The last time the Cleveland Cavaliers reached the NBA Finals -- back in 2007 -- they were led by a 22-year-old phenomenon already well on his way to NBA greatness. It would surprise no one then, that their return to the final this year -- sealed after a four game sweep of the Atlanta Hawks was concluded at the Quicken Loans Arena last Tuesday -- coincides with the return to Cleveland this season of that same player, now a 30-year-old two-time NBA champion and one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Its not so much that Lebron James has improved the fortunes of the Cleveland Cavaliers -- he has completed an extraordinary transformation of the franchise.Indeed, its not just that the Cleveland Cavaliers had not reached the finals since James last held fort; they hadn't even reached the playoffs since his controversial departure for Miami in 2010. In James' seven-year first stint with the Cavaliers, who picked him number one overall in the 2003 NBA entry draft, the team reached the playoffs in each of his last five years, and they went from a league high 61 wins in 2009-10, his last season, to a measly 19-win record, the worst in their conference.
While the Cavaliers carried on in the same sorry vein over the last four years, James sojourn to Miami has been quite the opposite. He returned to Cleveland last summer having led the Heat to four straight NBA finals, winning two championships and two finals MVP awards. An even greater testament to James' impact is that, despite the much touted "Big Three" effect -- James, alongside Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh -- on Miami's success, the Heat remarkably failed to reach the playoffs this season, for the first time in six years.
So, it would be no exaggeration to say that Cleveland Cavaliers hopes of winning the NBA title for the very first time will lean rather heavily on the shoulders of Lebron James. He's certainly been very influential in the playoffs so far, putting up game-winning performances against Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks -- including a spectacular triple double in game three of the finals last week.Yet, for all his influence, the Cleveland Cavaliers are not just about James. Coach Mike Blatt -- who joined the Cavs from Israel after leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to the 2014 Euroleague championship -- has put together a well-rounded unit who have managed to stay strong even in the absence of injured All-Star forward Kevin Love and guard Kyrie Irving's fitness struggles. Those two, along with James, form the Cleveland Cavaliers own version of a "Big Three." But it's the supporting cast that's stepped up in their absence and James' stellar efforts have been well complemented by the likes of J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson, James Jones, and Matthew Dellavedova
NBA analyst Charles Barkley believes the Cavaliers will win the title this year, and as he put it to cleveland.com, this a different team with James.
"They have a big team now.... Timofey Mozgov saved their season because they were just too small. But now you put him and Tristan Thompson together - LeBron's playing at an unbelievable level - but I think the addition of Shumpert and J.R. Smith made them a legit NBA team."Four more wins, against a tough Golden State Warriors -- with its own star player in MVP Steph Curry -- now stand between the Cleveland Cavaliers and a historic milestone. For their star player, this championship, with this team, could well seal his legacy as the best ever.
Game 1 is scheduled in Oakland next Thursday.
[Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images]