LeBron's window to win a title in Cleveland has closed
LeBron James returned to Cleveland in the summer of 2014 to win the city its first title in 50 years.
He returned to wash away the stain of The Decision.
He returned because the window of opportunity was wide open.
Two years later, that window is closed, and it's going to take an exceptional, near-superhuman effort to open it again — the kind of effort that appears past the King.
The Golden State Warriors took a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals with a 108-97 grind-it-out win Friday night in Cleveland. No team has come back from a 3-1 deficit to win an NBA Finals (0-32), and this Cavs team is not going to be the one to break that streak.
That's because it's been made clear that this Cavs team can't beat this Warriors team in a seven-game series. They might be able to steal a game or two, but so long as three is greater than two, LeBron's squad will be beaten by the Warriors.
There was no clearer example of that simple truth — 3 > 2 — than Game 4, in which the Warriors shot 40 percent overall and made only 16 2-point field goals, but made 17 3-pointers to win.
The Warriors' style is the present and future of the league, and that presents a new, cruel reality for LeBron, who is shooting 5 of 16 from behind the 3-point line in this series. The 3-pointer isn't his game. It never has been. It never will be. And while the players around James might be better suited, any team with LeBron revolves around LeBron.
The Warriors are at the vanguard of a revolution, and that league-wide shift, combined with LeBron's mileage and newfound limitations, has drastically screwed up his plan to win Cleveland a title.
And LeBron can't leave Cleveland without that title. His bid for reconciliation requires catharsis that can come only from lifting the Larry O'Brien trophy.
James might be the greatest athlete America has produced, but in back-to-back Finals now, he's gone into a battle he can't win. He's trying to take on an AK-47 with a two-barrel shotgun.
What's going to change that's going to make LeBron's Cavs team the favorites going forward? Unless the league eliminates the 3-point line, nothing.
It'll take some otherworldly creativity to reconstruct this Cavs team to look any different in the years to come. The roster, which allegedly was handpicked by LeBron, is already the highest paid in the NBA, and despite the salary cap jumping from $70 million to $92 million next year, the big contracts given out by the team in recent years mean that the Cavs almost certainly will be paying luxury tax next year. LeBron taking a significant pay cut wouldn't even be a factor. Unless he can convince a star to come to Cleveland for the mid-level exception — worth less than $4 million — there's little to no chance the Cavs can sign an impact player this summer.
The Cavs might even lose a key player, Matthew Dellavedova, who is a restricted free agent this summer and is likely to receive a sizable offer sheet, either from teams who want to land him or franchises looking to engage in some gamesmanship.
Cleveland's best chance to land an impact player would have to come via trade, but what value could the Cavs possibly get for expendable players Kevin Love or Iman Shumpert at this point? Whatever that value is, it isn't fair.
Oh, and the NBA Draft? Well, the Cavs own only one first-round pick in the next three years.
This is the Cavs team LeBron has to work with going forward, for better or for worse. Is this team good enough to win a title without cosmic intervention? (The positive kind of cosmic intervention that has unfairly eluded Cleveland for half a century now...)
And as more teams around the NBA move to the Warriors' way of play, the impediments to LeBron winning a title increase. The Warriors having a down year doesn't open up that window again.
If Oklahoma City or San Antonio came out of the Western Conference instead of the Warriors this year, would the Cavs have won the championship? It's hard to make that case.
The Blazers, Clippers, Thunder and probably Spurs will be in the hunt again next year. The Warriors aren't going anywhere. There are teams on the rise, too — Minnesota and Utah could be on the precipice of a big leap.
And if the Celtics land Al Horford or another pace-and-space friendly big man this summer, winning the East might not be a presumed outcome for the Cavs next year either — it was for the past two seasons.
LeBron, one of the greatest players of all time, is in decline — one that's slight, but present — and the team around him isn't capable of beating the best the Western Conference has to offer now or in the future. The window is closed.
LeBron didn't have to return to Cleveland — his legacy as one of the greatest to ever play the game was secure in Miami — but when he did, he opened himself up to scrutiny once again. He pushed his legacy to the middle of the table.
This Warriors team is young, supremely talented and perfectly suited to continue competing for championships for as long as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green remain in their primes and lead the revolution.
The Warriors know that 3 is greater than 2, and any team that isn't adapting their game to match that truth is going to be left behind in the years to come.
Teams like the Cavs.
The window, which looked so wide open only 23 months ago, is closed.
The stain of The Decision will not be washed away.
Cleveland's long title drought will not be broken by its basketball team as long as LeBron James plays for it.