Inside Cleveland’s first LeBron-less playoff run since the ’90s
8:00 AM ET
Nick FriedellESPN Staff Writer
- Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.
AS THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS play in their first playoffs since LeBron James skipped town for the second time in 2018, they do so knowing the impact the franchise icon created for the organization. They know they are writing a chapter in the history book James authored so much in.
The shadow is always there.
But the roars inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse are rising closer to the levels when James led the Cavs to one Eastern Conference title after another during his combined 11 seasons in Cleveland, and Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff feels the difference as this new group — featuring Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen — begins to try to build a legacy themselves.
“I go to my kids’ soccer games or basketball games or any time we’re out in the community, the conversations you have with the fans — the people just let you know how they’ve embraced these guys,” Bickerstaff told ESPN. “It’s a hard group of guys not to like. Our fans are really intelligent fans, understanding the game of basketball, and they know what they’re seeing. And they’re seeing the foundation of something that’s building that can be pretty special.”
What they’re seeing, in truth, is a foundational change, one years in the making, from the most successful era in its history to a fresh start with a core group of young players who believe in the foundation that the coaching staff and the front office have set.
“Having our own legacy means a lot to us,” Cavs guard Garland told ESPN. “And I’m probably speaking for everyone in this locker room, it’s going to mean a lot for us just to be in the ‘offs without his name on it.”
DANNY GREEN HAS been on this Cavs team for about two months. Even he admits it’s strange being in this environment without the four-time NBA champion.
“It’s different,” says Green, who played with James in Cleveland in 2009-10. “It’s no different than — being like a little brother, trying to get out of your older brother’s shadow. And building your own legacy. So I’m sure a lot of guys here can relate to that, who have siblings and who have family members that have done some special things in their lifetime. Evan [Mobley], [Donovan Mitchell],[[Caris LeVert],[[Robin Lopez], creating your own identity, creating your own legacy and your own path.”
Garland, for his part, is one of the links between the past and the present. Aside from Cedi Osman, who joined the team in 2017-18, Garland is the longest tenured Cav, having been in Cleveland since he was drafted with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2019 draft. But the 23-year-old, who said he watched James growing up but came from a Kobe-loving household, represents the mindset the organization is looking for.
“I did it for four years,” Garland said. “I’ve seen it — winning 19 games and winning 50 now. It feels amazing having our own legacy. We’re building our own thing here and we’re just trying to keep it going.”
That’s exactly the mentality Bickerstaff wants his young group to employ. Don’t focus on the storylines about what James accomplished for this franchise. Focus on what you can control in front of you moving forward.
“Success bears your legacy,” Bickerstaff said. “So the better or more games we win in playoffs, crunch-time situations, that’s how these guys will build their own legacy, at the same time paying respect to those who came before us.”
Garland has heard the stories about the championship parade, the legends of how fans hang out of the nearby parking garages in downtown Cleveland — as he gets set for his first playoff experience.
“It’s really great,” Garland said. “Came a long way. Coaching changes and Don coming over, drafting Ev, it means a lot for the city. The whole city’s behind us. The city’s ready to come to a playoff game. Everybody’s been talking about it for years.”
IT’S AN HOUR before the Cavs’ final road game of the season in Orlando, Florida, and Mitchell and LeVert are getting the chance to do something they rarely ever get to do. Dressed in street clothes and sitting near the scorer’s table at center court, the pair chats and occasionally checks their respective phones. They watch as their teammates warm up for a game in which all the Cavs’ major minutes players are resting.
As Mitchell makes his way back to the double doors of the visitor’s locker room inside Amway Center, he is asked about the process of the team building a new identity on top of the legacy of what James already created. Mitchell smiles and politely declines.
“I’m good,” he said.
In many ways, Mitchell, the new face of the organization after a summer blockbuster sent him from the Utah Jazz to Cleveland in exchange for a haul of players and picks, echoes the response many give when the topic of James’ overarching legacy arises.
“Anything that have to do with Bron is always going to be great for the city of Cleveland,” Garland said.
These Cavs aren’t running from James and their past. They’re just excited to see what the Cavaliers, their Cavaliers, can be without him.
“As a coach, your goal or hope is that you can be a part of something like this,” Bickerstaff said. “Where you have a group of guys who have the opportunity to be together for a long time, who have bought into something bigger than themselves. So this is like, this is utopia for a coach, to be a part of young guys, veterans, who are only concerned about each other and this team. And, have the talent and skill to be impactful when it matters most.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.