As hard as it is to believe, LeBron James is headed back to Cleveland, re-joining the Cavaliers after four years -- and four straight Finals appearances -- with the Heat in Miami.
Now we know the “where”, but what about the “how” - how will the Cavaliers make use of the unique skills the King brings to the court?
To the great benefit of new Cavaliers head coach David Blatt, making use of LeBron James is about as easy an assignment as a basketball coach can draw. He’s the best player in the game, one of the five or ten best players in the history of the NBA.
For mavens of the chalkboard, the irresistible lure of James lies his ability to literally do it all. He can play at least four positions on the court, can score from anywhere and is adept in the open court and in post-up situations alike. He can defend big and small, on the ball or off.
Despite the ample, amorphous skills James offers, it took his former coach Erik Spoelstra time to figure out how best to fit his superstar lineup together. Spoelstra spent a summer speaking to offensive gurus from all sports, trying to suss out how best to maximize the talents of his team before settling on a “pace and space” philosophy which turned the Heat into an offensive juggernaut.
The Heat used their otherworldly athleticism create turnovers and score on the fast break, keyed by James’ ball handling and Dwyane Wade’s finishing. The Heat also used that same energy and flexibility in defense, at one point using Wade, one of the best shot-blocking guards in league history, as the chief shot blocker.
The pressing, trapping defense created turnovers*, and turnovers beget offense. Spacing the floor created three point shots for the Heat’s marksmen, facilitated by James’ unique court vision and gravitational field that draws defense and attention from all corners of the court.
* - This swarming defense was eventually Miami’s undoing in the 2014 Finals against San Antonio, as the Spurs moved the ball to stay one step ahead of Miami’s defenders.
Watching the Heat superstars (and their supporting cast) mesh made them the most compelling team in sports. All the stories and narratives and superteam ire directed their way fell by the wayside once they took the court and began dominating.
Can we expect the Cavs to dominate in the same fashion? Is a 27-game winning streak going to join James in Northeast Ohio?
Probably not. The players around James are in different stages of their career, and trade winds could still blow new toys into Blatt’s toolbox, such as a sought-after “stretch four” such as Kevin Love.
And yet, with LeBron joining a potential superstar in Kyrie Irving and recent top draft picks Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, and Tristan Thompson, Cleveland has nothing but options. If the Cavs can engineer a trade for Love, his rebounding and ability to shoot threes to space the floor creates new opportunities for James. If not, then the youth gets to blossom under the King’s watchful eye.
In terms of pure numbers, James presents Cleveland with a golden opportunity to improve their talented but inefficient backcourt of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. His presence alone takes the ball out of their hands, likely a positive step for the Cavs offense. The numbers suggest giving volume shooters and inefficient scorers fewer touches improves their efficiency and makes the team better as a result.
Using measures like usage and shooting efficiency to say “James makes his teammates better” is an abstract way of making an obvious point. Not only does LeBron’s higher tide float all boats in a general sense, it allows one of the preeminent passers in the game to feed two dangerous scorers in their most dangerous spots.
How can the Cavs make best use of these skills and realities? LeBron gives his new coach the biggest and sharpest Swiss Army knife to play with. What about the pick-and-roll? With a deadly pull-up shooter like Irving, the duo could be unstoppable, as James displayed at times last year, successfully serving as the rolling big man in a big/little PNR.
Though James served as the roll man sparingly in 2013-2014, Irving’s ability to get to the basket makes him an ideal candidate with James, who scores from everywhere. Add Anderson Varejão to the mix and you have another pick-and-roll partner for James.
In their previous time together in Cleveland, Varejão’s fearlessly crashed to the rim when partnered with LeBron, creating ample space in which James could work. With James and the big Brazilian on one side of the floor, the Cavs free Irving to play on the weak side of the court where he can wreak havoc when teams inevitably double team LeBron.
Cleveland can also try and up the pace a little, using LeBron and Wiggins’ length to generate turnovers and challenge jump shooters. Should he remain a member of the Cavaliers (and reports suggest he will), the rookie’s highly touted defensive skills can only thrive with a notorious ballhawk like James scouring the passing lanes (not to mention a tough customer like Varejão lurking in the paint.)
There is nothing LeBron James cannot do on the basketball court. His wide range of skills give the “offensive genius” who prizes ball movement the ultimate linchpin around which he can move his talented young charges. Inside or outside, pick-and-roll or drive-and-kick, the Cavaliers and LeBron are about to become the most interesting show in basketball.