CLEVELAND — LeBron James slipped on a pair of dark shades and lowered his head Tuesday night as he made his final stroll out of Quicken Loans Arena this season. Since it was well past 1 a.m. and pitch black outside, the sunglasses served a dual purpose for James, allowing him to still exude some cool while hiding the pain of a second straight NBA Finals defeat.
James’s fairy tale homecoming didn’t end in a championship, despite his best efforts to uplift a run-down team and city that has been in a committed relationship with misery. But the Cleveland Cavaliers’ run to the Finals provided enough inspiration to temper any disappointment — even if a somber James couldn’t look beyond the immediate sorrow.
“When you fall short, it hurts and it eats at you, and it hurts me to know that I wish I could have done better and done more,” James said. “But it just wasn’t our time.”
The Cavaliers are a relevant franchise again after going further than even James expected when the season began, back when the prodigal son preached patience. They steamrolled through the Eastern Conference despite losing Kevin Love to a separated shoulder and pulled off more wins against the champion Golden State Warriors than most pundits expected when the team lost Kyrie Irving to a fractured kneecap.
And they established a gritty, resilient identity that — when paired with James and healthy versions of Irving and Love — offers encouragement for repeated Finals trips, and possible championships, in the future.
James would’ve preferred to have both of his all-star running mates when facing the deep and talented Warriors, but their absence created a different kind of monster — a one-man title contender and a generational talent at the peak of his powers, with full confidence in his physical and mental gifts.
When he stated that he’s the best player in the game after a Game 5 loss in Oakland, James sent a message that he was tired of being humble and that it would be unwise to doubt what he is capable of accomplishing with a stronger supporting cast.
“What’s evident to everyone is what a spectacular basketball player that LeBron is,” Cavaliers Coach David Blatt said. “But he has become a great leader of his team. He’s become a guy that has evolved in terms of his role within the team and within the whole concept of what it is that we want to be about.”
Though James didn’t win a title in his first season with the Heat, the lessons learned from that humiliating defeat forced him to get better and he went on to win back-to-back championships. James’s fourth loss in the Finals — and second with Cleveland — offered a few more lessons, fueled by desperation over despair.
Without Love and Irving, James morphed into a more determined and defiant player who refused to be deterred by the shortcomings of his limited teammates. The Cavaliers reluctantly became an isolation-centric team in the postseason, but James’s desire to fearlessly attack with a win-at-all costs mind-set showed that he is mastering the mental side of the game as his body prepares to hit an inevitable decline.
“It was what was needed,” James said. “If I could have gave more, I would have done it, but I gave everything I had.”
His last playoff loss with the Cavaliers in 2010 ended with him ripping off his jersey and sent the franchise into disarray two months later when he declared that he was taking his talents to the Miami Heat. But as James skittered from the court to his locker room, unable to watch the Warriors celebrate on his home floor, Cleveland probably never ended a season with more palpable promise.
James continues to tower over the Eastern Conference, which doesn’t have a team or an individual talent that threatens to dethrone him anytime soon. He attempted attempted to recreate in Cleveland the three-star model he had in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but injuries kept his first season with Irving and Love — and his first season back with the organization he spurned for a title chase along South Beach — from concluding with the ultimate glory.
“You lose in the Finals, they’re all disappointing. Doesn’t matter if I’m playing in Miami or playing in Cleveland or playing on Mars,” James said. “I lost in the the Finals four times. I’m almost starting to be like, l’d rather not even make it to the playoffs than to lose in the Finals. If I’m lucky enough to get there again, it will be fun to do it.”
Blatt took some heat during his first NBA season, but he received a quick lesson in the nuances of an 82-game season and proved that he could adjust to an evolving roster, missing personnel and minor controversies. Blatt was never short on confidence, given his previous success in Europe, but the playoff crucible only enhanced his beliefs in his principles as he was forced him to find a scheme that was successful with James and a patchwork roster.
“We never asked for sympathy when they went down,” Blatt said of Love and Irving. “We never made excuses, and I certainly won’t now. We played our hearts out. We were in the NBA Finals, two games away from winning it. I think we did pretty well.”
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has never been afraid to pay the luxury tax, forking over $43 million for what was then a dollar-for-dollar penalty on James’s previous three Cleveland teams. Gilbert will need some deep pockets to keep the core of this roster together. Irving and Anderson Varejao, who suffered an Achilles’ tendon tear in his left leg back in December, are both under contract but the other rotation players could all hit free agency this summer.
James, Love, J.R. Smith and Mike Miller all have player options. Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova will be restricted free agents. The team has options on Timofey Mozgov and Brendan Haywood, though Haywood’s expiring, non-guaranteed $10.5 million deal will likely be moved in a trade or through waivers. James Jones is an unrestricted free agent.
The relationship between Love and James wasn’t always the best, with James attempting passive-aggressive messages in social media to get him to fit into something special. Before Love suffered a separated left shoulder in the first round against Boston, the three-time all-star was finally beginning to mesh with his teammates and find comfort with his role.
Love has repeatedly stated that he intends to re-sign with the Cavaliers, despite rampant speculation that he wants a larger market or a team to call his own. But watching James carry a depleted roster has made it almost silly for Love to even consider going elsewhere. By returning, Love could prove to be the missing piece to a title, which would endear him even more to a passionate fan base thirsty for a championship.
The Cavaliers can pay Love more than any team, with a maximum contract of five years and $120 million, which would provide him some long-term security after sustaining serious injuries in two of the past four seasons. Or Love could also sign shorter deal that could allow him to cash in on the huge salary cap spike beginning in the summer of 2016.
James is likely to opt-out and re-sign another two-year deal with an option for the second year so that he could benefit from an inflated salary cap. The Cavaliers were unable to reach a deal on an extension with Thompson, but after his emergence as a reliable contributor rebounding machine in Love’s absence, the 2011 fourth overall pick should receive an increase from the four-year, $52-million contract he reportedly rejected. Shumpert, a midseason acquisition from New York, was a sorely-needed perimeter defender who hit the occasional three-pointer. And Dellavedova became a fan favorite with his scrappy, borderline reckless, play.
But their weaknesses were exposed in the NBA Finals, where the need to consistently overachieve became too much. If Irving and Love return to full health, the Cavaliers can look forward to having the assistance James needs to get another ring or two and deliver on the promise that he came close to keeping in his first season back in Cleveland.
“Not every story has a happy ending,” Blatt said. “It doesn’t mean it’s a bad story. This was not. This was a good story.”