LAS VEGAS -- When Miami's Big Three united in 2010, they purposefully took a shortcut through a traditional roster-building process. Rather than wait for a general manager to draft or trade well enough over multiple years to create a championship contender, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did the heavy lifting themselves. They have two titles and four consecutive NBA Finals appearances to show for it.
James joined the Heat out of an urgency to win big that was forged during seven ringless years in Cleveland. He never stood a chance during his one Finals trip with the Cavaliers, who were swept by the Spurs in 2007, and the Celtics loomed as a persistent Eastern Conference road block that James struggled to overcome.
By returning to Cleveland, as James revealed in a Sports Illustrated essay with Lee Jenkins on Friday, LeBron and the Cavaliers are both getting a second chance at the conventional model of constructing a contender. Cleveland's most important pieces were acquired through the draft: James, the first pick in 2003; point guard Kyrie Irving and power forward Tristan Thompson, the first and fourth selections in '11, respectively; shooting guard Dion Waiters, the fourth choice in '12; and the No. 1 picks in the last two drafts, forward Anthony Bennett and rookie swingman Andrew Wiggins. The age gap between the 29-year-old James and the others may be large, but the four-time MVP is uniquely qualified to get the most out of his younger teammates and shape their collective development. And that evolution could prove to be championship-worthy in a few years.
The Cavaliers have been adrift in recent seasons. Ownership was desperate to reach the playoffs and proved to be too impatient. Management was under the gun to produce results and made poor decisions. Coaches came and went haphazardly, and struggled to command respect. The roster included puzzling draft choices, underachievers and calculated risks that backfired.
James, as we learned in Miami, is capable of covering more flaws than a mascara factory. As reality starts to sink in that James will be joining the Cavaliers, it's natural to begin envisioning his wide-ranging impact.
Irving has drawn criticism for calling his own number too often, even though he has lacked teammates who could be trusted to deliver. Enter James, one of the most unselfish superstars in league history, a player who thinks the game like Magic Johnson or John Stockton and can share that approach with the 22-year-old Irving. James will finish an alley-oop or two -- or 200 -- as he develops chemistry with the two-time All-Star.
Waiters has reportedly clashed with teammates and doesn't find much use for passing. Enter James, whose status as the NBA's top player and his track record as a winner will ensure that any pettiness gets checked at the door. Play the right way, and cherish the opportunity to play for something bigger than yourself, or grab a seat on the next bus out of town. There are plenty of veterans angling for Cavaliers roster spots already.
Thompson is an effective rebounder, but he lacks shooting range to be a real threat. Enter James, who has played with plenty of unpolished stones and understands how to put players in positions to succeed.
Bennett just completed an injury-plagued rookie season that placed him statistically among the worst No. 1 picks of all time. Enter James, who has absorbed far worse criticism than anything thrown Bennett's way, and lived to tell about it. And, maybe, offer some advice about it.
James can help fix Cleveland's reputation as a non-desirable destination. He can help ease first-time NBA coach David Blatt's transition. His connections will make life easier for first-time general manager David Griffin. James can't erase Dan Gilbert's twisted 2010 letter, but he can and did forgive the Cleveland owner, allowing the entire organization to move on.
The biggest impact James can have, though, is on the Wiggins, who made his summer-league debut in Cleveland's 70-68 victory over No. 2 pick Jabari Parker and Milwaukee on Friday. At 19, the 6-foot-8 Wiggins is potential defined, a high-flying, quick-jumping wing whose physical tools put him in the upper echelon of NBA players already. His game is so tantalizing that he drew oohs and aahs from a standing-room-only crowd at the 2,500-seat Cox Pavilion all night. That was true even on a broken play: A lob pass sailed over his head for a turnover, but no one seemed to mind because Wiggins had leaped so high to haul it in that he was peering down into the basket with the better part of his arm extended above the rim. Let's consider that his dunk-less audition tape for the Slam Dunk Contest.
“He’s a world-class athlete, as were his mom and his dad," Blatt said. "He’s fun to watch.”
Wiggins' mother, Marita Payne-Wiggins, was an Olympic sprinter, and his father, Mitchell, a 6-4 guard, spent six seasons in the NBA. If you were building a potential franchise player from scratch, that is where you would start. Yet it took only a matter of minutes for the basketball world to realize that James hadn't mentioned Wiggins in his Sports Illustrated essay, even though he did name-check four other Cavaliers players. Rather than welcoming a key teammate with open arms, James -- inadvertently or not -- delivered a snub.
