After LeBron left: Where the Cavaliers stand in the wake of LeBron James’ departure

Even years after his departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James remains an inspiriation. Having brought together a community through shared hope and spirit, LeBron will always be an integral part of Cavs and Cleveland history.
Even years after his departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James remains an inspiriation. Having brought together a community through shared hope and spirit, LeBron will always be an integral part of Cavs and Cleveland history.
“LeBron James” by IDSportsPhoto is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

There is something anyone who lived in the Cleveland area can remember, including myself. Right across the street from the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, what once was known as “The Q,” there was a mural many stories tall distinguishable to anyone driving into Downtown Cleveland from Ontario Street, or even continuing down the raised overpass. From 2014 to 2018, any person going by would see one image dominating the brick wall of the Sherwin-Williams Global Headquarters: the black and white image of LeBron James’ back, arms raised up to the sky, with “CLEVELAND” stitched across his jersey. Crowds of fans stand in the seats before him and a theatrical rain of smoke moves towards his head.

For years, tourists and Cleveland natives could rely on the massive greeting that came from the Cleveland Cavaliers’ star player. Even before this timeframe, LeBron called the Sherwin-William’s wall home with a previous banner depicting the basketball star facing towards the streets, his arms still reaching towards the sky. Instead, though, that banner held the words “We are all witnesses” right above him, almost predicting the Cavs’ future and, at the time, the only team without an NBA Championship. There was a comfort in the mural, it was something that had been there for ages and, hopefully due to LeBron’s return after leaving in 2010, something that would remain unmoving.

In 2018, LeBron left the Cavs for the second time. Subsequently, the mural was taken down and so were the hopes of many Cavs fans. A question lingered: what now? More specifically, what did this mean for Cleveland and what does this mean for the Cavs? LeBron left the Cavs for the second time almost six years ago, so now I believe is the time to face the question head on and see where The Land, as well as its home team, fall today.

The Lay of The Land

A fear that permeated many downtown natives’ minds was the thought of what would happen to the economy. Cavs games were known to draw in big crowds of people who may grab a bite to eat at a local restaurant before the game and then a pint of beer after. The fear was that local businesses and tourism would be impacted by LeBron’s departure.

Based on Destination Cleveland’s 2017—the year before LeBron’s withdrawal—Metric Report there was “$8.8 billion in total economic impact,” and in 2018 the number grew 6.5% to $9.4 billion. However, the percentage then fell in 2019 to 3.2%, garnering only $9.7 billion. The economic numbers also reflect the fall of the percentage of tourists that visited Cleveland in 2019.

While it might seem silly to say that LeBron’s departure was responsible for this economic fall, the case may very well be true. After LeBron left the Miami Heat to rejoin the Cavs in 2014, Vox’s Anand Katakam wrote “James’s decision to leave the Miami Heat is projected to add $50 million a year to [Cleveland’s] economy,” proving that an economic change due to one major celebrity isn’t all too surprising. Think of what Taylor Swift and Beyoncé are doing for economies with their tours. Now, translate that type of fandom and hype to the sports community. As someone who has grown up with the Cavs and understands the celebrity around his name, I believe it is safe to say that LeBron is the Swift of basketball. Having a player like LeBron on your team is not only an asset for playing the game but also for the city he decides to play in.

All hope is not lost though. Looking at the 2021 and 2022 reports for downtown Cleveland, it seems that The Land’s tourism and economy is steadily recovering. Due to COVID-19, peak numbers like 19.6 million visitors in 2019 drop to as low as 13.8 million in 2020. 2021, though, saw a significant spike in visitors Cleveland had with foot traffic of 16.1 million people. The spike jumped even further with The Land receiving 17.9 million visitors in 2022. This spike is a beacon of hope that has provided economists in Cleveland with the faith to say that we can expect to possibly reach a full economic recovery in 2024.

