By Steve Lichtenstein
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It seems so long ago now, back when LeBron was a Cavalier and the Nets were in New Jersey. But let’s not forget that those Nets were never able to knock off the King James when it counted when Cleveland’s next-best player was Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
So for all the schadenfreude felt by NBA fans on Friday in Brooklyn (or New York, or Boston, or any other city that hosts a franchise in the Eastern Conference for that matter) toward the demise of the Miami Heat, let’s make sure we understand one thing:
The road to the NBA Finals has not been cleared. It just moved from South Beach to northern Ohio. James, who announced on Friday his decision to sign a free agent contract with Cleveland, is still in his prime and capable of owning a playoff series against anyone in the East.
And now he’ll have the help that was absent in his first go-round with the Cavaliers.
He’ll have a new young coach in David Blatt, who previously toiled in relative obscurity in Europe but is highly regarded for his basketball mind, as opposed to Mike Brown, the coach whose offense consisted of telling his guys to give LeBron the ball and get out his way.
This time Cleveland will be able to surround James with a young and athletic supporting cast. Point guard Kyrie Irving, one of three No. 1 overall draft picks on the Cavs’ roster, is a two-time All-Star.
Whether Irving is paired in the backcourt with Dion Waiters or 2014 No. 1 overall selection Andrew Wiggins, that’s still a hell of a lot better than Larry Hughes and Sasha Pavlovic.
And it’s assumed that Cleveland’s roster maneuverings haven’t been completed. Minnesota power forward Kevin Love is reportedly on the Cavs’ radar.
No wonder Las Vegas has adjusted the odds making Cleveland the favorite to win the 2015 title — even over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.
As for Miami, reports are saying the ship is sinking, with center Chris Bosh supposedly leaning towards signing with Houston to form another super team with James Harden and Dwight Howard.
That would leave sore-kneed Dwyane Wade as the only member of the original Big Three to remain in Miami — that is, if he doesn’t flee in free agency as well. The Chicago Bulls reportedly have some interest.
However, Heat president Pat Riley has lots of salary cap space, plus the knowledge and experience needed to re-build NBA franchises. I predict he’ll make enough moves to keep the Heat fairly competitive this season, while keeping an open eye down the road for the next available superstar.
The good news for Heat haters is that unless Riley somehow lures Kevin Durant in 2016, there’s really no one out there who even comes close to matching James’ transcendent impact.
You can argue all day about James versus Michael Jordan as to who is/was the better player. Jordan will likely maintain his edge in championship rings and was the better scorer, but James’ physical presence on both ends makes him a worthy challenger in the debate.
Like Jordan, James makes his teammates better. Miami will be saying so long to all those wide-open 3-pointers that once buried opposing teams bent on packing the paint to defend James.
Now it’s Cleveland’s turn to reap the benefits of employing the best player on the planet.
Brooklyn and Boston are getting the credit for setting the table for Cleveland’s management to entice James to come back. The Cavs cleared salary cap space on Tuesday by sending Jarrett Jack and Sergey Karasev to the Nets and then shipping Marcus Thornton, Tyler Zeller and a 2016 first-round draft pick to the Celtics.
Those moves netted Cleveland received virtually nothing: the rights to three Europeans who will likely never play in the NBA.
It’s hard to argue that Nets’ and Celtics’ respective general managers, Billy King and Danny Ainge, got the short end here, but if any part of their motivation was abetting the Heat’s destruction, well, they should both be careful what they wished for.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1
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