- The Cavaliers are rolling behind LeBron James and a cast of NBA veterans. Take a closer look at that roster and it'll become obvious that LeBron relies on the help of former rivals.
“He wants you to shoot that b---h when he passes it,” Channing Frye says. Cleveland’s sharpshooting center is perched courtside at Madison Square Garden, watching LeBron James loft jumpers before the Cavaliers’ morning walkthrough begins. James overhears the conversation and promptly stops his warmup. He raises his voice to a volume that is loud enough to be heard by those nearby but still too reserved to qualify as a commotion. The semantics, though, are more than pointed.
“I didn’t know I was going to have to be the starting point guard when the season started,” James crows. A Cavs’ development coach pauses feeding James’s shooting pocket, chuckling along with the rant. “We weren’t doing much passing this summer,” James continues. “In the summer time we did a lot of catch-and-shoot, post-ups and sh--. We were feeling good.
“I was like, ‘Oh sh--, we’ve got four point guards this year!’ Then we start the season and it’s like, ‘LeBron’s the point guard, holy sh--!’ he sneers directly at Frye. "So I gotta work on my precision passing more.”
Of course, James has long manned lead ball handling duties during his second stint in Cleveland. Kyrie Irving performed as the team’s nominal point guard, yet Finals appearance after Finals appearance, James consistently carried the ball over halfcourt and initiated the Cavs’ explosive offense rather than punishing opponents off pin downs and other off-ball actions that could send him rumbling, untouched, towards the rim.
This season, however, James has whizzed the ball almost exclusively to running mates who once feverishly sought to end his Eastern Conference reign. “Guys who compete on other teams, you always look at those guys like, ‘I wish I could play with him one day or coach him one day,’” says Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue. Lue himself was part of the last team, the 2010 Boston Celtics, to defeat James in the conference finals, as he studied under Doc Rivers. “LeBron was always looking over at our bench,” Rivers says. “He even told us one day, ‘I always see you guys over there scheming.’ You could see he was always observing what we were doing, especially our play calls—even our defensive play calls.”
James would draw the Celtics in the conference finals once more this past spring, when Isaiah Thomas dropped 17 points and 10 assists in Game 1 before shutting down his postseason and Jae Crowder hounded the four-time MVP for 33 minutes a night, desperately trying to dethrone The King. Cleveland ended Boston’s season for the second time in three years. So when Thomas and Crowder ultimately comprised the Cavs’ return package in August’s blockbuster Irving trade, the longtime teammates at first struggled to grasp uniting with the enemy. “It took a minute for us to get outside of that,” Crowder says. “There were some real wars. Me and [James] used to go at it.”
His phone pinged with a peace offering from James shortly after news of the trade broke. Crowder’s biggest rival quickly became his staunchest ally. “Before I even met him, he sent me a paragraph text after the trade went down, a couple hours later, just talking about what we can accomplish and what it’s going to take to accomplish that goal we want to work towards,” Crowder says. “That was just in a text. He’s taken, like, a big brother role for me. He’s the type of dude that likes to do gatherings and stuff and meet up for dinner.”
James has a long history of fending off rangy Celtics wings. In an effort to extend Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen’s championship window, Boston general manager Danny Ainge swapped locker room lynchpin Kendrick Perkins for the Thunder's younger Jeff Green in 2011. The Celtics simultaneously added more versatility while cleaning their cap sheet. “[Perkins] became so expensive to Oklahoma City that they had to move [James] Harden,” Ainge says.
Green could also shadow James and the Celtics needed those exhaustive efforts in addition to a scoring attack complementary to the team’s stars. They most memorably sparred on March 18, 2013, when Green poured in a career-high 43 points and James countered with 37 points, 12 assists and a game-winning 21-footer in Green’s face with 10.5 seconds left.
Green would drill a remarkable, buzzer-beating three in Miami the following November. But after three seasons of unmemorable basketball, Green didn’t hesitate when his former nemesis reached out this past offseason. “I don’t think he needs to recruit anybody,” Green says. “He sent me a text, T-Lue gave me a call, saying that he wanted me to come and that was all I needed.” (Even the Celtics’ original LeBron-stopper James Posey is a member of the Cavs’ coaching staff.)
A Lue text message started Cleveland’s courtship of Derrick Rose this July as well. Only Rose’s 2011 MVP campaign interrupted James’s dominant stretch of winning the award, forcing him to settle for four out of five years. Their collision course funneled directly to the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, a highly-competitive five-game duel separated by just nine total points over the course of the series. James’s Heat ultimately vanquished Rose’s Bulls. They would meet again in the 2013 semifinals, and once more when James returned to Cleveland in the 2015 semis. While Rose was widely held as the fledgling star primed to one day unseat James, LeBron ended his season in three of his five career playoff appearances.
Kyle Korver was Rose's teammate on that 2011 team and Korver’s Hawks fell victim to James in the conference finals four years later. After years of chasing James’s clubs, he was traded to Cleveland in January and re-signed this offseason and now receives those “precision passes” point-LeBron dishes each trip down the floor. “All those battles that happened, there’s kind of a mutual respect,” says Kyle Korver. It seems you can forget a contentious playoff battle when bonded by championship aspirations. “The competitions I’ve had against those guys over the last few years, it’s great to have them on your side,” James says.
None of this should really be that surprising. One could argue James’s 2010 free agency decision—choosing to unite with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh rather than individually lead a contender—spawned the current superteam era of the NBA. So when Wade and the Chicago Bulls mutually parted ways in September, it was only natural he rejoined James in Cleveland, along with their ghosts of conference finals past. “You know what they’re made of, they know what you’re made of,” Wade says. He would even secede a starting spot to J.R. Smith early in the season. No, we’re not in Kansas—er, Miami—anymore.
That all being said, James uniting with all these former foes in Cleveland feels… strange. “D-Rose, D-Wade, Kyle Korver. You flash back four or fives years and they are the Monstars,” says Lakers forward Larry Nance, a native of James’s Akron, Ohio, and a devoted Cavs fan in his youth. “If Dwight Howard would have showed up after Orlando, that would have been really weird.” Rose and James rehashed their postseason contests on one team plane rides this season, and much of the roster joined the trip down memory lane. “Just talking about teams that they were on and playing against certain teams and what teams you hated playing against,” Rose recalled, roughly two weeks before he stepped away from the Cavaliers to reflect on his playing status. “Unfortunately for us…” Crowder says. “We all lost,” says Korver. “So we don’t really want to bring it up.”
After a slow start, the Cavaliers have won their last eight games, reigniting their quest for a fourth-straight Finals appearance and James’s eight-straight Eastern Conference championship. “At the end of the day, you’re either a champion or you’re not. It’s that simple,” says Frye. January reinforcements should be on the way, when another former foe in Thomas is expected to return from a hip injury. Should Cleveland ultimately reach that championship stage, it will be the most motley supporting cast of James’s career. And their conference title will likely come at the expense of those pesky Celtics, powered by Irving, the only Eastern Conference star of the last 15 years not to join James, but flee his realm.