The Cavalier Comeback

In 2010, hell opened onto the streets of downtown Cleveland as emotional fans voiced their opinions about LeBron’s first decision to leave the Cavs. People were stomping their feet into signed cardboard cutouts, burning jerseys and describing it as an almost family-like betrayal. Cleveland was losing its king.

As almost an apology for the pain he brought to his many fans in Cleveland, he returned in 2014 promising to bring the championship to Cleveland, delivering on that in 2016 before his second departure. Bobby Whalen, 33, an Ohio native and lifelong Cavs fan, spoke on LeBron’s decision to leave a second time saying, “I was disappointed, like everyone I know was. However, I was not nearly as upset as I was when he left in 2010. He came back to deliver us a championship and he along with his teammates delivered on that promise. As a die-hard Cleveland fan, getting to witness my team win a championship was a memory I will never forget.”

LeBron’s fulfilled promise was almost like a form of closure on the relationship that is the Cavs with LeBron, and the one without. The result was a second departure that didn’t send as many waves through The Land as the first departure did. The team itself, though, is much different from the fanbase.

After LeBron left in 2018, the jersey sales, attendance and team stats fell. Since then, the Cavs have not had a top 10 jersey sale. This is a stark contrast to the Cavs’ having a top 10 jersey sale any season that LeBron was on the team. Jersey sales weren’t the only thing that fell either. In 2018, ESPN reported that the attendance of the Cavs’ games in total was 843,042. In 2019, the number fell to 793,337 and even further down in 2023 to 777, 280.

Unlike the economics of Cleveland, it is harder to tell whether this is due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the number of attendees inclined since the previous season—2022 having 758,228 attendees. This statistic means that there is hope that the attendance rates will go back to what they once were.

The rise in attendance may also be due to the last factor many fans were worried about after LeBron’s leave: the team’s performance. During LeBron’s final season in Cleveland (2017-2018), they were 50-32. The season after, they were only 19-63. Since then, the team has been improving, with the 2022-23 and 2023-24 seasons really picking up. In the 2022-23 season they were 51-31, and in the current season they sit at more than 40 wins. When asked about the possible comeback, aforementioned fan Whalen believed in the possibility stating, “They are playing incredible team basketball right now. Donovan Mitchell has done an excellent job leading the team…I could not be more impressed with his play since joining the Cavs.”

Goodbye, LeBron

When it comes to the Cavs, there is the team with LeBron and the team without. What LeBron did for the team cannot be discredited. His presence alone boosted Cleveland’s economy and the sense of community among Cavs fans. I remember the year he brought home the championship trophy, every corner had Cavs merch. Although there was animosity toward LeBron and his decision in 2010, he came back and delivered something the team arguably could not have won without him. Maybe it was his skill or maybe it was his ability to make any Ohioan pay attention when the Cavs were playing a game. There is one thing I believe every sports team wants more than anything, and that is a community of fans who will always be screaming from the sidelines pushing for a victory. LeBron was able to create this community for the Cavs.

There is no mistake that it still exists now, but there was a certain energy that permeated the air whenever LeBron was on the Cleveland court. It is time, though, to thank LeBron for what he did and say farewell. He was more than an asset to Cleveland: he was a local. He inspired the people of Cleveland to rise above anything and make their dreams come true. He came, he left, he came again, and left. The city survived and the team is now rising in the ranks proving they are still a force to be reckoned with.

Whalen says, “LeBron was and will always be the face of the Cavs. He deserved that and was the clear leader of the team when he was here. However, his teammates deserve a ton of credit. Kyrie played incredible during those years with LeBron. Kevin Love was a huge addition when we added him to form the big 3. Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert and many others also contributed to the chemistry and success of the team.”

There is still a team after LeBron if we are only willing to give them credit. Just like how the city of Cleveland is still a city of flourishing life, nightlife, eateries and bars whether we have LeBron or not. In his now taken down mural, LeBron’s arms were reaching towards the sky, it is time we appreciate the city and team we have now and do the same.

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