The 2017 Nets Are the Cavaliers’ Worst Nightmare—and LeBron James’ Ticket Out of Cleveland

Of all the things the Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t need, or want, to think about at the start of the 2017 NBA season, the Brooklyn Nets being good looked like one of the least pertinent. Every reasoned, reasonable basketball sage expected the Nets to be somewhere close to propping up the Eastern Conference even before they lost Jeremy Lin to a season-ending knee injury.

But the start of the 2017 NBA season has been decidedly odd. The Golden State Warriors have looked fallible, even when they have been winning—a wild game against the Raptors on Wednesday night was a case in point. The Portland Trail Blazers have been setting scoring records, the Clippers don’t seem to be missing Chris Paul, and the Rockets are better, statistically, when Paul isn’t on the court. Giannis Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, looks like the future of the pro game.

Oh, and the Nets are 3-2—the same record as the Cavaliers. Their third win came on Wednesday night at Barclays Center, against the Cavaliers, 112-107—secured without D’Angelo Russell, who had 30 points and five assists in the Nets’ season-opening loss to the Indiana Pacers following his trade from the Lakers over the summer. In the absence of Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade, LeBron James was forced to do too much on his own to try and drag the Cavaliers to a win. The 32-year-old logged 41 minutes on Wednesday, with 29 points, ten rebounds and 13 assists. As he did against the Chicago Bulls the previous night, James started at point guard against the Nets. Against the Bulls James, with the help of Kevin Love, was able to dig the Cavaliers out of a hole. But even this M.V.P.-caliber version of James can’t be expected to haul a team along by himself every night.

Not to mention that the Nets look far sturdier than last season’s iteration. "We're running around here worrying about getting the Brooklyn pick, they may want our pick," Tyronn Lue said after the game in quotes reported by CBS—in jest, to ease the tension brought about by the Cavaliers’ uneven start to the season, but one that hinted at tension of a different texture lying beneath the surface of this Cavaliers team. The worse the Nets do—the closer to the basement of the Eastern Conference they dwell—the better the Isaiah Thomas-Kyrie Irving blockbuster trade looks for the Cavaliers who received the Nets' first-round pick from Boston in that deal. And the more likely, perhaps, James is to stay and nurture one of the 2018 draft’s top picks.

Right now, that trade doesn’t look very good for the Cavaliers. Thomas remains sidelined, more prominent on television screens in ‘Law and Order’ than he is on a basketball court. The Nets are throwing flies in the ointment by being better than anyone but the Nets thought they would be. And James is having to carry an entire franchise on his shoulders. There have been brighter days in Cleveland—though there’s time enough, of course, for the dark clouds to clear.

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