In rejoining Cavaliers, LeBron James embraces the great unknown
With the next few years of his playing career hanging in the balance, LeBron James has taken the plunge. He will leave the safe and familiar Miami Heat – a team he led to two titles and four consecutive NBA Finals appearances – to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, presumably to play at the maximum salary. This is a decision loaded with baggage. It's also one requiring a great deal of faith; in the prime of his career, James will jump from a championship core to a young, unfinished team with much left to sort out. There is promise in Cleveland, but the Cavs' immediate future is slated to be built upon a host of unproven variables – all of which James has, on some level, accepted. Below are some of the relative unknowns at work in LeBron's initial return to the Cavaliers.
The immediate impact of Andrew Wiggins
With the first overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers selected a terrific prospect. But Wiggins is just that – not a star or even a player of established substance, but a 19-year-old with a single season played against quality competition. Within that season Wiggins didn't quite excel in the way that standout No. 1 picks typically do: According to ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton, He didn't compare all that well across the board in relation to recently drafted wings, his per-game comparables don't paint an especially rosy picture and his collegiate usage rate is roughly on-par with that of former Duke Blue Devil Luol Deng.
None of this is to say that Wiggins won't someday become a great player, but most scouting and statistical evidence emphatically suggests that he won't be a star immediately. That determination is of clear import to James, who joins the Cavaliers with the intent to contend from opening tip. Wiggins will be a big part of that endeavor on both ends of the floor, whether by playing off of James and Kyrie Irving (an area in which his ho-hum three-point shooting registers some concern) or in handling tough defensive assignments in spite of his relative inexperience. There is good reason why players this young essentially never play prominent roles on championship teams, yet Cleveland is banking on Wiggins to do just that.
The Cavs' team defensive potential
As compared to Miami, Cleveland is a younger team with far more room for (eventual) upward mobility. Such youth, however, isn't solely an asset. It's worth pointing out that age correlates pretty strongly with performance on both sides of the ball, though the particular causalities of that relationship are a bit more complex. Nevertheless, young NBA players are seldom prepared for the demands of team defense at the pro level, in particular – a problem very much evident in Cleveland's performance on that end of the floor last season.
Under a coach (Mike Brown) with clearly established defensive priorities, last year's Cavs ranked 17th in points allowed per possession, on par with the lowly Magic and Celtics. James will absolutely help in that regard, but it remains to be seen just how much he can lift this particular roster and how long it might take him to fully lock in. For all his defensive talents, James will be transitioning from Miami's idiosyncratic, pressure-heavy defensive system to something else entirely under David Blatt. James' new teammates – some of whom have shown little defensive aptitude to date – will also be overriding the lessons and guiding principles of last season to grasp the particulars of Blatt's design.
At best, that's a transitional process that will take time. At worst, James and Anderson Varejao will be left to clean up the mistakes of Kyrie Irving (22 and still a dreadful defender), Dion Waiters (22), Anthony Bennett (21), Tristan Thompson (23) and Wiggins (19). Even the veterans (Ray Allen, Mike Miller, James Jones) who have been linked to the Cavs to this point do more harm than good on defense, leading one to wonder where in this group is the backbone of a title-worthy defense. Maybe it will get there with time and cultivation, though in year one Cleveland will work at a disadvantage in coverage.
The specter of Kevin Love and financial flexibility
LeBron's arrival dramatically improves the Cavs' chances of deciding Love's destination on several fronts. For one, James is the most attractive running mate in the basketball world – not only the NBA's best player, but an amazing playmaker who actively makes life easier for all of those around him. That will be attractive for Love, who played hard and well for a Timberwolves team that despite its best efforts finished 10th in the Western Conference standings. A move to the far-weaker East would be welcome, and the prospect of playing with both James and Irving stands as a sure ticket to Love's first-ever playoff appearance. All of this matters greatly because Love's approval matters greatly; almost any deal for the star forward would be contingent on his opting in for the 2015-16 season, which Love would not guarantee were he dealt into an unfavorable position.
