It may be hard to believe for Cleveland Cavaliers fans, but the departure of LeBron James isn’t the worst thing to happen in the...

It may be hard to believe for Cleveland Cavaliers fans, but the departure of LeBron James isn’t the worst thing to happen in the franchise’s 40-year history.

The Cavaliers were on the edge of extinction in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when they had four owners in an 18-month span. The final owner in that stretch, Ted Stepien, provided stability of the worst kind: During his three seasons at the helm, the Cavaliers were 114 games under .500, suffered an NBA-record 24-game losing streak, saw their average attendance fall to 2,570 per game and traded so many draft picks for mediocre players that the NBA devised the “Stepien Rule” that prohibited teams from dealing first-round picks in consecutive seasons.

Current Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has raised the ire of the NBA as well—his epic rant following James’ exit earned him a $100,000 fine from commissioner David Stern—but his screed ensured he’d never be as unpopular with the fans as Stepien. Yet will being the voice of the people be enough to keep the fans coming out to Quicken Loans Arena now that James has taken his talents to South Beach and the Miami Heat?

While the Cavaliers shouldn’t return to their Stepien-era depths, a decline both on the court and at the gate seems inevitable for a franchise that has made the playoffs five straight years (the longest streak in the Eastern Conference), sold out its last 77 home games and ranked second in the NBA last season with an average of 20,562.

Within 24 hours of James’ decision, FanSnap spokesman Christian Anderson told TicketNews that Cavaliers season tickets were going for about $935 each, or one-third the price they went for last season.

James’ departure comes at a particularly tricky time for the Cavaliers, who revealed earlier this year they would raise ticket prices by an average of three percent for the 2010-11 season. The Cavaliers’ hope is that a tie-in to Gilbert’s ticket company, Veritix, will keep fans in the fold: Sports Business Journal reported in March that fans who have held season tickets for at least three years and use Veritix’ paperless “Flash Seats” program will get the lowest ticket price in their section.

The exit of James also comes as bad news to Central Division foes, all of whom saw a considerable boost in attendance, as well as ticket resellers in those markets. The Cavaliers played to capacity or near-capacity crowds (within 200 seats of a sellout) in seven of their eight Central road games. And Marketwatch.com reported Thursday, July 8 that the average ticket price to a Cavaliers-Bulls game in Chicago was $411.85 for a March 19 game—and just $86.51 when James missed a rematch in Chicago April 8.

As for games in Cleveland, perhaps the Cavs and resellers can make up the deficit when the Heat come to town. Good news for all involved, especially those fans who want to tell James exactly how they feel: Miami has visited Cleveland twice in five of the last seven seasons.