After losing to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons, the Cavaliers head into the offseason knowing that they earned full marks for their effort in their 4-1 series loss to the Warriors, but also the realization that their best was not good enough.
LeBron James, who finished the series averaging a triple double (33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 10.0 assists), put it best after Monday's season-ending loss in describing what it was like to lose to this Warriors team. "I left everything I had out on the floor every single game for five games in this Finals, and you come up short," LeBron said. "So it would be the same if you feel like you wrote the best column of your life and somebody picked another one over you. So, you wouldn't hold your head down, but you would be like, OK, it's just not my time."
LeBron's Finals record now sits at 3-5, but this latest loss -- in a strange way -- actually cemented his legacy. These Warriors were a creation of many things -- a cap spike that allowed Golden State to be competitive in their free agent offer to Durant, a confluence of blown playoff leads by the Thunder and Warriors in last year's playoffs -- but Durant to the Warriors likely doesn't happen if LeBron hadn't authored the greatest comeback in Finals history last year.
In a way, the formation of this Warriors super team is the final validation of LeBron's legacy: He is so singularly brilliant, a team of Golden State's caliber was created to overcome him. As Draymond Green said from the championship podium on Monday: "If Kevin Durant was the consolation prize for losing, thanks for that loss."
LeBron realizes this, and understands that the narrative going into these Finals was not about the result defining LeBron's career, but that he is the only player in the league who was even capable of potentially stopping this super team from winning a championship.
But there's no comfort for the best player in the world to know that this could be the start of a dynasty in Golden State. While LeBron pushed back against the notion that the Cavs themselves are a super team, the reality is this: As he enters his 15th season and set to turn 33 in December, LeBron's stated goal of chasing down Jordan's six rings becomes less realistic.
"I need to sit down and figure this thing out," LeBron said of the Warriors' dominance on Monday. "But as far as that team, they're going to be here for a while. They're going to be around for a while. Pretty much all their guys are in their 20s."
Beyond LeBron's brilliance in this series, Kyrie Irving was once again an offensive superstar in the Finals, finishing with 29.4 points on 47.2/41.9/90.0 shooting. Kevin Love, who was a liability on the defensive end for most of last year's Finals, asserted himself adequately, contributing 16.0 points and 11.2 rebounds despite a subpar Game 5 performance.
After disappointing starts to the series, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson performed decently after the Finals returned to Cleveland. But the supporting cast provided LeBron and Irving with very little help otherwise. Kyle Korver, brought in to provide the Cavs with additional shooting, especially in a series where they needed to keep up with the Warriors' firepower, was mostly a non-factor and finished 5-for-16 from beyond the arc in the series. Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert's contributions were miniscule, and Deron Williams (2-for-16 in the series) was not the answer as the team's backup point guard.
Cleveland can look to make changes to shore up its depth. The need for additional shooting continues. A capable backup point guard would ease Irving's offensive burden and give the Cavs a more potent second-unit. But these are moves that would be designed to help Cleveland in the regular season and in the East playoffs, not the game-changing transactions that can tilt the edge towards the Cavs in a seven-game series against the Warriors team.
The Cavs have LeBron under contract through the 2017-18 season. Love, Irving, Thompson and Smith are all signed through the 2019-20 season (Love has a player option for $25.6 million in the final year). The core group will return. It's a team that scored 113 points or more in four of their five Finals games, and won just once, which underlines Golden State's dominance more than it does any deficiency on Cleveland's roster.
So, the question becomes: Is there any player out there the Cavs can acquire to close the gap? The trade rumors will always start and end with Love, with a swap involving Carmelo Anthony a discussion that has persisted for several seasons. Anthony is still a capable scorer at the age of 33, but it's unclear how he would move the needle in a matchup against the Warriors.
Scan the league, and there are few ways the Cavs can land that single player to change the pendulum. Paul George is a year away from unrestricted free agency. Jimmy Butler has been involved in trade talks before. But a package featuring Love likely wouldn't be enough for Cleveland to land either player. LeBron, who in the past has expressed his frustration at the roster-building in Cleveland and Miami and left as a result, realizes this as well.
"Teams and franchises are going to be trying to figure out ways that they can put personnel together, the right group of guys together to be able to hopefully compete against this team," LeBron said. "They're assembled as good as you can assemble, and I played against some really, really good teams that was assembled perfectly, and they're right up there."
Even as underdogs, the Cavs believed they could compete with the Warriors, with LeBron leading the way, with Irving's individual brilliance, with the supporting cast providing scoring from beyond the arc, and the ability for the Cavs to physically wear down Golden State over the course of a seven-game series.
The Finals did not go according to plan, but then again, if Korver hits his three-point attempt near the end of Game 3, and Kevin Durant doesn't make his go-ahead jumper, perhaps it's a 2-2 series, and Monday's championship-clinching loss would only have given Golden State a 3-2 lead in the series heading back to Cleveland.
There are positives to be taken from this series, sure, and there are scenarios in which this Cavs team led by LeBron could take down the Warriors, it's just the margin of error is slim to none, and those odds are unlikely to change over the next few seasons. Or as Tyronn Lue said about the team's Game 3 loss: "When you have them beat, you have to beat them."
And so, it feels strangely calm after a Finals loss by LeBron. There will be no significant upheaval to the roster during the offseason. The Cavs will likely return this core group, with some changes on the fringes. They will still be the overwhelming favorite to win the East, as LeBron looks for his eighth consecutive Finals appearance next season.
The Cavs were always considered the toughest competition to the Warriors, and while they are just that, these Finals proved just how wide the gap between these two teams are, and how that gulf might grow wider as the Warriors continue to grow together as a group of stars in their prime, while LeBron eventually ages and shows the wear and tear of all the miles of his body after 14 seasons.
For LeBron, the question now isn't whether he will chase down Jordan, or how many championships he will end up with. The question is now simply whether his championship window has closed and if he will spend the remainder of his career chasing the one team that he helped create. If so, LeBron can take his three championships and all his career accomplishments and enter himself into the greatest player of all-time conversation. But instead of being remembered for the number of rings he got in his career, we might remember LeBron's final great accomplishment as the player who was partly responsible for birthing a modern-day dynasty in Golden State.