Beyond that, James' arrival allows the Cavaliers to shift scope and direction if they so choose. Their competitive timeline has now been accelerated, and thus the pieces that they might be willing to give up to acquire Love might well be different. Whether that pushes Bennett, Waiters, more draft picks or even Wiggins into a potential deal is a mystery, though at the very least Cleveland has a wider plausible range of trade chips now than before.
Still, there's a monumental difference between calling the Cavaliers a player in the Kevin Love sweepstakes and assuming he'll end up in Cleveland. A number of teams (Golden State, Phoenix, Chicago and Boston, among others) have the same goal in mind and register at least some chance of fulfilling it. Until the situation develops further, the Cavs are just one in a group of suitors at the mercy of the Timberwolves. Only they decide when Love is available and at what price, as Minnesota could always run out the clock on Love's contract if no palatable deal surfaces. Being in the conversation is potentially valuable, just not inherently so.
The same goes for Cleveland's financial flexibility, which will be wielded by David Griffin in his first season as general manager. James and Irving may be locked in at their respective maxes, but beyond those two Cleveland has almost no hard commitments. There are $5+ million team options on Anthony Bennett and Dion Waiters next season that will likely be picked up, keeping both in play as relatively affordable contributors and potential trade fodder. Varejao's contract will finally expire after this coming season, positioning him to potentially re-sign at a discount. Brendan Haywood's completely unguaranteed $10.5 million deal makes for an interesting deal facilitator, useful to match salary in a trade at no actual cost to the other team. Tristan Thompson is set to be a restricted free agent, though his upcoming payday might be in some way influenced by the fact that he shares an agent with James.
In total, those pieces allow for much more dealing and wiggle room than the financial realities in Miami otherwise would have. That very concept, though, assumes that Griffin is not only able to make use of the Cavaliers' options in a positive way, but that he manages to do so quickly enough to make use of Cleveland's immediate window. The East won't be a weak conference forever and James, though patient, wants to win. There are moves to be made and for now LeBron has entrusted Griffin to make the right ones.
The relationship between James and his coach
Blatt is an incredibly bright – if demanding – tactician with plenty of coaching experience, yet we can't say with absolute certainty that he'll be a success in the NBA. It seems a safe bet, though whether the whole of Blatt's approach will translate to an entirely new league in his first seasons remains to be seen. Blatt himself will be a coach in transition, a new leader looking to earn the full respect of his team, a strategist aiming to maximize the talents of his best players, a figure on a perpetually hot seat and a person who has not had a working relationship with James, Irving or any other Cavalier. There's little use in projecting how Blatt might proceed more specifically, though it shouldn't be overlooked that James parting ways with Miami's Erik Spoelstra (who beautifully leveraged James' wide range of skills) to play under Blatt is at least a minor risk in itself.
The plight of the Cavalier frontcourt
In the past year alone, Anderson Varejao – during a relatively healthy season – suffered a painful knee contusion with complications, a bad shoulder sprain and a season-ending blood clot. Zoom out and you'll find that over the past four seasons Varejao has played just 47 percent of the Cavaliers' games. This from the team's best big, its top non-LeBron defender, one of two players taller than 6-9, and the only other Cav currently under contract with more than two years of NBA experience. That prospect should inspire some reason for concern. This is a perilously thin frontcourt as it is, reliant on a merely solid starter (Thompson) and a heretofore disastrous sophomore (Bennett). Were Varejao to again hit a bad patch of luck with regard to his health, Cleveland could be in for a rough season of overextending James while hoping his younger frontcourt counterparts can hold competence.
Bennett, in that regard, is a fascinating figure. His rookie season cannot be spun or redeemed other than to say that he clearly was not ready – from a physical standpoint, first of all – for NBA competition. That could change in time and already Bennett is drawing deserved praise for his slimmed-down physique. A more mobile Bennett is a more capable one, as every fraction of a second matters in terms of ability to roll to the rim, compete for rebounds or spring open for jumpers. Should Bennett pan out as the player the Cavaliers thought they were getting when they drafted him No. 1 overall in 2013, he could become a wonderful, floor-stretching complement to James. If he doesn't (or if he struggles enough for the Cavs to give up hope), Cleveland could be in for a long season of rotation stopgaps.