Friday July 9th, 2010

They will still say his name in Cleveland, only this time the words that accompany it will lack the usual PG rating. The man who once ruled greater Ohio is now a veritable pariah in his home state, a belief proved by wild-eyed fans doing drive-bys at his house and burning his jerseys, with only an armed police force preventing an angry mob from tearing down the massive Nike billboard bearing his likeness.

LeBron James' decision to "take his talents to South Beach" may have been motivated by his desire to be a winner, but in skipping town by way of Greenwich, Conn., James left a smattering of stunned losers in his wake.

The despair, of course, is felt most in Cleveland, a city that has endured The Shot, The Drive, The Fumble and now The Betrayal, a word purposefully chosen by incensed Cavs owner Dan Gilbert who issued a scalding statement calling James' actions "narcissistic" and "shameful" and foolishly declaring in capital letters that the Cavs will win a championship before "the self-titled former King wins one." Gilbert's words were meant to channel the fans anger, to direct their emotions at the man who tore the city apart. But those emotions are in for a wild ride. A LeBron-less Cavaliers team is a textbook example of mediocrity. Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao are fine as supporting actors plugged in around an Oscar winner. But remove the superstar from the equation and the Cavs roster suddenly looks loaded with average -- and overpaid -- players.

No, rebuilding is the only solution. The current Cavs aren't good enough to make the playoffs, but they are not bad enough to slip to a New Jersey Nets-like level, either, where they would be in a position to snag the next LeBron in a future draft.

The Jamison-Williams-Varejao troika is probably good for 28-32 wins next season, acceptable totals for a team on the rise but utterly unacceptable for one with no real future. The Cavs must be stripped, their parts sold. Varejao is a hot commodity for teams in need of rebounding and energy off the bench. Jamison and Williams are aging quasi-stars with just enough left in the tank to make them appealing to a contender.

The Cavs could create about $13 million in cap space or, if they complete a sign-and-trade deal with Miami for James, make use of a $16 million trade exception anytime during the next year. They're not out of options, but they're certainly limited; simply subbing another star into LeBron's void isn't going to return them to contender status. It's been said that the night is always darkest before the dawn, but in Cleveland that moonless eve could last a while.

It's not as Shakespearean a tragedy in New York, but for a city that has been building towards LeBron's arrival for three years, losing James to a conference rival -- a conference rival managed by Pat Riley, no less -- is a crippling blow.

"Wait until 2010" had practically become the Knicks mantra, as they asked fans to accept cost-cutting trades with a promise that the moves would yield dividends in the future. Well, that future is here, and thus far all the Knicks have to show for it is a $100-million promise to Amar'e Stoudemire, a player who averaged 23.1 points and 8.9 rebounds last season in Phoenix, comparable numbers to ex-Knick David Lee (20.2, 11.7) who took his cues from Toney Douglas, Nate Robinson and The Artist Formerly Known as Chris Duhon.

There are other losers -- New Jersey and Chicago had to feel at least a twinge of disappointment -- but the biggest of them all may be turn out to be James himself. The King is suddenly the world's most famous mercenary, a high-profile hired gun expected to provide championships in bunches. Only, there are no guarantees he can deliver.

If this were a game of NBA Live, the Heat would go 82-0 and storm through the playoffs. But PlayStation players don't have planet-sized egos and you have to wonder what happens when Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant close the gap on James in the MVP race because the Heat have two other superstars he must share the ball with. Or if the usually mild-mannered Bosh suddenly grows weary of his role as third fiddle. Or if Wade, the face of the franchise since the Heat scooped him up in the 2003 draft, will be truly comfortable with LeBron's inflated ego consuming the entire locker room.

This isn't the '07 Celtics -- a group of 30-somethings who are looking to punctuate the careers is a little different than a trio of 20-somethings still trying to flesh out theirs. Of course it will work in the beginning. The fledgling Big Three will sit down for an ESPN interview and laugh and joke about how easy it will be to play together. They will smirk at the naysayers and tell everyone that the allure of winning a championship far exceeds any need for individual accolades.

And for the sake of James -- a man who told ESPN The Magazine in 2006 that "I don't want to go ring-chasing" -- they better be right. Because there is no going back. Miami is home now, and with Clevelanders already carving James' face next to Art Modell's on the villainous Mount Rushmore, he may never be able to go back. Folks there may have been able to swallow LeBron leaving but to slap them around on national television and try to mitigate it by bragging about all he has given them borders on unforgiveable.

The pressure is on now for James to win in Miami, the last NBA city that will show him love.

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