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The Most Mutually Beneficial Loan Of All-Time

LeBron James going from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat and back to the Cavaliers is the most mutually beneficial loan of all-time.

LeBron and the Heat won two titles and were in the Finals as runners-up two additional times.

While all that outstanding success was happening, the Cavaliers accumulated assets by winning the lottery three times in four seasons as a very different type of NBA success.

Nearly everything you need to know about why LeBron left the Cavaliers in 2010 and returned in 2014 can be seen by examining at their draft history.

The Cavaliers drafted Luke Jackson at No. 10 overall in 2004, lost their 2007 first round pick in an ill-advised Jiri Welsch trade made by Jim Paxson shortly before he was fired that also took off their playoff protection for their 2005 pick that would have been retained had they been in the lottery.

Daniel Gibson was a one-dimensional shooter, Shannon Brown didn’t become a contributing player until he went from Charlotte to the Lakers and Danny Green was basically a D-Leaguer for a two more seasons until the San Antonio Spurs developed him into what he is today. J.J. Hickson showed some promise while LeBron was still there and was the player the Cavaliers refused to part ways with at the 2010 deadline and has bounced around since, while Christian Eyenga was a project in 09-10 and played in Poland last season.

The Cavaliers were short on standouts and blatantly failed to develop what was available, albeit a common problem for most franchises outside of the Alamo City.

The Cavaliers also had cap space to burn in 2005, which was spent on Larry Hughes after they were unable to get their preferred choice, Michael Redd, to commit to a deal.

Hughes eventually became Ben Wallace ahead of the 2008 deadline and then Wallace became Shaquille O’Neal almost at the beginning of LeBron’s final offseason with the Cavaliers.

Cleveland’s finishing piece ahead of the 2010 trade deadline was dealing Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the Washington Wizards for Antawn Jamison, thought of as a stretch-four that would open up Mike Brown's uninspiring halfcourt offense.

By July 1, 2010, the Cavaliers were out of ideas and out of viable routes to get better with LeBron on the roster. Only five players, including LeBron, from the Cavs 2010 playoff roster remained in the NBA at the end of this past season.

Cleveland needed LeBron to leave in order to create a roster with a realistic shot of winning a title with LeBron. The prime of LeBron’s career would have simply whittled away on 55 to 65-win regular season teams that would consistently be figured out in a seven-game series against teams that had more than one superstar.

While we can go pick-by-pick between 2011 and 2014 that the Cavaliers made in a vacuum to replace Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett with Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard, Andre Drummond and Nerlens Noel or some other combination of picks, the franchise was aggressive in accumulating young players.

The Kyrie Irving pick was a product of the cheapness of Donald Sterling as the Cavaliers won the lottery with a pick that came from the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for taking on the salary of Baron Davis that was amnestied anyways just a few months later.

The one G.O.A.T. label that most people can agree upon in awarding LeBron is that nobody is capable of making his teammates better given his multi-faceted passing ability and capacity of guarding nearly any player in the game. The roster can be figured out either in the short-term or after LeBron is given a chance to feel what is there. LeBron is basically a human performance enhancer for his teammates with their production to all increase with the open shots he creates.

Whether it is through the exiting pieces, or some sort of combination of forthcoming moves, the Cavaliers have the ability to build a lasting title contender around him fairly quickly. Most importantly considering his age, LeBron is going from the youngish athlete to the elder statesman. LeBron will surely embrace keeping his regular season minutes in the 35ish per game range and can begin to take some maintenance nights off as Dwyane Wade has over the past two seasons.

Irving just signed a max extension and is the one existing piece we know will remain a cornerstone.

Andrew Wiggins isn’t going anywhere unless it’s for Kevin Love. Even then, I’m not sure trading Wiggins is worth it unless the Cavs are getting an All-Star level rim protector back. Wiggins is basically the most athletic player to enter the NBA since LeBron and his ability to be an off-ball threat and shutdown wing defender makes him a potentially perfect fit on the wing beside him.

Waiters as a second unit shot creator and perimeter shooter for when the Cavaliers go small has clear value.

