Will LeBron James be to Cleveland what Barry Bonds was to Pittsburgh?

Tonight might just be the night in which the Cavaliers fall off the cliff.  Why?  Let’s consider the Pittsburgh Pirates following the 1992 season.

Barry Bonds spent his first 7 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates and during that time he amassed a very impressive list of personal achievements.  The list includes:

  • Voted an NL All-Star – 1990 & 1992
  • NL Golden Glove – 1990, 1991 & 1992
  • NL Silver Slugger – 1990, 1991 & 1992
  • NL MVP – Finished 1st in 1990 & 1992 and 2nd in 1991

This was also before the team became the laughing stock that it is now.  It was a team with a proud history.  It had won 5 World Series since 1903 – the last in 1979.  The team had been to the post season many more times throughout its history.  Ok, enough of a trip down memory lane.

So while Bonds was hitting his stride as a player, he was also playing on a very solid team.  It was a team that made it to, but ultimately lost, three consecutive NLCS (1990, 1991 and 1992).  Following the 92 season, Bonds left the Pirates for the San Francisco Giants, a team that had just finished two back-to-back sub-500 seasons.  However, the issue here is not where he ultimately went to play.  The issue is what happened to his previous team after he decided to leave.

In the case of the Pirates, the team went into the toilet.  The very next season the Pirates began a streak of 17 consecutive losing seasons – which they have yet to break.  Now, to be fair, I will not blame all of that on Bonds departure.  Bonds left at a time when all of the Pirates talent departed (players and management) and the team has yet to figure out how to build a successful team.  It is clear though, that a small market team, like the Pirates, can easily fall off a cliff when its biggest star leaves.

LeBron James has spent his first seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers.  And much like Barry Bonds, James has amassed some great personal honors.  He and his team have also had some post season success – making it to one NBA finals and two Eastern Conference finals during this period.  James and Bonds careers, in two completely different sports, seem to parallel.

If LeBron James leaves the Cavaliers, as many experts suspect, is it not reasonable to expect that the Cavaliers would fall into a multi-year funk?  If they do, I doubt that it would be nearly a generation like the Pirates – as the Cavaliers appear to have better management and ownership than the Pirates.  However, a departure of a player of his stature, much like Barry Bonds, appears very likely to have a devastating, multi-season impact on his former team.  And as a smaller market city, that no longer can offer the draw of “playing with LeBron,” nor does it present the opportunities of the larger cities, nor is it a destination city – it will be increasingly more difficult to attract free agent talent.  This could easily create a situation in which the Cavaliers become a (best case) middle of the pack team or (worst case) routinely in the draft lottery for the next three to four seasons.

So here we are only a few hours from 9:00 EDT on July 8, 2010, it will be interesting to see if today marks the day that the “Pirates-like” downward spiral began for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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