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Cleveland Cavaliers: How LeBron James' exit preceded their NBA slump

By BBC SPORT
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LeBron James returns to Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday – and how they must wish he was lining up in their jersey.

Sadly for them, the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player award winner will be facing them instead with his new club – the Los Angeles Lakers.

Ohio-born James, 33, solidified his place among the all-time basketball greats as he helped the Cavs to four consecutive Eastern Conference Championships and, in 2016, the team’s first NBA Championship.

His move to the Lakers in the off-season broke Cavs fans’ hearts – but few could have predicted the impact losing one man would have on their team.

LeBron reaching new heights

On Sunday, James returned to Florida to face Miami Heat – for whom he played from 2010 to 2014, leading them to four consecutive NBA Finals, and winning back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.

In a 113-97 win, he scored a season-high 51 points – the 13th time he has scored at least 50 points in a game. He was on court for just 38 of the game’s 48 minutes – the fewest in which he has scored at least 50 points.

That happened five days after he became the fifth-highest points scorer in NBA history, passing Wilt Chamberlain – who had 118 50-point games – as the Lakers beat the Portland Trailblazers 126-117.

Here’s four things that have gone wrong for the Cavs since their star man departed.

The Cavs reached four consecutive NBA Finals during James’ second stint with them – and in 2016, they won the city’s first major sports title since 1964, becoming the first team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the Finals as they beat the Golden State Warriors.

But life in 2018 is very different.

A little over four weeks into the new season, Cleveland have lost 13 of their opening 15 games. As a comparison, they lost 32 out of 82 games last season.

Their two victories – against the Atlanta Hawks and the Charlotte Hornets – have come at home, meaning they have not won on the road since beating the New York Knicks last season on April 9.

Cleveland are, unsurprisingly, bottom of the Eastern Conference. The Phoenix Suns, at the foot of the Western Conference, have managed one more win.

The Cavaliers’ troubles have already led to a change of head coach, with Tyronn Lue sacked on 28 October after a dismal 0-6 start.

Lue, promoted from assistant coach in January 2016, had made a remarkable start – becoming the first coach in NBA history to win his first 10 post-season games.

He then joined a select band of coaches to have led a team to the NBA Finals after coming in during the regular season – an achievement that culminated with that historic comeback against the Warriors.

But the Cavs’ woes in the post-James era cost Lue his job, with assistant Larry Drew replacing him.

Many Cavs fans hope Drew can do what Lue did when he stepped in – but their league standing shows the task is much harder this time.

The replacement

When James left as a free agent, many expected team-mate Kevin Love to be traded before a complete roster overhaul in a bid to revamp the side.

Instead, Love accepted a four-year, $120m contract extension – giving fans belief the Cavaliers still had a major point-scoring talent to lean on.

However, Love – who has missed 45 games over the past two regular seasons – suffered another injury setback.

He had been averaging 19 points and 13.5 assists per game in the opening four games of the season, but has not played since and, on November 2, the 30-year-old had surgery to sort out continuing problems with his left foot.

Fans of the Cavs have been used to Love’s injury problems and this operation has been a success, but he now needs time to recover, with his fitness to be assessed in mid-December.

Even the kit

Each year, NBA teams release limited quantities of their new ‘City Edition’ jerseys, allowing teams to pay tribute to their city and fans.

This year’s design, however, has upset fans, the Cavs’ typical wine-and-gold-coloured home jersey replaced by a neon orange and royal blue number.

The uniform pays homage to that worn by the Cavaliers in 1994 during the first season at their current home arena. But it has not gone down well.

ESPN graded the uniforms C-, with fans branding the design “trash”. One fan stated: “Not sure what’s worse, this jersey or the Cavs this season…”

Luckily, the jerseys change every year and will only be worn at six games throughout the season.

And, despite the criticism, the shirt’s debut outing on November 13 saw the Cavs enjoy a 113-89 win over the Charlotte Hornets.

Could this mark the turning point of their season?