PUSKAS: A trophy softens LeBron’s second exodus

So this is goodbye. Again.

Breaking up may be hard to do, but it doesn’t seem so bad the second time around and there is a big, shiny reason for that.

It’s the Larry O’Brien Trophy the Cleveland Cavaliers won thanks to LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and others in 2016.

When James returned home after four seasons in Miami, he promised to do all he could to bring a title to Cleveland. He did just that when the Cavaliers somehow rallied from a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals two years ago.

That was the second of four consecutive trips to the Finals in James’ second stint with the Cavaliers. Three of them — including the last two — didn’t go as Cleveland hoped.

But the joy of that monumental 2016 accomplishment is what most Cavaliers fans should focus on now that James has announced his intent to join the Los Angeles Lakers.

The bitterness of the first breakup — when James took his talents to South Beach — faded as soon as he announced in 2014 that he was coming home. There will undoubtedly be those who will criticize him again for bolting to a sunny, fast-paced climate, but I think those people will be in the minority.

This move is less about leaving the Cavaliers for a better basketball situation and more about what comes after the NBA for James. It has to be, because unless the Lakers have a few more moves in them, they’re not even close to being able to unseat the Warriors in the Western Conference.

That’s why I thought there was a better chance LeBron would sign a one-year deal with a player option with the Cavaliers and then make a free-agent move after next season.

Or that the long-rumored flirtation with the Philadelphia 76ers — an up-and-coming force in the Eastern Conference — might be consummated.

In pure basketball terms, James is in no better position with the Lakers than he would have been with the Cavaliers or any other Eastern Conference contender. Any Eastern team with LeBron would have been favored to reach the NBA Finals next season.

The Lakers, at best, are the fourth-best team in the Western Conference as currently constituted. The Warriors, Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder are better. The San Antonio Spurs could be better, depending upon what they get in return for Kawhi Leonard.

In joining the Lakers now, James himself has more than likely ended his run of NBA Finals appearances. That’s why this move was never about basketball.

LeBron is 33 and will turn 34 with the Lakers on Dec. 30. Yes, he’s in great shape and takes great care of his body and mind and figures to have 2-3 very productive seasons still in him.

But eventually, James is going to transition into the rest of his life and like everything else he does, he wants to be properly prepared and positioned to do it right.

When basketball is over, James is likely to move into a career in Hollywood as a producer/mogul. He’s already a brand and he’s just going to expand on that in Los Angeles, where he already had a home and business interests even before all of the free-agent drama began.

Just about everyone in northeastern Ohio — save for Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert if you believe reports that surfaced this week — wanted James to finish his career in Cleveland. His basketball legacy is already great, but potentially could have improved with another title or two with the Cavaliers.

Cleveland — a major player in the NBA with LeBron — will now be left to rebuild. Right now, its leaders probably don’t even want to consider what a James-less economy will look like. Gilbert must again figure out how to sell tickets for a Cavaliers team without LeBron.

But Cavs fans will always have 2016 and a reason — beyond LeBron’s status as a kid from nearby Akron — to warmly welcome him home every now and then. They don’t have to openly root for him with the Lakers, but it’s OK thank him for the championship and the memories.

Without a path back to the NBA Finals, James’ basketball legacy isn’t likely to improve with the Lakers. They will always be the franchise of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and most recently Kobe Bryant.

But The Decision III and the way it played out indicates that James is OK with that. The Lakers can never truly be LeBron’s team, but he might just own Los Angeles some day.

Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at epuskas@vindy.com and follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy.

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