Bennett is significantly better than he showed as a rookie season in which everything went wrong first physically and then mentally.

Thompson’s fit with the Cavaliers is complicated since he’s also represented by Rich Paul and he doesn’t make sense since he’s an undersized power forward that’s not capable of stretching the floor.

Hopefully Anderson Varjeao stays healthy, while we already know the Cavaliers will have no problem signing cheapish shooters whether it becomes Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Troy Daniels or some sort of combination thereof.

There’s still a lot to figure out for David Griffin, David Blatt and Dan Griffin, surely in consultation with LeBron, but this is now a marriage that will last into the next decade when he’s entering his late thirties. LeBron couldn’t leave Cleveland for a second time and it is unlikely the situation will ever turn as bleak as it did in 2010. Nothing is mapped out for LeBron right now as it was when he joined the Heat, but he returns to Cleveland unburdened with two rings as an individual and with youthful athletic legs all around him as tides have turned from boos to cheers

James, now famously, has never been the highest paid player on his team and he will be now with the Cavaliers. James also has never played with anyone who is essentially younger than him physically. Most of his previous teammates with the Cavaliers are out of the league and Wade was only close to being his peer for a short stretch of their tenure together. The importance of James playing with a core from the generation younger than him is a vital component of his return.

Only The Elite Survive To Late May

While the parity of the first round was a refreshing and encouraging development for the NBA, we saw the teams ranked first, third, fourth and sixth in net efficiency during the regular season advance to the Conference Finals.

Many casual observers lament the absence of Cinderella stories in the NBA Playoffs, but the counterargument is that we almost always see the elite teams of the regular season advance to the final four. With a seven-game series, the NBA rewards teams that are either very good on both sides of the floor and/or are dominant on one of those sides.

Over the past 10 playoffs, the 2012 Boston Celtics are the only team to finish the regular season outside the top-10 in net efficiency to reach the Conference Finals.

The Celtics are an interesting outlier for two reasons:

1. An old, veteran team with title pedigree that paced themselves during a lockout-shortened regular season and were still the NBA's best on defense.

2. Derrick Rose's injury allowed Celtics to face the 76ers in the second round instead of the Bulls.

This type of relatively overwhelming evidence certainly calibrates expectations for how deep a playoff team is capable of advancing.

The Los Angeles Clippers (2nd), Golden State Warriors (5th), Houston Rockets (7th), Portland Trail Blazers (8th), Toronto Raptors (9th) and Phoenix Suns (10th) comprised the remaining top-10 teams this season.

The Clippers beat the Warriors and then were defeated by a third-ranked Thunder team in a tight series.

The Blazers beat the Rockets and then were overwhelmed by the top-ranked Spurs in the second round.

The Raptors suffered a mild upset to the 19th ranked Brooklyn Nets, while the Suns narrowly missed the playoffs altogether.

Even before Andrew Bogut's season-ending injury, the Warriors didn't pass the eye-test for me the way the Clippers did and I was dismissive of their title aspirations due to the Superduperstar Theory. But they were certainly eligible to advance into the Conference Finals if they would have had homecourt advantage and two favorable matchups if Bogut remained healthy as the fifth best team in the regular season in terms of efficiency.

In terms of winning the actual championship, the Mavericks in 2011 were the lowest ranked efficiency team at No. 8. They were considered a darkhorse in the media when the playoffs began as the third seed since they had won just one playoff series over the previous four seasons, but they clearly weren't too far off from the elite teams and took advantage of favorable matchups against the Blazers, Lakers, Thunder and Heat.

The NBA's First Round As Prestige Television

With the lower seeds faring extraordinarily well, the opening games of the NBA Playoffs have triggered an ecstatic reaction from diehards, as well as from casual viewers accustomed to waiting until the Conference Finals before truly tuning in.

The NBA has entered the realm of prestige television with these playoffs, which we tend to reserve for the likes ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘True Detective’ and ‘Mad Men’.

