Decade of Dominance: Cleveland championship realized at long last for LeBron James

LeBron departs Miami in free agency to deliver on long ago title promise to 'hometown' NBA team

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith


May 29, 2017 12:01 PM ET


Fourteen years after he was drafted by Cleveland, LeBron James at last wins a title for the Cavs.

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The 2017 postseason marks the 10th anniversary of LeBron James' first run to The NBA Finals, when his play powered the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first championship series. 

Since that 2007 Finals trip, James has been in The Finals six times, winning three championships in that span. He led the Cavs to the title in 2016 and, as the Cavs enter The 2017 Finals, we look back on how James' seven career Finals appearances have shaped both his career and the NBA at large.

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The departure from Miami lacked the drama of The Decision.

You could see this breakup coming from miles away.

After four straight grueling trips to The Finals, with NBA two titles sandwiched between crushing defeats to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and the San Antonio Spurs in 2014, it was time for the Miami Heat's traveling circus to close up its tent.

The Spurs had exposed the fact that the Heat’s "Big Three" of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had eroded. They were less of a super team and more of the sort of superstar-led team LeBron had carried earlier in his career in Cleveland.

With all three of them back on the free agent market in July of 2014, the partnership was on shaky ground and Heat boss Pat Riley knew it. He publicly challenged his stars (namely LeBron) on the eve of free agency.

“You got to stay together if you have guts and you don’t find the first door and run out of it,” Riley said.

Pat Riley had some pointed words about the Heat after The 2014 Finals.

But it was too late. LeBron’s mind was already made up. With his four years in Miami serving as the getaway experience he never had growing up in Akron and then playing for the “hometown” Cavaliers, he was ready to come home and try to deliver on the promise he’d made as a teenager to bring a championship to Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.

Remodeling an old 'home'

He broke the story himself, via an essay penned meticulously by Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, instead of opting for the spectacle of another made-for-TV event. As James so simply stated in his piece, he was "coming home."

Twelve seasons into a career that had already exceeded all expectations, LeBron was once again doing the unthinkable and changing the narrative in a way few saw coming. He left Cleveland as a villain ... and returned to hero’s welcome, forcing fans in “The Land” to embrace the prodigal son upon his return.

The Cavaliers were a disaster in his absence. After a 61-win season in James' final Cleveland campaign (the 2009-10 season), the Cavs went 97-215 while he won titles and accolades with the Heat. Cleveland did have an All-Star in point guard Kyrie Irving and some talented young prospects such as Tristan Thompson.

But they were far from the championship-caliber team and organization LeBron was leaving behind in Miami.

LeBron James' return to Cleveland led to an overhaul of the Cavs' roster.

LeBron’s confidence, however, was at an all-time high. It was his time. And he was ready to rewrite his own story.

“He’s created his own path,” said Hall of Famer and two-time NBA champion Isiah Thomas, who set the tone for the Detroit Pistons' championship era of the late 1980s and early '90s.

"When you look at Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], Michael Jordan, and even a Bill Russell, those players have been able to carve out their own path. It’s hard to measure or compare other players to them. I think when this era is over, I think it’s going to be very difficult to compare any other players to LeBron James because he’s been so dominant for so long.”

Stepping into the overnight rebuild in Cleveland, though, would require patience LeBron simply didn’t possess. First, the Cavs would be led by a rookie NBA coach, David Blatt, who had a sterling resume coaching overseas. Second, the Cavaliers had the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 Draft, Andrew Wiggins, in tow.

Andrew Wiggins suited up for the Cavs' Summer League team in 2014.

But Wiggins and James would never play together. Wiggins and Anthony Bennett were dealt to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a three-team deal that landed the Cavaliers an All-Star big man: the Timberwolves' Kevin Love. Beyond that trade, the Cavs also added two former LeBron teammates from his Heat days -- Mike Miller and James Jones -- as well as veteran Shawn Marion in the offseason.

The Love trade gave LeBron a new "Big Three" in Cleveland -- himself, Love and Irving -- and a reshaped roster that would spearhead a new era for the Cavs.

