Tuesday 20 February 2018 / 10:59 AM


When LeBron James, the anointed ‘King’ of the NBA, opted to return to Cleveland following his NBA Finals loss with Miami in the 2013-14 season, not many could blame him.

If anything, James gained more support returning to his home city after winning two elusive NBA Championships at the Heat. LeBron lit the NBA on fire, sparking a huge reunion with the city that he spurned four seasons prior to try and bring a title back to his hometown team. It was the homecoming to end all homecomings – the prodigal son returning to save the begotten city.

Two years later, LeBron James and his Cavaliers are in a much different place. On the verge of losing their second consecutive Finals to the Golden State Warriors, the Cavaliers look listless and lost. They are fresh off a 30-point drubbing at the hands of the Warriors, and at 2-0 down there’s not much left in the tank for Cleveland.

The Cavs reached this point in a number of ways, and much debate has been made about where the Cavaliers are and what it would take to get them to the level of Golden State. But one thing hasn’t been up for debate in these two seasons: the influence of LeBron James.

So how far has James’ influence reached to this point?

When James announced his return to Cleveland, it was following the Cavs’ No.1 pick in the NBA Draft. The club duly selected Andrew Wiggins, the talented and athletic Kansas Jayhawk. Upon selection however, Wiggins was promptly shipped out of town to Minnesota in return for their star power forward Kevin Love. Wiggins turned into a budding star, living up to his hype and looking like the solid wing player that he was projected to be.

Love, however, has struggled. While not staying healthy in last season’s playoffs, Love returned this year and finally seemed to hit his stride in the opening rounds of the postseason. But in the Conference Finals, Love began to show weakness. He disappeared in the games played in Toronto, and looked shaken against the Raptors’ talented frontcourt.

Love, brought in for his floor spacing and ability to rebound, has struggled in both capacities. Love can’t defend the rim, and spends most of his time on offense standing in the corner. His numbers have dipped, and he’s struggling to fit.

James made very clear his desire for a Chris Bosh-style player to accompany him to Cleveland, and behind the scenes was very forceful in his desire to get Kevin Love, warranting uprooting a young star’s future for a gamble on a version of what he had around him in Miami.

James surrounded himself with players he chose, bringing in the typical cast of a LeBron James team, returning James Jones and Mike Miller, and pushing for the moves to receive JR Smith and Iman Shumpert. Smith, a guard brought in to emulate Miami Heat’s Ray Allen from James’ championship run, has scored all of 8 points in two games against the Warriors in this series. But the biggest buddy move pushed for by LeBron was the heist surrounding the deal with Tristan Thompson.

The Cavaliers’ budding young big man saw a big Finals last season, putting up large rebounding statistics and being the sole rim protector for Cleveland. In the offseason, Thompson and his agent, the same who represents James, orchestrated a sit-out. And with public comments from James, and a very public display to the face of the front office, Thompson’s hold-out was successful, tying up much more than market value for Thompson and more of Cleveland’s cap space.

Even LeBron’s chosen point guard Kyrie Irving, the one he spent training for Team USA and in exhibitions with, hasn’t proven to be anything close to what he needed. James addressed Irving’s weak defensive ability in his return, and talked about how he would fix his teammate’s defense and build a solid lineup. Instead, Irving has turned into a shell of the All-Star point guard he was billed to be. He’s turned into a shooting guard by nature, slowing the offense and disrupting game flow.

Twice in Game 2, Irving dribbled during the shot clock, with Love being guarded by Curry due to switched assignment. And both times, Irving took contested jumpers.

Irving’s game hasn’t developed in any meaningful way in the last two season, and one could make the argument that he’s even regressed to the mean. Irving’s passing and disturbing skills have disappeared, and he’s playing out of position. He got just one assist in 33 minutes on the court in Game 2, a totally mind-boggling figure.  Even his scoring, the lone attribute that worked in his favor when his shot wasn’t working, has diminished sharply. Irving has shot just 33% in these first two games against Golden State. Irving is struggling, and the Cavaliers don’t seem to have any way to fix him.

But the issues have been felt more than anywhere else on the sideline. With James’ arrival, Cleveland took a chance on an experienced championship international coach in David Blatt. Blatt took the Cavaliers through a seamless transition, guiding them to the best record in the Eastern Conference in his first year, and a trip to the NBA Finals. Cleveland succumbed to injuries last year, but the adjustments by Blatt allowed for lesser players and a heroic effort from James to keep the series closer than it should have been.

But the tension was palpable. James disagreed with Blatt’s style, quietly feuding with Blatt, beginning with last season’s All-Star break. James’ camp even leaked information of in-fighting between the Cavs, especially between James and his head coach. Clips were analyzed during games, with James – and not Blatt – leading huddles, and even one with James appearing to tell Blatt to “shut up” on the sideline.

Things came to a head this season when Blatt, with the best record in the East, was fired by Cleveland’s front office. In his place, Tyronne Lue, an assistant beloved by James and his camp, was hired. Lue abandoned most of Blatt’s sets, and allowed instead for more free play from the Cavaliers. But this has come to finally bother the Cavs. Adjustments in this Finals series, and even in the Toronto series, have been few and far between.

Lue has been outclassed and outcoached by Steve Kerr. The Cavs have seemed to forget that the Warriors play small, and everything that worked in last year’s Finals has disappeared in this round. Cleveland isn’t coming anywhere close, and little to no adjustments are being made during games. Lue is letting free play be his only style, and the bench, running with no plays, is especially suffering.

Where the coach should be heard, instead they hear James.

The Cavaliers organization has failed from top to bottom. The front office has allowed James more power and autonomy than any player before him in the league, effectively handing him the reins of the franchise. LeBron and company are essentially the front office themselves, and we have found a situation where James is impacting the game more off the court than on it. And not in the way he wants.

James has sought to create a better copy of what he got in Miami. This was a team designed to beat San Antonio, with no plan for the rise of Golden State. James’ strategy to upend a traditional team was a sound one: find a stretch four, a creating guard to carry the scoring load, and strong role players. He felt he was getting a younger Wade and Bosh in Irving and Love. But instead, he’s gotten neither.

The Cavaliers are far away from being that Championship-winning Miami team, and the pieces aren’t falling into place. And ‘GM’ LeBron is the reason they were assembled in the first place.

There’s been no pull-back from ownership or front office. The Cavs, so desperate to keep James, have allowed a hijacking of their front office and the mortgaging of their future. Is there anyone in America that is 100 percent confident in saying that James is for sure returning to Cleveland?

As you ponder that question, it’s tough to imagine the leverage given to James. The Cavaliers are a mess on the court against the Warriors. But they are far more of one off it. The Cavs appear even farther away than last year from getting the elusive ring the city and organization so desperately wants.

But if anyone is to blame for the struggles on this stage, it is the prodigal son who got them here.

James is a smart guy, one of the best players we’ve ever seen. His impact and smarts on the court can’t be questioned, and he’s the most impactful player in the game.

But a general manager, he isn’t. And until LeBron and the Cavaliers realize this, the gap between them and Golden State and the West is only going to get bigger.

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About the author

Austin Albertson

Austin is CBS' senior NFL and NBA analyst, bringing you commentary on everything between the lines and inside the hashes, from the film room to the scoreboard.

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