Because of the seven-game series format, the NBA will never become event television and draw gigantic ratings like the NFL, but the level of play and excitement of these games warrants looks from the more discerning casual fan.

The first round has a level of competitive balance that is an encouraging and overlooked consequence of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement. While we were of course expecting increased revenues for owners, more frequent player movement and shorter title windows for the truly elite teams, the increased distribution of talent also makes the earlier rounds far more difficult for the higher seeds.

In the Western Conference, the Portland Trail Blazers are the highest seeded team currently with a series lead. Three of the four games in the Blazers’ series against the Houston Rockets have also gone into overtime.

The Rockets are basically the NBA's CBA team, due to the circumstances of how so much of its core was acquired.

James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik were acquired via trade or free agency from teams that were either unable (Thunder) or unwilling (Knicks/Bulls) to justify the punitive tax bills associated with their new contracts.

The Knicks missed the playoffs this season in North America’s biggest market, in part due to their poor play at point guard.

Dwight Howard almost certainly re-signs with the Los Angeles Lakers if the Rockets’ option is not available to him and the world’s most popular basketball franchise may remain a playoff team even without Kobe Bryant for most of the season.

The Thunder likely are not in a dogfight against the Memphis Grizzlies if they still have Harden given their difficulties finding a third source of points. 

The Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Bobcats, Dallas Mavericks and Blazers are all new playoff teams for this season. The Bobcats were the worst team in the NBA two seasons ago and hadn’t reached the playoffs since 2010. The Raptors and Wizards hadn’t been in the playoffs since 2008.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have the lonest playoff drought, not reaching the postseason since 2004, but they have one of the best individual players in the NBA in Kevin Love and ranked 11th in efficiency differential during the regular season.

The first round has been so special due to the competitiveness and closeness of the games. The first 29 games have an average point differential of 8.55, which is more than three points better than last season’s first round (11.69. The 8.55 includes a series between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers that is tied at 2-2, but has had margins of victories of 40 points and 21 points.

Entering Monday’s games, there have been 21 games decided by nine points or less (72 percent) and 14 games (48 percent) decided by five points or less.

The NBA expanded the first round of the playoffs from five games to seven midway through the 02-03 season, which was unquestionably triggered by the slow start by the Lakers. The Lakers ended up with the fifth seed after beginning the season with an 11-19 record after a Christmas Day loss to the Sacramento Kings.

Other than the Seattle Supersonics’ loss to the Denver Nuggets in 1994, the first round was all about mid-seed teams ceremoniously duking it out since the elite regular season teams rarely lost at all. The Chicago Bulls went  24-1 in first round games between 1991 and 1998. The Miami Heat have similarly feasted against an Eastern Conference that lacked depth, going 16-2 in the first round, but amnestying Mike Miller to save on the luxury tax could prove costly in later rounds.

The history of NBA champions is almost entirely dominated by super teams containing at least one all-time great and two or more perennial All-Stars. The 2004 Pistons and 1979 Sonics are the two biggest exceptions as teams that won while the NBA was in transition. The 2011 Mavericks had an all-time great in Dirk Nowitzki, but were a little lucky with the Heat not having yet rounded out their roster or fully figuring out how to play with each other.

Without a one-and-done format, the better team usually advances in the NBA, but we're beginning to see tangible changes in competitive balance even if the Heat go on to complete a threepeat.

Number Of First Round Games/Average Margin Of Victory/Lower Seeds Advancing

2003: 49, 10.80, 2

2004: 39, 11.95, 0

2005: 43, 11.86, 2

2006: 45, 11.40, 1

2007: 41, 10.02, 3

2008: 44, 13.39, 0

2009: 45, 13.36, 2

2010: 45, 11.16, 2

2011: 43, 8.56, 2

2012: 44, 9.73, 2

2013: 45, 11.69, 3

2014: TBD, 8.55, TBD

Number Of Series With 6 or More Games

2003: 7

2004: 1

2005: 3

2006: 6

2007: 3

2008: 4

2009: 4

2010: 5

2011: 4

2012: 4

2013: 6

2014: TBD

10-Year NBA Win Rank Snapshot

A 10-year season-by-season Win Rank snapshot for an NBA franchise creates an insightful visual narrative.

