LeBron James is going home. The King’s decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers makes him a bigger on-court hero than he ever was previously, and promises years of championship contention Cavs fans enjoyed during his initial stint with the team. There are still major, major questions for Cleveland, though, and not even a peerless talent like James can answer them by himself.
Conspicuously absent from LeBron’s essay in Sports Illustrated is rookie Andrew Wiggins. With speculation rampant that the Cavs have eyes for Kevin Love, that James left Wiggins out in discussing his role as mentor to youngsters Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Tristan Thompson could indeed be a pointed choice with regard to a potential Love trade. There’s also a chance, of course, that it was simple oversight, or merely a contingency should Cleveland use Wiggins in any future deals. But parsing words to glean conclusions from pure conjecture is pointless. We won’t know if Wiggins is long for Cleveland until February 2015’s trade deadline comes and goes.
But trading Wiggins for Love might not even be the best big-picture basketball move for the Cavs. They’d undoubtedly be better in the short-term, but carrying three players on maximum contracts – as we just learned in a similar situation with the Miami Heat – limits a team’s options going forward. Is Cleveland close enough to contention now that acquiring Love would put them over the hump? That’s the question James and the Cavaliers front office brass must ask themselves, because carrying Wiggins on a rookie contract for three seasons would make it much easier for Cleveland to improve its surrounding roster in the future than signing Love to a max deal next summer.
It’s not just the theoretical that the Cavs need to consider, though; their existing personnel will need to make wholesale adjustments James on board. It’s easy to think that Irving, at times an effortless shooter, would thrive playing off the ball. However, the numbers don’t support that assumption. According to ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh, Irving made a putrid 31.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot jumpers in 2013-2014, a number that ranked second-to-last among qualified guards. While the quality of those looks will surely improve with James occupying so much attention let alone delivering him the ball, that number paints a disconcerting picture of Irving in spot-up shooting situations.
Waiters will undergo a similar change. The much-maligned guard performed better in his sophomore campaign than his reputation suggests, but the days of Waiters dominating the ball when Irving hits the bench are over. Waiters jacked almost 19 shots per-36 minutes without Irving on the floor in 2013-2014; that won’t fly with James in tow.
It was reported last month that Cleveland’s hire of David Blatt hurt their chances with LeBron in free agency. That’s of no concern now, obviously, but the Euroleague legend’s merit as a NBA head coach is still unknown. Blatt enjoyed immense success with Maccabi Tel Aviv over the years and led Russia to a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics. Those in the know believe he’ll make a great head coach for the Cavs, and we’re inclined to agree. But first-time NBA coaches normally struggle, and Blatt’s preferred Princeton-style offense doesn’t suit his roster.
Smart coaches adjust schemes to personnel as opposed to shoe-horning their players into systems that don’t fit, and Blatt will surely do just that. Still, it seems the Cavaliers lack the kind of player that was so essential to the Heat’s success with James over the past three seasons: A hybrid forward capable of defending multiple positions and knocking down open three-pointers. Wiggins offers some of that now and projects as such with additional weight and strength, and 2013 first overall pick Anthony Bennett would do so in a perfect world. But neither player is presently equipped for such a role. Will James’ physical demands in Cleveland match those he so loathed in Miami during the 2013-2014 season? If Blatt wants to maximize his team’s offensive potential by playing small and surrounding LeBron with shooters, that’s a legitimate concern for the Cavs.
The layers of basketball are endless, and the versatility that James gives his team only offers many more of them. Make no mistake – these questions and concerns are relative compared to those a Cavaliers team without LeBron would face. But it’s not simple arithmetic; you can’t just plug James’ career statistics into last season’s Cavs and glean conclusions from there.
It’ll be a process for Cleveland this season, just as it was for Miami in 2010. If the Cavs answer these questions correctly, though, don’t be surprised if they enjoy similar success to the Heat’s.
Is Cleveland the favorite in the East?
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