Atop the list of the many reasons the Cleveland Cavaliers have wallowed this season in a hapless dysfunction that culminated Thursday with the termination of general manager Chris Grant sits a painful, unrelenting force of nature for that team, that city, those forever-suffering fans: the long shadow of LeBron James.
It is his memory, more than three years after he broke the collective heart of everyone associated with the team, that has wrought this havoc. More so than the team having the wrong head coach. More so than drafting a No. 1-overall-pick-turned-historic-bust. More so than a culture reportedly more poorly constructed — and more likely to fall apart at the merest strain — than those Sochi hotel rooms.
LeBron’s exit for Miami led to all of these missteps. Desperation and heartbreak, it turns out, can be destructive as the actual loss that caused them in the first place.
None of this, of course, is LeBron’s fault. Whatever sins he committed against his one-time team long ago have been dissected and discussed ad nauseum. He left. He did it the wrong way. It turned him into an unlikable guy. He figured that out. He changed. He won it all. Twice. Now most of us celebrate him. The whole leaving-Cleveland-Decision-you’re-a-jerk-LeBron thing is in the past.
Only, for the Cavs, it’s not.
Nope, this one ain’t on LeBron. But he is the force behind it. The gulf he left behind — the emptiness — haunts that organization as surely as LeBron’s presence in Miami has changed everything near South Beach. And the hope — so tantalizing, and to so many around the league entering this season, so possible — that he might return to Cleveland this summer was enough to jump-start and accelerate that special craziness and dysfunction and life-altering need that only the scorned can grasp.
The only thing more desperate than a lonely loser is a discarded lover. It’s one thing to crave something you want but have never experienced. It’s quite another to long for the return of those perfect days you once had, before the one you coveted and craved informed you (in this case on national, live television), "I’m leaving you."
This is where Dan Gilbert’s special craziness came from when he sounded like a lunatic following The Decision. It was heartbreak mixed with the knowledge that things — from his team to what it meant to own that team — would never be the same again.
The ability to take the information around you and see in it a glimpse of the future can turn a businessman like Gilbert into the wealthy success story who can buy a sports team in the first place. But it also allows an owner who has invested his money and ego in a shiny, publicly followed toy — his team — to grasp in the moment LeBron uttered "South Beach" a different kind of future: the long road back, the idea of returning to normal after so many years of living with the exceptional and the burn of failure added to the heartbreak of being publicly divorced by someone you thought loved you.
Think of that poor, hapless kid in "Almost Famous," if the Hollywood ending hadn’t allowed the star to save the day with a final act of loyalty and friendship. Think, as Philip Seymour Hoffman so eloquently put it, of life outside that shadow and being forever "uncool."
That’s a potent enough combo to turn a man like Gilbert, for a moment at least, into a crazy person sharing in Comic Sans his broken heart’s bitter retorts.
Today Gilbert is that same guy, only like that kid in "Almost Famous" he’s still waiting to see whether LeBron will make it all OK in the end.
The hiring of Mike Brown, a coach who must be great during job interviews but isn’t so hot on the court? A disaster, one that has undermined the development of the young stars whose progress was key in having any shot at signing LeBron this summer (either to entice him, or trade for the pieces that would). Don’t kid yourself about the number of people who thought, since LeBron supposedly liked Brown in his first incarnation as Cavs coach, the hiring might be another inducement to get The Chosen One to choose home.
The selection of Anthony Bennett with the No. 1 overall pick last summer brought in one of the all-time busts, a guy averaging 3.3 points this season. And that’s despite the fact he’s had his three best games — and only double-digit scoring outings — during the past two weeks. Let’s give Grant some credit and assume the same frantic need to bring LeBron home contributed to that decision (rather than, say, his drafting skills). At the time Cavs officials defended the pick privately by saying Bennett fit a need and they saw great things ahead for the kid. That need? Filling out a position that might inch them into the playoffs — and thus show the greatest player on Earth the Cavs truly had changed.
Then there are the reports of players disrespecting coaches, of Dion Waiters supposedly punching star Kyrie Irving, of fears Irving wants to bolt, of the not-very-well-kept secret the Cavs have longed to go after Kevin Love at the trade deadline in the hopes he, too, might lure LeBron back.
A team with an identity — with a plan for the future, one not desperate to get its star back — does not make so many mistakes. One that’s trying to reclaim the best — this is why you can never go back — is much more likely to find itself a hapless wreck. As with love, or life, sometimes letting go is the only way to get ahead and even, sometimes, get back whatever was lost.
There’s a kind of distortion that comes with chasing the memory of a great but lost love. That can have two very different effects. One, like the fictionalized version of Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network," drives the brokenhearted to absolute greatness.
But then there’s the F. Scott Fitzgerald reaction: A bright star, a great talent — like the Cavs seemed to me and many others entering this season — cannot handle the loss and burns out, becoming a shell of what he should have been.
This is no more LeBron’s fault than the fault of anyone who makes an adult choice to move on. But for a Cleveland organization and fanbase that thought — like I did, like several general managers and players did entering this season — that they had a real chance at LeBron this summer, there must be blame.
Grant has been the first to take it. Now interim GM David Griffin, a well-thought-of executive, must fix this mess. And his best shot to make that job permanent?