Even if he doesn’t win it all, LeBron James can’t lose.
With the Cleveland Cavaliers announcing—at about 10:30 p.m. ET on the evening prior to the 2015 NFL Draft—that Kevin Love had undergone a shoulder operation that’ll sideline him for the next four-to-six months and is lost for the duration of the postseason, James’s new Big Three is no longer something that opposing teams have to fear. Instead of Love, it’ll be a combination of Tristan Thompson, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and James Jones.
That’s not exactly the iconic Murderer’s Row from the 1927 New York Yankees.
No matter what the ultimate outcome of the Cavaliers’ postseason run winds up being, LeBron will have authored the latest chapter in his ironclad legend. LeBron has already won.
The Golden Boy returned home. He ushered in Love’s arrival in the same offseason, even if it meant sending the last two consecutive No. 1 overall picks in Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins to do it. He has taken a previously dormant Cleveland Cavaliers franchise to the playoffs for the first time since he temporarily took his talents to South Beach. And now with Love sidelined, this season doesn’t have to end in LeBron receiving his third championship ring in order for it to be considered a success.
The transformation that James’s reputation has gone through since his initial arrival in the NBA has been one of the most unique the league has ever seen. Crowned as the golden child long before ascending into the NBA as the Cavaliers’ No. 1 pick in the 2003 class, James went through long stretches of time where he could seemingly do no right. He could have saved puppies from burning buildings, and still someone would have found a way to say he should be more focused on his free throw shooting.
Although James asked for patience upon his initial return to the Cavs, no one expected that to last. This is LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world, returning home to a sports franchise—and sports city—that has been desperate for success since long before LeBron ever entered the NBA. Cleveland had to watch LeBron win two titles for Miami. And once the team made the deal for Love, fans were already lining up to purchase their playoff tickets, reserve seats at the championship parade and dialing up their favorite jeweler to see how much a mocked-up version of the Cavs’ title ring would cost.
The last time a Cleveland sports team won a championship, by the way, was 1964. In any sport. That’s 50 years and counting.
We didn’t need Love’s surgical procedure to confirm that he’d miss the remainder of this season. From the Cavs’ original press release, diagnosing Love’s injury:
“Evaluation and imaging have defined the extent of the injury: an acute anterior inferior glenohumeral dislocation with the corresponding ligament/labrum tearing and humeral head bone bruising.” As soon as the phrase ligament/labrum tearing entered the text, it was over. In the words of Chicago White Sox legend Hawk Harrelson, “he gone.”
The Eastern Conference is suddenly wide open in a postseason where it was almost universally projected for the Cavaliers to find their way to the Finals. Now, Cleveland doesn’t even have to get out of the second round for this season to be considered a success.
Love’s shoulder injury makes it more likely, not less, that he’ll return as LeBron’s third wheel next season. Although Love has been visibly frustrated at times during his inaugural season in “The Land,” he has lived every part of the Chris Bosh role as the third member of LeBron’s crew, and one has to believe that’ll have him better prepared to handle that role as the team moves forward together. And despite the fact that some people want to pretend that Love suddenly stinks and is without skill (another thing he and Bosh now share in common), averaging 16.4 points and 9.7 rebounds as a third option with an absolutely loaded starting five strikes me as a pretty good player.
LeBron can tell you about that, too.
It was once the perception that LeBron lost even when he won. At one point in LeBron’s complicated basketball story, some folks made the decision to willingly ignore both history and greatness in the failure to recognize and acknowledge James’s accomplishments.
But now LeBron can’t lose.
He won’t win the MVP award, but that won’t bring about questions about his value like it once would have—that’s obvious. Cleveland isn’t the favorite to win the title—that’s the dominant Golden State Warriors—but few will be lamenting the fact that LeBron has failed to win it all for two straight seasons.
Now with an established reputation as a clear-cut winner, LeBron James can’t lose.