Visit by LeBron and Heat serves as reminder that pressure will soon mount in Cleveland.
By SAM AMICOFS Ohio
Whenever LeBron James comes to Cleveland, the discussion begins.
Will James return to the Cavaliers? Will he remain with the Heat? Will he wind up in some other unsuspected destination?
They’re all legit questions.
We have nothing close to the answers to any of them.
All we know for sure is the Heat have won 23 straight games, or just 10 shy of the all-time NBA record, entering Wednesday’s game at Cleveland.
All we can assume is James has never been better. And we’re talking about a guy who has already won three league MVPs and one Finals MVP.
Today, LeBron is more than just the best player in the game. He’s also a winner. He also plays with an edge, makes the right pass, hits the important shots. He’s no slouch when it comes to defense or rebounding, either.
Oh, and in case James happens to be something less than his best (extremely rare these days), he still has Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh next to him.
Cavs, on the other hand, are a mess -- and not really by any fault of their own. For all of February, they looked like a promising team on the rise everyone expected.
Then March hit, and the injuries stockpiled. Actually, the Cavs haven’t been devastated when you're talking about the entire roster. But they are closing the season with another whimper, as Kyrie Irving has a sprained shoulder and Dion Waiters a bum knee.
That’s the starting backcourt, the dynamic duo expected to lead the Cavs into the future. Now, we may have to wait until next season to see either again.
That’s no fun, and it’s the type of bad news Cavs fans have been delivered way too much lately.
Anyway, back to LeBron and the questions about where he may land.
This is about all we know: James can opt out of his contract and become a free agent in 2014.
Depending on the Heat’s situation, that is a distinct possibility.
Then there's the Cavs. They could have the type of cap space that could lure LeBron back to Northeast Ohio. With young talents like Irving, Waiters, Tristan Thompson and others, James returning to Cleveland may also be a distinct possibility.
All of this could be nothing -- but it could be something.
In fact, with Kyrie and the rest, the Cavs will likely tempt a number of free agents in the coming years.
But while that’s all nice, the Cavs can’t worry about that. Nor do they worry about it. They know can’t build their team around the idea that someone not yet named will come save the franchise.
So here's the real bottom line: The Cavs must have a significantly greater concern. And that concern is themselves.
Time is almost now
Since LeBron left in 2010, the Cavs have pretty much received a “free pass” from reporters, fans and passionate owner Dan Gilbert.
That makes sense. That's also fair.
As the Cavs will tell you, they're trying to build the right way. Nor can you debate that general manager Chris Grant and coach Byron Scott have the Cavs headed on the right path. At least, it sure looks that way when the best players are actually healthy.
Still, the Cavs are about to finish last in the Central Division for the third straight year. That’s a franchise first.
So while James and the Heat are utterly fascinating everybody, the Cavs can’t seem to get out of the mud. They’re progressing, but in the impatient world of professional sports, not fast enough.
The Cavs aren't in the playoffs. The season ends April 17.
After that, the pressure is on. When Grant, Scott and the Cavs aren’t winning next season, they’re losing. There can be no more rebuilding.
Or as one opposing league executive told FOX Sports Ohio, “The days of trying to put a positive spin on not winning games eventually reaches an end for every franchise, injuries and youth be darned. The Cavs are pretty much there.”
The exec makes a valid point, because reasonable or not, that’s just the way the sports universe operates. There comes a time when you must start attaching a number to your franchise. In this business, numbers quickly become the only thing that can validate progress.
Developing talent and taking your lumps makes good sense when you're the Cavs of today. Despite what's likely to be a disappointing finish (caused in great part to the aforementioned key injuries), the Cavs have displayed some very promising signs.
But again, in the NBA, you don’t have long to turn those signs into a competitive product, a winning product.
If the Cavs are to entice James or any other notable free agent, it's the type of product that needs to emerge in 2013-14.
The days of finishing last just won't fly anymore.