Turns out LeBron James’ return to Quicken Loans Arena will coincide with J.R. Smith’s departure.
James, who in July left the Cavaliers for the second time, and his new team, the Los Angeles Lakers, will make their only visit to The Q this season tonight at 8.
Smith won’t be in uniform. The Cavs cut ties with the colorful but mercurial shooting guard Tuesday and will attempt to trade him while he is away from the team.
James, meanwhile, will return to play against the organization he led to four straight NBA Finals and five total in his 11 seasons in Cleveland, including a championship in 2016 with good friend Smith starting in the backcourt.
“I don’t try to put too much into it,” James told reporters of his return to Cleveland. “I will go out there and see if we can keep this thing going. I think we are playing some really good ball right now. I will see some familiar faces like I did when I arrived here.”
By “here,” James was referring to Miami, against whom he had 51 points Sunday after leading the Heat to four straight Finals and two titles from 2010-11 to 2013-14.
The four-time league MVP figures to get a much warmer welcome than he did Dec. 2, 2010, his first game back at The Q after announcing on national television that he was taking his talents to South Beach after seven seasons with the Cavs.
“It should be fun,” said Cleveland small forward Cedi Osman, who trained with James, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard over the summer. “I think everybody will enjoy the crowd and we’ll try to get a win against a very important team.”
James certainly didn’t enjoy the hostile reception he got nearly eight years ago, but he had the last laugh, putting up 38 points and eight rebounds in just 30 minutes — he didn’t play in the fourth quarter — as the Heat steamrolled the Cavs 118-90.
In a far cry from James’ initial departure from Cleveland, which resulted in owner Dan Gilbert writing a scathing letter that ripped the Akron native, the Cavs are expected to pay tribute to the three-time NBA champion and nine-time Finals participant with a short video prior to or early in the game tonight.
“I will think about some of the good, I will think about some of the bad, I will think about some of the great that I had with the franchise, obviously,” said James, who is averaging 28.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and 6.9 assists with the Lakers. “And then once the tip ball gets going, it is time to go to work.
“It will be good to see some of my family that will come to the game, see some of my friends as well and get the thing going.”
With James joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Miami won titles in 2012 and 2013 and lost in The Finals in 2011 and 2014, with James then leaving to re-sign with the Cavs. (In his first game in Miami after re-signing with Cleveland, he had 30 points and eight assists, but the Cavs lost 101-91 on Christmas Day, 2014.)
Cleveland went 19-63 — it lost 26 games in a row and 36 out of 37 over one stretch — after losing James in 2010. Things were supposed to be much better this time around, but the Cavs are an NBA-worst 2-13, including 0-8 on the road, and coach Tyronn Lue was fired after the team started 0-6.
Cleveland entered the season confident it could contend for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but an injury to All-Star power forward Kevin Love and a serious lack of above-average talent quickly derailed those plans.
That led to general manager Koby Altman informing veterans like Smith, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye that the team was going to go with younger players, only to have Lue play Smith and Korver two games later in what turned out to be his final game in charge.
Smith had been in and out of the rotation most of the season and wasn’t happy with the direction the organization chose to take.
“I don’t think the goal is to win,” he recently told The Athletic. “The goal isn’t to go out there and try to get as many wins as you can. I think the goal is to develop and lose to get lottery picks. I think that was always the plan.”
Smith, 33, is earning $14.7 this season and has a contract for $15.7 million next season, but only $3.9 million of the latter is guaranteed. He doesn’t want a buyout, so the Cavs will attempt to trade him.
Smith signed that four-year, $57 million deal after playing an integral role in the Cavs’ championship season. He hit back-to-back 3-pointers early in the second half of Game 7 against Golden State to cut an eight-point deficit to two, and the Cavs went on to win on Kyrie Irving’s late 3-pointer.
Smith endeared himself to most Cleveland fans because he embraced the city. He was shirtless throughout the team’s championship parade, attended Browns and Indians games and spoke openly about having a daughter born four months prematurely.
At the same time, he could be moody and unpredictable, and his play started slipping noticeably after he signed the biggest contract of his career. That culminated with Smith not knowing the score and failing to call timeout late in regulation of Game 1 of the 2018 Finals against the Warriors, who went on to sweep the Cavs.
Having lost his starting job to Rodney Hood this season, Smith had a few good moments — he even started at small forward on a few occasions — but became increasingly unhappy with the direction the Cavs were headed.
Trading him won’t be easy given his contract and long history of fines and suspensions, but the Cavs will attempt to do just that.
The team said in a press release that it wishes “J.R. and his family well and appreciates and thanks him for his contributions in the community, to the team and his role in the 2016 NBA Championship.”
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