Transactions aside, the tough part lay ahead for James and the Cavs. He'd have to impart the things he learned in Miami -- particularly winning at the highest level and building a championship culture -- quickly and efficiently. And while LeBron was grinding through the Eastern Conference season after season in Miami, a new power was rising in the Western Conference.

Cavs find their way while Warriors soar

Behind their dynamic "Splash Brothers" (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) and under new coach Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors took the NBA by storm. Their breathtaking style and deep roster gave them the tools to challenge the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies and LA Clippers for top billing in the Western Conference. 

The Warriors were captivating the basketball world with their swashbuckling style and fresh new faces, while LeBron was plodding through another season filled with growing pains and adjustments that needed to be made if he was going to turn the Cavaliers into a title-worthy outfit.

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson made waves together in the NBA.

What might have looked impossible from afar, though, looked like something much more calculated to those who had grown accustomed to LeBron’s work over the years. After four years of Eastern Conference teams trying to catch up to the power structure the Heat built up, everything shifted to what was going on in Cleveland.

“That’s when you know the guy changes the league,” Thomas said. “When he got into the league and went to The Finals, every GM, every coach started building their teams and are still building their teams today to try and beat LeBron James. It’s like when Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came into the league. Everybody said, ‘okay, we gotta build around that.’ [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson], when they came into the league, it was ‘we gotta find a way to beat those guys. [Michael] Jordan, when he started to ascend, everybody started building their team trying to beat Jordan. And now it’s LeBron.”

That was certainly the case in LeBron’s first season back in Cleveland. His return for the Cavaliers what many thought it would, lifting them to the Central Division title, 53 wins and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference (trailing only the 60-win Atlanta Hawks).

A deal in early 2015 brought J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland.

Midseason moves to add big man Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert worked out perfectly with LeBron promising to shepherd the process and delivering on his word. Cleveland was in its groove as the 2014-15 season closed, winning 10 of its last 13 games to roll into the playoffs.

Another Finals letdown for James, Cavs

Even after losing Love to a shoulder injury for the remainder of the postseason in their first round series against Boston and Irving wrestling with knee issues throughout, the Cavaliers had no problems getting to The Finals. They swept the Celtics, beat the Chicago Bulls in six games and smoked the Hawks 4-0 in the conference finals to get there, punctuating their return to the top of the conference in short order.

In 2015, the Cavs reached their second NBA Finals in franchise history.

“The pieces were good, I think everything fit really well,” Cavaliers general manager David Griffin said during the trophy ceremony. “We had incredible coaching that integrated those pieces really well and then we have the greatest player on the planet who made it all work.”

It would take more than what the Cavaliers showed through the conference finals to contend with a Warriors team that had morphed into a juggernaut by then. Even with the greatest player on the planet exhausting every ounce of what he could muster to carry a wounded team to the finish line, it wasn't enough.

Irving cracked his knee late in Game 1 of The Finals and was lost for the rest of the series, leaving LeBron to go it without either of his All-Star counterparts against a stacked Warriors crew.

Kyrie Irving suffers a knee cap injury in Game 1 of The 2015 Finals.

Yet he willed the Cavaliers to a Game 2 win at Oracle Arena and then dazzled in a Game 3 win at Quicken Loans Arena that produced a 2-1 lead that frayed the nerves of the locals, who could see visions of a championship parade if LeBron could just count on role players like Matthew Dellavedova and Mozgov for just two more games.

An epic showing from LeBron James in Game 3 guides the Cavs to a 2-1 lead in The 2015 Finals.

But it wasn’t to be. The Warriors found their form in Game 4 and ran off three straight wins, with eventual Finals MVP Andre Iguodala providing the perfect counterpunch against LeBron, to end their own championship drought at 40 years.

LeBron’s work in the series -- 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists while playing a unrelenting 45.8 minutes per game -- had people calling for him join Jerry West as the only players from a Finals-losing team named Finals MVP.

The Warriors claimed the 2015 NBA title with a Game 6 win in Cleveland.

