After the embarassing Game 5 loss to Boston last night at the Q, in which King James stunk up his Court and earned a shower of boos for his efforts (which some think may increase the odds he's gonna bolt--in my mind, he made that decision a long time ago, and what happens this year in the playoffs isn't gonna affect it)--many writers and pundits and fans are now predicting the Death Of Pro Basketball in Cleveland should the reigning MVP sign with another team.
While LeBron leaving would be devastating to the Cleveland franchise--no doubt about it--the apocalyptic nature of the some of the commentary (such as Bill Simmons' latest) overstates the case.
The last time a free agent of this magnitude--an MVP caliber player toiling for a small-market team--bolted for a Major Market franchise, was Shaq leaving Orlando for LA back in 1996. The Lakers benefited handsomely from this treachery, as they won 3 titles with the Big Traitor at center. And Orlando found themselves back at suck-dom, where they remained until they won the lottery again--nabbing Dwight Howard, one year after LeBron.
However, having a crappy team is different than "the end of pro basketball in Cleveland". The latter implies, to me, one of two things: The team moves, or folds.
Obviously, the Orlando Magic did neither in the eight years span between losing Shaq and drafting Superman. And the Magic were a recent expansion team in a place where basketball ranks behind football, NASCAR, and Disney World. The Cavs have a longer history in Cleveland, and have survived worse (google Ted Stepien for more info). They play in a nice arena. And have a solid fanbase.
An NBA team folding is highly unlikely--and the Cavs, even without LeBron, are in far better shape than many other franchises which play in smaller markets (the Grizz, Kings, and Hornets come to mind).
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert has quite a bit of interest in Great Lakes philanthropy--he made headlines when he moved the headquarters of Quicken Loans out of the Detroit suburbs back into the inner city. While he's a Michigan businessman, he seems to take the Cavs seriously. (His relationship to Cleveland isn't unlike Paul Allen's relationship to Portland). It is conceivable, of course, that Gilbert might want to sell out should he lose his top asset. Were he to do so, though, he'd take a major bath on the transaction, as LeBron leaving would severly devalue the franchise. And such a sale could be to an owner with an intent to relocate the team.
Cleveland fans, of course, have bitter memories of the Browns (the old team) leaving for Baltimore and then winning a Super Bowl in their new digs. The departure of the old Browns was largely over stadium issues--less of an issue for the Cavs, who play in a modern facility, Quicken Loans Arena. (And should the worst come to pass, my suspicion is that the NBA would do the same thing as the NFL, and move Cleveland to the head of the line for an expansion franchise--yes, ahead of Seattle).
But my money would be on the Cavs remaining in Cleveland. I doubt the Cavs would be a competitive team without LeBron--and it's pretty much become an open secret that the way to build an NBA franchise is to tank and win the lottery, so it wouldn't surprise me if Lebron leaving meant the team "decided to rebuild"--but I seriously doubt that the Cavs themselves are going anywhere.