughout my career," Blatt told Grantland's Zach Lowe. "But we have to see what the team looks like before I can tell you exactly how we’re gonna play."
Contrast that with Mike Brown, who implemented a stodgily effective defensive system but never fielded an offense that took advantage of the talent available. Brown had a way of doing things, and he never adapted to his personnel.
Blatt, like Irving, may be a couple of years away from peaking. But his ceiling figures to be far higher than Brown's as a coach.
James, himself, is also different than he was in his last tour.
Once possessed of the notion he had to do it all—partly because Brown's uninventive system required it and partly because he hadn't yet learned how to pick his spots—James returns to Cleveland a more mature player. He learned a few things about trusting his help and saving his bullets in Miami, and he'll return to the Cavs wiser than before.
Granted, the difference will likely be a subtle one. Even in his younger days, James was wildly unselfish and, if you were paying attention, still the best player in the league. Now, though, he recognizes the importance of truly relying on his teammates.
He's a leader now—something he hadn't fully become in his first Cleveland stop. We should expect James to impart wisdom to a very young roster. And if he continues to get more veteran help (Mike Miller and James Jones have already signed on as free agents, pulled inexorably toward James by his superstar gravity), Cleveland's growth process could accelerate.
"It's a great feeling having the best player in the game today come to your team," Wiggins told Zillgitt. "He's the best in the game. He works hard. I know he's a hard worker, unselfish so hopefully he takes us all of us under his wing and teaches us what it takes to get to his level and build a championship team."
For now, it's fine to paint James' return as the fairy tale it is. It's hard to remember when an athlete last did something this monumental that was met with such universal approval, so we might as well drink it in while the refreshing sentiment lasts.
When the appeal of that hero-comes-home narrative fades and sports fans dial their focus back in on wins and losses, the Cavs may endure a tough period in which their capabilities don't quite measure up to expectations.
But if everyone's patient, there's a good chance James will eventually mold this team into the contender it couldn't be the first time around.
And that kind of redemption—the kind that brings a title back to Cleveland—will be sweeter than anything we've seen so far.
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