One of the most painful sports images in Cleveland Cavaliers history is that of LeBron James removing his jersey in frustration after losing to the Boston Celtics. This was in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals when the Cavs bowed out early in the playoffs despite having the league’s best record at 61-21. James miserably had his head bowed while walking toward the locker room as many fans wondered what could be going through his mind.
His time in Cleveland had its fair share of highs and lows. As with the disappointing loss in the 2010 postseason, some of James’ lowest moments with the Cavs were quite the heartbreaker. It was these moments that led the four-time MVP to become a better basketball player the next year and, in some instances, look for greener pastures elsewhere.
But by leaving the team for the Miami Heat that summer, James essentially paved the way for the franchise to build the foundation of a championship contender with the drafting of Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, two key pieces to the team’s 2016 championship team.
Perhaps James’ departure to the Lakers will do the same thing for the Cavs who are in rebuilding mode right now.
As we take a look back at James’ time in Cleveland, here are his five most miserable moments while donning the wine and gold uniform.
5. Missing the Playoffs in 2005
It has been so long since James hasn’t been to the NBA Finals that it is almost a chore to try and recall the last time he didn’t win an Eastern Conference Finals. But in his first two seasons as a pro, James was still learning how to be a leader. The Cavaliers were close to making to the postseason in his second year but a tiebreaker between them and the New Jersey Nets kept his team from sneaking into the playoffs as an eighth seed.
In the days heading into the final week of the regular season, the Cavs were the seventh seed but were in danger of going down in the standings due to inconsistent play from his teammates. Eventually, their ineptitude not only cost them coach Paul Silas’ job, but it also kept James from playing in the postseason for the first time in his very young career.
The 20-year old All-Star wasn’t to blame as he was the only reliable player for the Cavs during that stretch. In fact, in the final game of the season that Cleveland had to win to give them a fighting chance, James led the Cavs to a 104-95 win on the road against the Toronto Raptors. He recorded his fourth triple-double of the season with 27 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists.
“I just wanted to put us in a position to win. I did that. We needed some help, but we didn’t get it,” James said. “We did our part tonight, but we didn’t do our part at other times and it came back and got us.”
Alas, his herculean efforts were all for naught as the Nets also won against their opponent that night to finish with an identical 42-40 record with the Cavs. This was the last time James didn’t reach the playoffs.
“When we first got the score Boston was up 17, then they were up 10, then 5, 4 and it just kept going down,” James added later.
“This is not the end of the world. I got a family at home to take care of that brings a smile to my face every day,” James said. “This is just basketball. I do this because I love to do this, but I got family members at home. That is what is most important.”
Clearly, this was not the most disappointing moment for James based on his statements after the game. More were to come later in his career.
4. Game 4 2018 NBA Finals vs. Golden State Warriors
For the second time in his nine NBA Finals appearances, James’ Cavs team had been swept by its opponent. This time, it was extra bitter for the 15-year veteran forward as the humiliating loss practically reminded him of how alone he was, trying to will the Cavs’ beleaguered roster to victory but to no avail. James took only 13 shots, making seven of them for a 53.8 percent field goal percentage. The rest of the team shot an atrocious 23-of-74 from the floor for a 31 percent shooting.
James finished with a pedestrian 23 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. With 4:03 left in the game and the Cavs down by 25 points, 102-77, James was subbed out for the last time in the 2018 season.
There’s no doubt that the sweep weighed heavily on James’ mind and that it closed the door on his second stint in Cleveland. It was clear that he was going to another team after realizing that the team he had with the Cavs wasn’t enough to help him reach his goal of winning more championships.
3. Game 1 2018 NBA Finals vs. Golden State Warriors
The Cavs had the chance to steal Game 1 from the defending champion Warriors but J.R. Smith had other plans. With the score tied at 107, teammate George Hill was at the line for the second of two free throws. Hill missed and Smith grabbed the offensive rebound away from the much taller and longer Kevin Durant. Rather than give the ball to James for the game-winning shot, Smith ran out the clock thinking that his team was ahead.
James could not hide his frustration with Smith as his face visibly expressed the seething anger inside him toward his teammate. Even after the Cavs went to the bench before the start of overtime, James was unconscionable.
Cleveland lost in overtime 124-114 as they could not overcome the frustration of not putting the game away in regulation.
“It’s one of the toughest losses I’ve had in my career as well because of everything that kind of went on with the game and the way we played,” James said later via ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. “It was a tough 24 hours not only for [George] Hill and for myself but for our whole ballclub because we put ourselves in a great position to be successful.”
James led the Cavs with a legendary performance scoring 51 points, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out eight assists.
Ultimately, the loss was so demoralizing that it carried over in the next few games. The Cavs never recovered after the devastating loss. So did James, it seemed, who had the game of his life wasted by a poor decision from one of his teammates.
2. Game 6 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals vs. Boston Celtics
The Celtics derailed James’ dream of going to his second NBA Finals after they dismantled the Cavs with a 94-85 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. James’ disappointment could not be hidden as he removed his Cavaliers jersey for the final time until his 2014 return.
The All-Star forward was peppered with doubts from all corners after his bizarre Game 5 flameout at home when he was showed very little passion and was curiously very passive throughout the game. The Cavs had the chance to put the Celtics on their heels with a win on their home floor in that game but James was just inexplicably out of sorts. James shot a measly 3-of-14 from the field for only 15 points on the night. Getting a triple-double (27 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists) in the next game didn’t help matters for James’ reputation either as the Celtics advanced to the Eastern Finals.
His talk with the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett at the end of Game 6 may have played a huge part in James’ decision to leave the Cavs in the offseason. The 7-foot forward advised James to do what’s best for him and his family and that may have factored greatly in the seven-year veteran’s mind when it came time to make his decision.
Speaking of “The Decision”…
1. The Fallout of “The Decision”
James rocked the NBA world in the summer of 2010 with “The Decision” when he announced on national television that he was leaving Cleveland to play for another team.
“This Fall, I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”
With those words, James tore the hearts out from every Clevelander especially those who had to go through so many sports heartaches for many decades. The response was brutal with James watching in horror as his once beloved fans burned his jerseys for all to see.
It was not the kind of fan reaction that James was prepared for. The once-revered superstar was visibly shaken by the hatred that followed his announcement.
If there was ever any time that James felt alone and miserable, it was in this moment. You have to wonder what James had been thinking on his way home. Did he make the right decision? Back then, it didn’t seem like it was a good one based on the backlash “The Decision” had on his reputation afterward.
In hindsight, however, it was the right call. His misery that day resulted in two championships and invaluable lessons learned on how to be a champion from his four years with the Heat.