Expectations & Timelines: The Curry Warriors

The addition of Andre Iguodala looked a lot like Chicago's move for Ben Wallace on the surface, but the Warriors' timeline will remain dependent on how they remain in the 'deal flow' in constantly tinkering around Stephen Curry.

Notes From The 2014 Nike Hoop Summit

Five bigs with radically divergent styles could conceivably become the top-five picks of the 2015 NBA Draft, though it was a big point guard that had the best individual performance at the Nike Hoop Summit.

On Sloan: GM's Tell Riveting Tales Of Front-Office Dynamics; Will Silver Take The Wheel?

At Sloan, two of the most interesting panels dealt with the machinations of high-level negotiations between teams, and the problem of teams tanking which can be defined in two degrees of severity.

Notes From 2013 Adidas Nations

Jahlil Okafor, Kevon Looney and Stanley Johnson were the most impressive prospects of adidas Nations, but Theo Pinson, D'Angelo Russell, Myles Turner and Reid Travis were the ones to grind their way to the championship.

Grading The Deal: Pistons Sign Josh Smith

The NBA is clearly going more and more in the direction of smallball, but without the pieces to do it as effectively as teams like the Heat and Golden State Warriors, the Pistons will have more success in building a counter to the trend around Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe.

Grading The Deal: Dwight Howard Chooses Houston

Daryl Morey and the Rockets have acquired two top-10 players in James Harden and Dwight Howard in nine months to culminate a series of moves that has no real precedent in the NBA. Also receiving grades in this edition is Dwight himself and the Lakers.

Grading The Deal: Raptors Unload Bargnani On Knicks

Andrea Bargnani had been on the trade block for months, bridging the tenures of Bryan Colangelo to Masai Ujiri. In the GM seat for less than a month, Ujiri not only traded Bargnani but managed to pick up a few draft assets in the process to a Knicks' team limited in how to improve.

Grading The Deal: 76ers Start Over With Trade Of Holiday For Noel, 2014 Pick

The 76ers and Pelicans completed a draft night trade that will have ramifications for years as their two general managers revealed their very different strategies on how to rebuild.

2013 NBA Mock Draft (Final Edition)

Draft day has finally arrived and while everyone pines for the 2014 class already, this one has the chance to be sneaky good in the 'many quality starters' variety.

2013 NBA Mock Draft (Wednesday/Quality Of Opp. Edition)

In this mock, we include the PER of each player based on the quality of opponent. Even statistics in this context can only go so far, but helps move beyond the possibility of inflation against competition that isn't even close to being NBA caliber.

2013 NBA Mock Draft (Draft Week Edition)

Entering draft week in a draft universally labeled as weak preceding the best draft of the decade, few people are talking themselves into falling in love with any specific player as fervently as usual.

Grading The Deal: Dwight To Lakers In Most Important NBA Trade In Over 30 Years

There is no doubt the Lakers, 76ers and Nuggets improved significantly with the four-team Dwight Howard trade, but here's why the future of the Magic is immediately more promising as well.

Grading The Deal: Steve Nash To The Lakers

The impact of Steve Nash on the Lakers will be enormous, in terms of title contention, Kobe's pursuit of the all-time scoring title and also what happens with Dwight Howard.

2012 NBA Mock Draft, Version 4.0 (Draft-Day Edition)

The Andre Drummond/Perry Jones effect on this draft before we make sense of picks seven through 30 just hours before a flood of draft-day trades shreds every mock.

2012 NBA Mock Draft, Version 3.0

The 2012 NBA Draft is a week away and nothing is certain beyond Anthony Davis going to the Hornets with the first overall pick even though several scenarios are beginning to crystalize.

2012 NBA Mock Draft, Version 2.0 (Post-Lottery Edition)

Anthony Davis will become a member of the Hornets, but the draft is extremely fluid behind him with teams needing several weeks to sort through their unusual number of options even to the Bobcats at number two.

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