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.