On July 8, 2010 LeBron James announced to the world that he was taking his talents to South Beach. This day ended competitive basketball in Cleveland for the time being. The moment those words came out of his mouth, the world knew that the Cavaliers were destined to transform from a team coming off of a 66-win campaign into a team that would struggle to crack the 20-win mark. LeBron meant that much, and more.
Sure, the Cavs landed Kyrie Irving and things became slightly more enjoyable for Clevelanders, but it wasn’t the same, and everyone knew that it wasn’t going to be the same. Fans of the team instead took solace in watching James and company in Miami fall to the Dallas Mavericks in year one of his tenure there. Following that season, Cleveland, and the rest of the basketball world was forced to watch James enter the prime of his career.
James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh dominated the basketball world the next two seasons, going back-to-back with NBA titles while Cleveland suffered through the process of attending NBA Draft lotteries repeatedly.
Things never seemed to work out for the Cavs. Failed draft picks in the form of Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett, terrible offseason acquisitions such as Andrew Bynum, and midseason trades for Luol Deng in an attempt to reach the eight-seed and a prompt four game playoff exit were all failures.
In essence, Cleveland did nearly everything wrong, with the exceptions the selections of Irving and Tristian Thompson, the two remaining players on the Cavaliers’ roster from the LeBron-less era.
On July 11, 2014, a single tweet from Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated sent the world into a frenzy. LeBron James was coming home to play basketball for Cleveland again.
Obviously, this news was great, but it wasn’t prefect.
Sure, Cleveland was getting LeBron back, but Miami got his best. Even if somehow James would find a way to bring a championship home to Cleveland, Miami still saw him at his peak, while his hometown fans were busy hating him.
At least that’s what we all thought.
On June 12, 2016, Golden State Warriors’ shooting guard and splash brother Klay Thompson sat in front of a microphone in Oakland. The Warriors were leading the Cavs three games to one in the NBA Finals and on the verge of being crowned back-to-back NBA champions, this time on their own court in front of their own fans. Golden State was going to be crowned the best team in NBA history, surpassing the 1996 Chicago Bulls the next night, it was going to be a story book ending to a picture-perfect season for the Warriors.
Then, something happened. While Thompson sat in front of that microphone he opened his mouth. I firmly believe the words that came out of his mouth changed the history of sports forever.
“Guys talk trash in this league all of the time, I’m just kind of shocked some guys take it so personal. It’s a man’s league and I’ve heard a lot of bad things on the court but at the end of the day it stays on the court. We’re all competitive people, trash talk is a part of the game in basketball. It’s a part of any sport, especially this competitive. I don’t know how the man feels but obviously, people have feelings and people’s feelings get hurt, I guess his feelings just got hurt.”
Thompson was speaking about LeBron following an on-court scuffle with Draymond Green in Game 4 of the series. The words from Thompson clearly perturbed James, who was then asked about it later that day.
James sat on the podium, wearing a shirt with a graphic of WWE legend The Undertaker on the chest, holding the microphone and delivered this response.
“Oh my goodness. I’m not going to comment on what Klay said because I know where it can go from this sit in. It’s so hard to take the high road, I’ve been doing it for 13 years and I’m going to continue to again.”
On June 13, the Cavs and Warriors squared off in Game 5 of The Finals in Oakland. That night James and Irving both went for 41 points, and the guy wearing The Undertaker shirt the previous day had found a way to give the Cavs extended life.
We all know how the remainder of the series played out. James played one of the greatest three game stretches in NBA history with back-to-back games of 41 points followed up by a triple-double in the winner-take-all Game 7 which included the career defining moment for LeBron, and ultimately a championship for his hometown.
I can never say for certain that if Thompson declines to speak about the feelings of James that the Warriors find a way to win one last game in that series, but I think their chances would have been greater.
I can say that I do believe if Thompson doesn’t utter that quote then Cleveland would have gotten LeBron back, but Miami would have gotten LeBron’s best. Since that moment the world has been watching the scariest LeBron yet. James played unbelievably well in the remainder of The Finals and it has carried over into the 2016-17 season to this point.
He has the Cavs near the top of the NBA with a 13-2 record, with one of the losses coming in a game in which he did not participate in. He looks refreshed and says that he feels better than he has in his entire career. James may not be as efficient as he once was shooting from the floor but he has developed a trust with his team that hasn’t been seen on a team of his. He has also played looser than ever before with the weight of the City of Cleveland lifted from his back.
He might not average a triple-double for the entire season, in fact, he probably won’t. Right now, he is averaging 23.6 points, 9.7 assists, and 8.4 rebounds per game. While his scoring is actually the second lowest of his career, the assists and rebounds are the highest they’ve ever been.
James is in search of his fifth MVP, and if he keeps these numbers up and the Cavs keep winning at a pace similar to what they are at now, that seems likely to happen. With James’ 32nd birthday approaching next month, this seemed unlikely to be the case when he announced he was coming home. Then again, it seemed unlikely the morning of June 12, too.
Klay Thompson’s press conference wasn’t just the turning of the tide in the 2016 Finals, it was also the beginning of the prime of LeBron James.