Welcome Back, LeBron James

LeBron James returns to Cleveland, creating even greater parity in the Eastern Conference.

LeBron James comes back to Cleveland. What does it mean for the Raptors? The same as what it means for any other pseudo-contender in the East such as Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, essentially any team with two half-decent players peppered with above-average role players. In simple terms, the Heat got weaker and the Cavs stronger. The Raptors, along with most other Eastern Conference sides, were somewhere between the two and after yesterday’s transactions (assuming Bosh and Wade re-sign), could either remain where they are, surpass both, or fall below both.

Anyone seeing an advantage here would be thinking that the Raptors surpassed Miami, and that the road to the Eastern Conference title got easier now that there’s one less team above them. That’s naive thinking since Miami will remain a threat which will have more playoff and championship experience than the Raptors, and #WeTheNorth should remember the value of that. Cleveland will take it’s time to gel, as admitted by James himself, so you might bet on the Raptors having an advantage against a Cavalier team that’s still finding itself. However, the Raptors against the James-led Cavaliers, previous to his move to Miami, were a shocking 3-19. My bet is that the Raptors and Cavaliers will remain within three games of each other in an East that will be more bunched up than ever before, except that the bunching will now happen between the 1-5 seeds, rather than the 3-7. With no clear-cut contender in the conference, up-and-coming teams newly blooded by their playoff experiences of last year have to view the Eastern summit more attainable than ever.

Last year the Raptors were 2-1 against the Cavs and 0-4 against the Heat. Assuming we hold our own against the Cavs, we could repeat the 2-1 series win, and you’d think that the Heat will be weakened enough that the Raptors could steal a couple games, so let’s say 2-2. That’s two more wins then last year, taking us to 50! It’s all great news until you realize that most teams will be viewing the situation similarly. The Raptors closing the margin on Miami and having the margins closed by Cleveland indicates a tighter conference race, not the Raptors surging ahead of either by a neck.

Over the long-term, depending on how the Carmelo Anthony situation plays out, it brings even greater parity to the East, a conference where five games separated the 3rd to 7th seeds. Last year an Indiana-Miami Conference Final was a foregone conclusion, whereas currently, the top two seeds are pick ’em at best. A lot can change between now and the start of the season, but the early returns suggest a higher number of tight games, not just due to Cleveland improving but the likes of Washington, Charlotte, Atlanta rejuvenating themselves. A lack of a dominant team will mean that all three division races will be up for grabs along with the conference title.

The Raptors after having chosen not to tank and having re-loaded this off-season find themselves in a position where they’re primed to poise a threat in an Eastern conference that’s no longer top heavy. This becomes a horse race more than ever: pace yourself and stay with the pack for the bulk of the season, and surge ahead when it counts.

Some thoughts on LeBron James returning. It’s obviously great for Cleveland because you want to see “small market” teams thrive, and this certainly punctuates the point made by a season where three of the final four teams came from smaller cities. Not enough credit is being given to the CBA that the lockout has yielded, with people tending to focus on the rather dubious collusion talk instead of paying testament to the healthy but restrictive rules that are forcing teams and players to make tough decisions.

There’s a sense of justice in the whole affair with a wrong being righted, albeit four years later. James’ decision is very well explained in his open later, and marks a rare occasion where an athletes sense of responsibility to his community has manifested on such a bright stage. Usually, such homesickness is dealt with by hosting a basketball camp, a charity golf tournament, or a countless measure of good-hearted initiatives that keep the player grounded to his roots. James has taken that to a whole new level.  The intense hate he garnered four years ago seems to have dissipated into mild annoyance, primarily due to him being so good that no levels of hate can penetrate or affect him, so why waste the energy? It also helps that far more unpleasant characters such as Dwight Howard have emerged to put ‘The Decision’ into greater context.

From a basketball point of view, his decision carries less pressure. The move to Miami was to avoid leaving a legacy akin to great players who never won a title, players like Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Bernard King, Reggie Miller and so many more. Players who were, by all accounts, great yet failed to get over the hump and win what really matters. Now that that has been sorted out, he can return to Cleveland to his “dream job”. If he fails to win there, he’ll be credited for doing the right thing when he could’ve had more of the same in Miami. If he wins it, he’ll be hailed a rightful hero.

When he was in Cleveland he was pure talent that didn’t know what it took to win, often imploding when resolve was required. In Miami he’s learned those nuances thanks to a big assist from Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, and most of all the tutelage of Pat Riley. He returns now as a winner who knows what the right pass is, what the body language should be when adversity hits, how to react to teammates when they’re falling short, how to support and be supported, how to approach the 48-minute game as a marathon and not a sprint, when to exert and when to step back. He was the tutor in Miami and now becomes the teacher in Cleveland.

The beauty of this story also revealed some of the ugliness of sports journalism. Fuelled by Twitter, fans’ impatience, and an intense desire to appear as someone in the know, so-called journalists release ambiguous information in the hopes of appearing half-right, and then later revise their stance once more information is known. Click-bait and ads fuel the internet economy and a story like this preys on the eager and bored, enticing them to consume misinformation, conjecture, and speculation. The reveal of the story came via Lee Jenkins (complete back story of how he landed it) of Sports Illustrated, not ESPN, Yahoo, or any of the outlets that fans are glued to, hitting F5 or scrolling down to refresh. The look of shock on Chris Broussard and Brian Windhorst’s face as they spoke on ESPN after priceless. James has chosen a relative unknown to break his story in essay format so that he’d have an “opportunity to explain myself uninterrupted”. It was flawless execution.  You could make a good argument that the only thing better might have been if he had announced, you know, a set time where he would reveal where he’d be going, thus putting the massive speculation and shooting in the dark to relative rest.

The backdrop of next season is being set and the story lines are more intriguing than ever. Other than Philadelphia and Brooklyn, the competition is likely to improve, making this a season where nothing is given. Everything is earned.

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