By Matt Mataxas
A drought is a period of slow, prolonged suffering. Dust insidiously worms its way into every open crevice and chokes a region into oppression; hope for rain is whittled down into a bitter acceptance that none is coming.
Cleveland, Ohio has been in a championship drought for 51 years. For 51 years, the sports fans of Cleveland have been a thirsty garden, wilting in the sun, choking on dust, and struggling to cope without a championship to lubricate their parched soil.
Numerous attempts have been made to revitalize this Ohio garden. Fertilizers, in the form of talented young players and promising draft selections, have been given to the garden, hoping that maybe it would evoke future growth.
The Browns were led by talented quarterbacks Brian Snipe and Bernie Kosar in the 1980’s, but could never translate their dexterity into championship success. The Indians have not won a world series since 1948, despite employing 2007 American League Cy Young winner CC Sabathia for seven years.
Currently, the Indians are home to a second AL Cy Young winner, pitching ace Corey Kluber, yet are four games below .500 and fourth in their division of five teams.
Then, there was LeBron James.
James, a product of Akron, Ohio, drafted by the Cavaliers in 2003, was rookie of the year, and instantly brought life to the garden. Suddenly the Cavs were 18 games better than they were the year prior to drafting LeBron and hope sprang eternal in Cleveland.
They had finally found the right fertilizer. Four years later, in 2007, the Cavaliers were eastern conference champions and heading to the NBA finals. Despite being swept by the San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland fans were content.
They had a chance now. They had seen rain clouds gathering on the horizon and now at least knew that water was indeed attainable and that the drought’s conclusion, though it had not yet ended, was now a question of when rather than if.
But to be in love is to be naïve. Three years after the franchise’s first ever Finals appearance, LeBron announced that he was leaving the hometown Cavs as an unrestricted free agent, opting instead to live and play in the lush Eden of Miami, Florida.
In the new film, Mad Max: Fury Road, Immortan Joe advises the subjugated people of his kingdom to “not become addicted to water, as it will take hold of you and you will resent its absence.”
The patrons of Quicken Loans arena became addicted to the spectacle of LeBron James. They became entranced with his once in a generation talent and thunderous dunks. Most of all, they became addicted to winning.
Once that was taken away, the residents of Ohio did indeed resent its absence. Hot, angry tears were shed, the King was slandered without remorse, and jerseys were burned in bulk.
The King giveth, and as his prerogative, the King can taketh away.
As quickly as he appeared on the scene, the basketball Moses departed to lead others to the Promised Land. Cleveland was right back to where it started, subsisting on fertilizer and empty dreams.
In the period post LeBron, while he was frolicking in the land of champions and sunshine, the Cavaliers have had seven picks in the first round, three of which were the top overall selection. They drafted Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Jared Cunningham, Sergey Karasev, Anthony Bennet, and most recently Andrew Wiggins.
But lo and behold, the prodigal son returned and tended to his garden, dispelling of any garbage that would inhibit his plants from blossoming. Last year, the Cavaliers were 33-49 and the Miami Heat were 54-28. This year the roles were essentially reversed, as the Heat finished the season with a 37-45 record, while the Cavaliers finished 53-29.
Though both teams experienced tremendous personnel changes, the common denominator is that one team had LeBron and the other did not. It almost doesn’t matter who his supporting cast is because, as the cliché goes, he makes everyone around him better. If he can’t make someone better, it’s because they don’t truly want to win and consequently find themselves playing elsewhere (ahem, Dion Waiters).
Look at Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, and Mario Chalmers as examples of LeBron’s ability to cultivate talent. All three players represent the various skill levels that can relate to James, as Mario Chalmers is at best a serviceable point guard, Smith is a talented but mercurial shooting guard, and Irving is a future superstar.
In the four year span that he played with LeBron in Miami, an average of 52% of the shots that Chalmers attempted were 3-pointers. Last year only 37.4% of his shots were 3’s. During that same span, Chalmers was worth about 4.5 extra wins for the Heat, while last year he was worth only an estimated 1.62 wins above replacement.
With LeBron, Chalmers was able to spot up and shoot more 3’s, without him he has to drive to the rim more and attempt more midrange shots, which results in a lesser win contribution.
Smith benefits from James’ presence much in the same way. While with the Knicks, almost 40% of J.R.’s shots were three point attempts, but that figure ballooned to 66.7% once he was traded to the Cavaliers. Basketballreference.com, estimates that Smith was actually hindering the Knicks, handicapping their performance at negative 1.08 wins.
However, with the Cavs, J.R. has contributed to 4.86 extra wins in the regular season. A player coming off the bench is responsible for more Cleveland victories than he was as a starter for the Knicks. What changed?
Smith is the same shot happy player that he was in New York, and actually shoots a greater percentage of 3’s with the Cavs, but now he has LeBron to help facilitate ball movement and get more open looks from the three point line.
Finally, Kyrie Irving has been a stellar player since he was drafted with the number one overall pick in the 2011 draft. Unfortunately, outside of the stage provided by the All-Star game, Irving has spent his career shining on a team that was relevant only when they matched up against the Heat.
In his first three years he has averaged 20.6 points and 5.8 assists, but his offense only accounted for four additional wins. Fast-forward to this year where Irving’s stats are largely the same, but his offense is more meaningful and now accounts for an astounding 8.4 more victories towards to the Cavalier win total.
Obviously the additions of J.R. Smith and Iman Sumpert make this year’s offense more potent than any of the previous seasons, but those additions do not happen without LeBron James.
Five consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals are no fluke, but LeBron James has made consistent success look easy. The argument can be made that he has been the single most influential on court player of this era, but this season in particular has been engineered and orchestrated solely by number 23.
He has been involved in over a third (36.4%) of the plays that the Cavaliers have run and has assisted on 42.9% of Cleveland’s field goals, both career highs. For comparison, James’ assist percentage is higher than that of the NBA’s most valuable player Steph Curry (38.6%) and MVP runner-up James Harden (34.6%), both of whom are guards.
James is able to direct a fluid offense and create more scoring opportunities for his teammates than the NBA’s top two MVP vote getters, and does so from the small forward/power forward position.
In this year’s playoffs, James is almost averaging a triple double (27.6 points, 8.3 assists, and 10.4 rebounds), all while playing 40.7 minutes per game.
Even if LeBron fails to obtain a third ring and finally deliver a championship to the beleaguered city of northeast Ohio, it would not, could not, diminish the overall masterpiece of that has been the 2015 season.
The Cavaliers didn’t panic after a 19-20 start, ignored the clamoring for David Blatt to be fired, overcame injuries to Anderson Varejao, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving, and found a way to piece together a championship caliber roster.
LeBron James is great because he makes others great. Legendary Detroit Piston bad boy Bill Laimbeer said that he would pick LeBron over Jordan because James “can get you 18 rebounds, 15 assists, and score 50 points if he wants to. He can do more.”
The people of Cleveland love LeBron because, like any good gardener, he is attuned to the needs of his garden. James knows if certain plants need more light to bask in, he knows which plants to feed what and at what time to do it, and he also knows that for the plants to succeed he is going to have to do most of the work.
The only thing Green-Thumb James hasn’t been able to do is provide his garden with some water, but he is on his way to the well. Rain clouds are again gathering on the horizon, a sight Cavs fans remember from 2007, but this time LeBron has the experience necessary to quench a 51-year thirst.
The drought, it seems, is once again on the precipice of ending and is simply a question of when, rather than if.