LeBron James, left, and Kyrie Irving, right, sit on the Cavaliers' bench during the 2017 NBA Finals. (Ben Margot/Associated Press)

When LeBron James returns to Cleveland on Wednesday to play for the first time as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, he’ll find a Cavaliers team very far removed from its annual-contender status when he suited up for the Cavs. That rapid tumble can be traced directly to his offseason departure, but according to James, the Cavs' reign atop the Eastern Conference really began to crumble in the summer of 2017.

“Everyone knows that when Kyrie [Irving] got traded, it was the beginning of the end for everything. It’s not a secret,” James told Joe Vardon of the Athletic, in a story published Monday.

Irving sent shock waves through the NBA when word leaked that he wanted out of Cleveland, even while James still was on the roster. The Cavs quickly acceded to his demand, shipping him to the Celtics for a package including Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick.

According to the Athletic, when then-Cavs coach Tyronn Lue learned that the Irving trade was about to happen, he drove to meet James and put the latter on the phone with Cleveland General Manager Koby Altman. James was described as “adamant” that Irving should not be dealt away, and Altman reportedly assured the four-time MVP that the trade would not occur.

A few minutes later, it did, James discovered to his noticeable dismay. At an autograph-signing event in California, James “dropped the pen and slumped in his chair,” per Vardon.

James suggested that he felt he wasn’t deceived by Altman so much as the GM may have been overruled by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. James also implied that Gilbert, with whom he had a frosty relationship dating back at least to the owner’s infamous “comic sans” letter in 2010, had ousted former general manager David Griffin to gain more control over his team’s personnel moves.

“Take nothing from Koby, because Koby [was just named GM], but at that point in time, you realize that Koby’s not the only one running the team, as [Griffin] had done, and that’s why Griff was let go, pretty much,” James said.

Vardon reported that front-office officials for the Cavs disputed the claim that Altman told James the Irving trade was not going to happen. They also said that Altman asked James if he would sign a long-term deal with Cleveland if Irving were not traded and that James refused.

James preferred to sign one- or two-year deals with the Cavs that maintained his offseason flexibility, not to mention leverage with the organization, but the price was an atmosphere of uncertainty about how long the franchise’s cornerstone would stick around. With rumors rampant in the summer of 2017 that James was eyeing a defection to Los Angeles in the following offseason, Irving decided to beat his all-star teammate out the door.

“Like, keep it real,” Irving said last month. “If I was still in Cleveland, I would be . . . like, everything that was foreseen to happen, happened.”

Irving also was ready to move on from playing sidekick to James and lead his own team, a chance he has been given in Boston with a young and talented squad. Meanwhile, in a replay of what happened when James left Cleveland in 2010, that time for the Heat, the Cavs have fallen apart, heading into Monday with a league-worst 2-12 record.

One thing James expects to be different this time is a much milder reaction to his return to Quicken Loans Arena — where he helped deliver the Cavs' first championship banner in 2016 — as opposed to the vitriol that accompanied his first visit to Cleveland in a Miami uniform. Of the possibility that there might be an uncomfortably similar scene Wednesday, he told Vardon, “It better not be.”

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