"I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league," James wrote. "I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. And I can’t wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates."
Speculation began immediately that Wiggins was omitted because he is trade bait for an established star like Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love. Wiggins told reporters that he hadn't read James' essay, and the teenager radiated positivity after his debut, suggesting that he wasn't feeling slighted.
Swapping Wiggins' youth and potential for a proven product would be the same type of shortcut that the Heat proved can be successful, and it might help give James the best chance to win immediately. But doing so would also be a critical mistake.
Wiggins could very well blossom into a third star to complement James and Irving within three years. More important, he has the potential to play the Scottie Pippen role to LeBron's Michael Jordan: Wiggins enjoys defense, he can cover multiple positions, he can turn defense into offense, he doesn't need the ball to be effective and he glides around the court like he's ice skating.
"My game style matches [with James]," Wiggins said. "I can play with anybody. LeBron can play with anybody."
Blatt brushed off doubts that Wiggins and James, both seemingly small forwards by nature, could line up alongside each other.
"I’m not a real big guy for names for positions," Blatt said Friday. "You know, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. ... You’ve got to be a basketball player, and [Wiggins is] a basketball player. He’ll find a place to play and we’ll find a place for him.”
What Wiggins lacks is the industry know-how, the endless repetitions that make up experience, and someone to guide the way. James can help in all of those areas, and he should be able to spot a willing pupil in Wiggins.
"The best player in the game today, coming to your team, this is going to be a great learning experience for everyone," Wiggins said of James. "He'll be a good mentor. He can teach us what it takes to get to a championship level."
Aside from Wiggins' three-point struggles (1-of-8) on Friday, the standout element of his 31-minute, game-high 18-point performance against the Bucks was his repeated use of a step-back jumper. He uncorked the move from multiple spots with great success. His display mimicked some of his workout videos released before the draft, clips that showed him draining mid-range jumpers after creating space. Developing such a weapon is impressive by itself, but Wiggins also trusted it in front of a packed house and a national television audience tuned in to see him.
The Cavaliers have reportedly informed Wiggins' camp that he will not be traded, and a team public relations official jumped in to say, "Next question" when Wiggins was asked about the rumors after the game. Off-court speculation has a way of overshadowing on-court spectacles, especially this time of year, and Cleveland is smart to defend itself and Wiggins from such talk as free agency continues to unfold.
Wiggins is an asset in every imaginable way: on the court (where he fits with James and Irving), in marketing campaigns and on the salary-cap sheet, as he will soon outperform a rookie-scale contract that will pay him an average of about $6 million annually over the next four years. The shortcut approach will always be tempting for James, but Wiggins' combination of skills should give him pause. That package is worth James' patience.
"I’m not promising a championship," James wrote in his essay. "I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic."
It's always smart to sell a "realistic approach," because it can help temper expectations. That said, players with top-pick talent have a way of tossing "realistic" out the window. James has done it on many occasions, and we could easily be saying the same thing about Wiggins in five or 10 years.
If James is able to see the big picture, he will realize that he has the opportunity to do something Jordan, Johnson, Larry Bird, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant never did: mold a superstar talent from the ground up, leaving a finished franchise player as one more element of his legacy. Jordan's drive helped make Pippen a Hall of Famer, but they weren't 10 years apart. Johnson paired with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was dominating in the NBA while Magic was still in high school. Bird and his teammates were more or less contemporaries, while O'Neal and Bryant famously fell out because the younger Kobe saw things his own way.
It might be asking a lot for James to see this immediately, but perhaps the image does come into focus soon as he processes Cleveland's present and future. Maybe he learned a thing or two about trusting the developmental process from the Spurs, who have turned draft picks Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili into a total of five titles, including two against James. LeBron might come to appreciate Wiggins as a salary-cap bargain that can help Cleveland put together depth that was missing in Miami because of a top-heavy cap setup.
And, hopefully, James was listening when Wiggins earnestly offered to do his part to help build the first championship-winning team in franchise history.
"It's not all going to be [LeBron]," Wiggins said Friday. "He has backup. He has me, Kyrie, Tristan, A.B. [Bennett]. He has a lot of people that can score and do whatever [else]. Every day, we're going to do that."
James and the Cavaliers should give Wiggins that chance.