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Cavs can't fill the void left by LeBron

On this date last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers were 35-11, owners of the best record in the NBA and more than halfway to a second straight 60-win season.

Ah, the good old days.

But those days are long gone.

We knew LeBron James' decision to take his talents to South Beach would be a major blow to the Cavaliers. But the effects of his departure were more devastating than anyone could have imagined.

The Cavs have gone from being a championship contender to the worst team in the league. They dropped to 8-37 Tuesday with a 112-95 loss at Boston. It was their 22nd consecutive road defeat, breaking the franchise record set in 2003.

Cleveland is on an 18-game losing streak and could tie the franchise's single-season record at home Friday against Denver. The Cavs and Nuggets share the NBA record for consecutive losses with 24 over two seasons.

The way it's going for the Cavs, who have lost 28 of their last 29 games, they might have that record to themselves.

"It's human nature to think about how many we've lost in a row, and whatever record we've set," Cavs forward Antawn Jamison told reporters after Tuesday's loss. "Losing is tough, in general. To be where we're at -- one of the worst records in the league right now -- that's tough. We've just got to worry about trying to find a way to fix it. That's about the only thing you can do."

Easier said than done.

Cleveland just doesn't have enough talent to compete night in, night out with even average NBA teams. Many of the players were on last year's team that went an NBA-best 61-21. Makes you realize how great James was that he managed to carry this bunch as far as he did.

But James was tired of doing it alone, which is why he left Cleveland. He doesn't have to worry about that in Miami, where he can have an off night and still win because he has superstar teammates to pick up the slack.

While James has found happiness in his new home, there is only despair in the one he left behind. His victorious return to Cleveland in December and Tuesday's trip to Boston, where James' Cavs tenure ended in the Eastern Conference semifinals, served as painful reminders of what the team lost.

The only positive in this lost season is that the Cavs' fans haven't abandoned them. The team is among the NBA leaders in home attendance, a remarkable achievement considering the pitiful product the patrons are subjected to.

Perhaps they still pack Quicken Loans Arena as a show of faith that owner Dan Gilbert will fulfill his promise to build another winner. That might take a while.

In the NBA, it usually takes years for teams to rebuild following the end of an era. The Chicago Bulls were irrelevant for nearly a decade after Michael Jordan left. The Orlando Magic needed just as long to recover from Shaquille O'Neal's move to Los Angeles, which had its struggles during the early portions of the post-Magic Johnson years. In Boston, life after Larry Bird was miserable until Paul Pierce was joined by Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

Cleveland's rebuilding project certainly won't happen overnight because the downfall was so abrupt. Outside of promising second-year forward J.J. Hickson, there aren't many tradable commodities on the roster. And with James gone, it will be virtually impossible to attract high-profile free agents. Even if the Cavs land the first pick in the draft, they won't get a player capable of doing what James did for the franchise.

So all Cavs fans can do is what Cleveland sports fans have always done -- stay strong, stay patient and hope their team finds light at the end of the long, dark tunnel.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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