When LeBron James Is Done, What Next for the Cleveland Cavaliers?

The end doesn't come suddenly. That would be too easy, too clean and too painless. One day you're here, and the next you're not—no. Sport may be a metaphor for death but death is mostly unlike sport, or the opposite way around. Even the noblest declines have a malingering quality—unavoidable and inevitable, maybe, with a kind of death that presages another life.

"This was probably the worst training camp for me in my career because of the injury," LeBron James told ESPN on Wednesday morning, before the Cleveland Cavaliers hosted the Indiana Pacers at Quicken Loans Arena. "I didn't get an opportunity to do the things that I like to do and with the summer that I had, I kind of had a setback."

James was talking about a left ankle sprain he suffered in September, that caused him to miss four of the Cavaliers' five preseason games. It wasn't always this way—so much so that one wonders, as may be de rigeur in 2017, quite which version of the truth to believe. "This is one of the best offseasons I've had in my career," James said on September 26. "And I'm extremely excited."

On Wednesday night the Cavaliers got beaten for the fifth time in eight games this season, by a Pacers team that now lacks Paul George, that's meant to be shuffling somewhere in the middle of the deck of the Eastern Conference, maybe around that eighth seed at best, certainly craning its neck up at the regal Cavaliers led by their King, James.

"We have an opportunity to be very good and then you see some of the lulls that we have and it's just very difficult on our team right now," James told ESPN on Wednesday night. "We're just trying to figure it out on the fly. So, our team is kind of depleted as well, both on and off the floor." Tristan Thompson limped out of that Pacers loss with a left calf strain. Isaiah Thomas won't be seen on a basketball court in Cleveland until January, at the earliest. Kyrie Irving's Celtics are 6-2, younger, faster, more dynamic than the Cavaliers, further into a rebuild and, maybe, closer to a Championship too. Extraneous, maybe, to anyone who doesn't have a claim of being the greatest basketball player of all time.

The start of the end comes with little white lies, maybe, to convince yourself that everything is going to be as it always was. Maybe it comes when you find yourself playing on a team that can't manage defense, regularly giving up more than 100 points, with a starting point guard you can only watch through your fingers. A team that you have to carry at a stage of your career when it should be at least pulling as much weight as your 32-year-old body.

James is averaging 24.6 points per game, 7.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists. James has played all over the court, including at point guard, just to haul the Cavaliers to 3-5.

He hasn't even begun the great malingering decline. So how bad are the Cavaliers going to be when he does?