"I mean, I obviously knew it was going to be a tough task, and I continued to tell you guys we were undermanned,” James said during the Game 6 news conference. “I don't know any other team -- and I've been watching basketball for a long time; I'm a historian of the game -- that's gotten to The Finals without two All-Stars. I cannot even remember thinking of it. I don't know if it's ever happened.

"Tried as much as we could to make up for those guys, but that's a lot of talent sitting in suits. I've had a lot of playoff runs, been on both ends, and I know one thing, that you've got to be healthy. You've also got to be playing great at the right time. You've got to have a little luck. And we were playing great, but we had no luck and we weren't healthy."

He wouldn’t have to worry about it a year later, when the Cavaliers and Warriors squared off in the 2016 Finals under much different circumstances.

James, Cavs deliver on title promise

This time it was the Warriors, fresh off a record-setting 73-win regular season, who were dealing with injury issues to a star player. Curry suffered an ankle injury in Game 1 of Golden State's first-round series with Houston. Then came a knee injury later in the postseason that further hobbled him. In all, he wasn’t the same player he’d been throughout the course of back-to-back Kia MVP seasons. 

The Cavaliers were more or less the same crew, save for some roster tweaks like adding Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson in the offseason and trading for Channing Frye at midseason. And when the playoffs started, they were the No. 1 seed in the East (holding off the Toronto Raptors by one game) and ready for another Finals run.

Just like in Miami, the second season with Irving and Love proved to be considerably better in terms of chemistry. That proved especially true as 2015-16 wore on and Tyronn Lue replaced Blatt as coach. The pressure of a championship in Cleveland was growing and GM David Griffin, citing that Blatt had lost the team, fired Blatt after 41 games and promoted his assistant, Lue, to the top spot. 

Lue’s personality and connection with LeBron, and really the entire roster, was the tweak needed to change this team’s DNA.

Tyronn Lue had a big change in responsibilities midway through the 2015-16 season.

Yet none of that stopped the Warriors from taking a 3-1 Finals lead and looking like they were poised to run over the Cavaliers on their way to back-to-back titles. It appeared to be all but a formality with the Warriors seemingly in complete control.

Well, not exactly. Not with another wild twist in this saga on the way.

A key moment late in Game 4 of The 2016 Finals redirects the course of the series.

LeBron’s best move of the entire series might have been stepping over Warriors firebrand and emotional leader Draymond Green during a fourth quarter exchange in Game 4 that completely shifted the energy in the series.

Green took offense to LeBron’s move to step over him and appeared to take a below the belt swipe at LeBron during the dust up. The league reviewed the play and Green, who had dealt with discipline issues throughout the postseason, was suspended for Game 5, a potential close-out game in Oakland.

The seeds of the historical comeback were planted. That serendipity LeBron spoke of the year before, presented itself. And he and Kyrie responded with three straight games of exemplary effort and play to will the Cavaliers to a deciding Game 7 on the road.

Relive the Cleveland Cavaliers' title-clinching victory in The 2016 Finals.

When it was time to get it done, to finish a game that turned into a draining, slugfest down the stretch, it was James coming up with a game changing chase-down block on Iguodala and Irving draining a jumper in Curry’s face in the final minutes to seal the win and end 52 years of misery for a franchise, its city and fans worldwide.

“Cleveland,” an emotional LeBron screamed into the microphone during a postgame interview with ESPN’s Doris Burke, “this is for you.”

LeBron James is overcome with emotion as the Cavs win the 2016 NBA title.

“History ... we’re in the record books,” he said. “We’re the first team ever to come back from a 3-1 deficit. This is special.”

Three championships. Three Finals MVPs and delivery on that initial promise to bring a title to Cleveland stamped this the decade of LeBron.

And it’s not over yet. The ending to this story is still being written.

He has the Cavaliers back in The Finals for a third straight season, a rubber match if you will, against the Warriors.

It’s LeBron’s seventh straight trip to The Finals, a run the likes the league hasn’t seen since Bill Russell's Celtics dominated the basketball world.

LeBron’s decade of dominance ... and then some.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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