The Cavaliers Have No Cure for the LeBron James Hangover

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CLEVELAND — LeBron James is no longer in Cleveland to save the Cavaliers.

Gone are his blocks, his passes, his points and his unmatched, electric presence.

He was not there to rescue the Cavaliers from this season’s woeful 0-6 start. Nor is he there to fix the mess created Sunday, when the team fired its championship-winning head coach, Tyronn Lue.

James, of course, is a Los Angeles Laker now, focused on trying to resurrect a legendary team from the Western Conference scrap heap.

His Ohio absence weighs heavy still. It casts a long shadow over, and raises deep questions about, a team that went to the N.B.A. finals the last four years and walked away with a title in 2016.

Call it the LeBron James hangover.

“There was a total dependence on LeBron,” said Larry Drew, the team’s longtime lead assistant, who found himself suddenly elevated to the uncertain position of what the Cavaliers called the “acting” head coach when Lue was fired last weekend. “A total dependence,” he said, to emphasize the point.

“I am not just talking about his talent, but the whole presence,” he said. “You could sense it just when he walked into the gym. And when that is taken away, when he is gone, it is like, where do you go? The whole organization feels it, has had to deal with it, even the whole city. And that is the struggle.”

So far, the struggle is real, and it is not going well.

When James left Cleveland, for the second time, the team made the conscious decision to make a clean break from its historic superstar (without the bitter rancor that existed between ownership and James following his free-agent signing with the Miami Heat in 2010).

That massive mural of James that had stretched across the wide flank of a building near Quicken Loans arena? Gone. (A new one was put up depicting a landmark statue in the city.)

Looking to buy a commemorative No. 23 James jersey at the arena’s team shop? Good luck.

(This week, when I asked for one, a saleswoman laughed before replying: “Uh, that guy plays for the Lakers now.”)

Shortly before the regular season began, a relaxed and confident Lue sat on a bench at the team’s practice facility and spoke about guiding a team — Cleveland without James — far different from the one he had coached to multiple championship finals. “Everything LeBron touched turned to gold for everybody,” Lue said. “Losing a guy like that, it’s tough, but we got to change the culture, and I think we can.”

Lue said he envisioned leaning on his veterans while steadily growing a young and unproven core.

Could the Cavaliers make the playoffs? “It’ll take some work,” he said then, “but yeah.”

Then came brutal reality. A half-dozen contests into the season, the Cavaliers (1-7) had not led in the second half of any game they had played. Lue and the team’s front office clashed over how much the young players should be on the court. The Atlanta Hawks — expected to be among the N.B.A.’s worst this season — came to town for Cleveland’s home opener, and left with a 22-point win.

Quicken Loans Arena felt like a morgue, much as it did after James’s departure for Miami. Tickets were being sold on the internet for $2. Questions swirled. Were the Cavaliers going to tank the season, give up trying their best and begin trading away veterans and angling for lottery picks in coming drafts?

The day after a 12-point loss to the Pacers in which the Cavaliers made less than a third of their 3-pointers and allowed Indiana to shoot 64.9 percent from the floor, Lue was fired. “It just took all of my breath away — devastating,” said Drew, who was extremely close to Lue.

When he spoke with General Manager Koby Altman and was asked to take temporarily take over the team, Drew, a former N.B.A. player who has had head coaching stints in Atlanta and Milwaukee, had a firm response: “I am very reluctant to do this. Very reluctant.”

So began an ungainly dance. The Cavaliers’ players showered Lue with praise on social media and expressed anger that such an accomplished coach had lasted less than two weeks. James did the same on Twitter. Before the Lakers played the Minnesota Timberwolves the next night, he told reporters: “That whole situation is beyond me.”

And beyond the Cavaliers. The team appears to have fired Lue without a firm plan for who would be his replacement.

Drew is highly respected throughout the league and by the Cavaliers’ players, but his position has yet to be clearly defined.

He told me he thinks of himself as a substitute teacher for now. Is he going to get a new contract with a salary befitting a head coach? What about a long-term commitment for him to be in that role? If not, he spoke of moving back to his old job as assistant to the head coach, while the team brings in a new leader.

The Cavaliers have not decided what to do.

It’s important to recall that even during both James eras in Cleveland — the first from his drafting in 2003 to 2010, when he went to the Heat; the second from 2014 to 2018 — the team was never very far from turmoil. James had a huge say in how the organization was being run, which players were being brought into the fold and who was coaching.

Lue became head coach after David Blatt was fired in January 2016, when the team was coming off a conference championship and holding a 30-11 record. Blatt didn’t get along with James. Lue and James had long been close.

But in those days it was different: James was always there to make sure the ship did not sink.

“Him out there, you could count on excitement,” said Ronald Goolsby, a season-ticket holder, dressed in Cavaliers maroon and gold as he sat in the stands Tuesday night during Cleveland’s came against the Atlanta Hawks. “You could bank on wins, playoffs, N.B.A. finals, and really he would solve any problem they had.”

Like many fans, Goolsby said he’d found a way to accept the loss of LeBron, to downsize expectations, to not expect much from the team for a while.

There was pragmatic resignation in his voice, the same resignation I heard from all of the fans I spoke with at Quicken Loans that night. But also determined hope.

Goolsby looked down on the court and smiled. The Cavaliers were playing with sustained energy, and something approaching their LeBron-era confidence.

The Drew-coached Cavaliers jumped on Atlanta from the opening tip. For the first time this season, they led during a second half. They ended up winning, 136-114.

The Cavaliers players and Drew walked off the court celebrating their first win. But a long, hard, uncertain season remains.

The LeBron James hangover does not have an easy cure.

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