Sorry 4 the Wait

After a slow start to his first season back in Cleveland, LeBron James has the Cavaliers turned up to Championship-contender level once again.
by April 22, 2015

“Someone once told me, ‘Time is a flat circle.’”

Our world is not one for the patient. We want things to happen right now. It’s no longer what have you done for me lately, but what have you done for me yesterday? Today? And basketball is no different.

Fans and pundits form opinions at the flick of a wrist, cooking up hot takes faster than Hot Pockets. The best college players rarely spend more than one season in school. In reality that means spending less than a calendar year on campus. Once at the pro level, NBA rookies are usually judged by the All-Star break of their first season. For the most part, those who don’t show promise right away are dealt for future Draft picks or expiring contracts (word to Thomas Robinson), and a large percentage of those guys are often out of the League entirely by the end of their first deal (paging Jan Vesely). This season alone, the Boston Celtics have had more than 40 different players on their roster. The Sacramento Kings are on their third coach since December. Patience is no longer a part of the NBA lexicon.

Aside from the well-documented (and probably ill-fated) philosophy being implemented in Philadelphia, piloting an NBA team in 2015 is more than ever a win-now proposition. If you have a couple All-Stars on your roster, taking home the Larry O’Brien trophy is your goal, no excuses. Gone are the days of waiting good-naturedly while teams “figure things out.”

Tweets pile up by the thousands (millions?) per minute during nationally televised games, an overwhelming majority of them negative. Miss a shot and you suck. Turn the ball over and you’re the worst player on the court. God forbid you get dunked on while trying to, you know, play defense. Even spectacular plays are overshadowed by memes. Shit, TIME Magazine—is it even a print mag anymore?—ran an article entitled “Twitter Reacts to LeBron’s Replenished Hairline” earlier this season.

LeBron James
Let’s back up for a second. We’re just about nine months removed from the mid-July date last summer when LeBron’s open letter announcing his return to Cleveland was published by Sports Illustrated. If it already seems like a lifetime ago, that’s because it is—at least, by our warped understanding of time in the NBA’s modern era.

The news shook me. Like so many others, I wondered how LeBron, now 30, could leave the juggernaut in Miami. I feared LeBron might disappear from the Finals for a few years as the Cavs went through the inevitable feeling-out process that occurred in Miami—only this time with a younger, more inexperienced, less battle-tested core. I feared not being able to witness his greatness on the game’s greatest stage. As former NBA Champion and current Heat front office exec Alonzo Mourning wondered aloud in a recent SLAM interview, “Why walk away from a dynasty when you have to go somewhere and rebuild, basically?” Forgetting for a moment that LBJ is not only one of the fiercest competitors since Michael Jordan, but also a player so acutely aware of his image since his first Decision, it seemingly made little sense from a basketball standpoint. The Heat would have been a virtual lock for the NBA Finals for at least the next three or four years, so long as he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh could stay healthy.

“I’m not promising a Championship,” LeBron said of the Cavs in the open letter last summer. “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. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach.”

While Cavs fans were digging their No. 23 jerseys out of their closets (or dumpsters, in more than a few cases) LeBron was preaching patience. Whether out of fear from the inevitable criticisms that lay ahead or out of genuinely trying to view things realistically, LeBron essentially called his second go-round in Cleveland a work-in-progress, at the very best.

The realization that even LeBron himself couldn’t guarantee that he’d be playing into June this year was a terrifying one. Without LeBron James, the NBA Finals feel incomplete. Which is why LeBron’s 2014-15 season has truly been one of his most masterful. In February, he passed Allen Iverson for 22nd on NBA’s all-time scoring list and Scottie Pippen for first in career assists by a forward—in the same week. And despite averaging his lowest scoring average since his rookie year (25.3 ppg, to go with 7.4 apg and 6.0 rpg), he’s elevated the group around him—one that he helped expertly build, all on the fly—to such heights that we’ve already forgotten his appeal to common sense last summer. Truth is, LeBron quietly has the Cleveland Cavaliers way ahead of schedule.

Back in August, as Kyrie Irving posed for the cover of SLAM 185, he had this to say about adjusting to playing alongside his new teammate: “Everybody is saying, ‘Is he going to have to change his game?’ Or, ‘Is he going to have to do this or that to play with LeBron?’ Obviously, some things are going to have to change but, in terms of my game, I am who I am, he is who he is, and we’re going to do our best to make our games work with each other. I think that’s what makes great teams and what makes great teammates. I’m sure he doesn’t want me to be any different and I don’t want him to be any different. That’s just how it’s going to be—we’re just going to tailor our games to each other.”

It sounded great. Ky was excited. So was LeBron, and later Kevin Love. And while today, as you read this, Irving’s words might finally ring true for the No. 2 in the East, 53-29 Cavaliers, how quickly we forget it’s been far from “just” that easy.

LeBron James and Kyrie Irving
About a week into the season, the Cavs sitting at 1-3, the noise was so loud that LeBron felt obligated to tweet this out:

A few days later, he literally apologized for not dunking enough. Twelve games in, King James told reporters, “I stink.” Columnists wondered if he’d finally hit the wall, or if his weight loss was to blame. There have been reports about a “disconnect” between Bron and head coach David Blatt. In December, a few “sources” had James ready to bolt from Cleveland yet again. James has referred to the potpourri of injuries he’s suffered this season as “the most difficult thing I’ve been through.” Even his 2K15 rating took a slight hit. Oh, the shade.

But with the King’s blessing, the Cavs methodically re-tooled their roster, bringing in JR Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov, while bidding adieu to Dion Waiters, among others. Buried in LeBron’s homecoming letter, lost in all the hoopla, was this simple sentence: “My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question.” Thirteen words. Sixty-three characters. Short enough to fit comfortably in a tweet. So much for not being ready right away, huh?

The top-seeded Hawks aren’t a facade. The Bulls are always tough, too, especially with Derrick Rose looking spry so far in the postseason. The Wizards could get hot. But gun to my head, who wins the East? Cleveland, and it ain’t really all that close. GM LeBron has transformed the Cavs’ roster into a well-oiled machine with a series of critical transactions. Player LeBron is well-rested and already revved things up to Championship level in his first two games of the postseason.

Yeah, LeBron going home was and is a big fucking deal. It was bold, and at certain junctures of this first season back in Cleveland, it felt highly questionable. But this is still LeBron James we’re talking about. In a sport where teams spend years and years accumulating Draft picks and “assets” to build a winner, he alone has flipped the fortunes of a franchise in less than one. When he said, “We’re not ready right now,” he only meant the roster around him wasn’t yet complete. Now, it’s barreling full steam ahead through the postseason.

The doubts will linger, and the hate will come in waves. James won’t complain about the rising expectations, instead he’ll rise with the tide. So give Bron his just due when he delivers, earlier than anyone expected.

Abe Schwadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @abe_squad.