In the end, with LeBron James in his prime and the Eastern Conference wide open, the Cleveland Cavaliers went with the sure thing rather than rolling the dice on building a team with LeBron and a bunch of under-22 players. Trading Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a future No. 1 for Kevin Love not only dramatically improves the Cavs short-term prospects, it also accelerates the timetable for the rest of the team and puts them firmly in win-now mode.
After spending the first seven years of his career with a paucity of talent around him, LeBron’s charmed life continues, as he goes directly from a Big Three in Miami to a Big Three in Cleveland. While neither Love nor Kyrie Irving have ever made the playoffs, they have already combined to make five All-Star appearances and both are under the age of 26. The Cavs are now one of the favorites to win a title, although they still need to figure out the rest of their rotation.
On the offensive side of the ball, the biggest plus is the absurd amount of spacing they can put on the floor. Three-point shooting is the most important thing that players in LeBron’s supporting cast need to have and Cleveland has the winner of the three-point shoot-out in 2011 (James Jones), 2012 (Love) and 2013 (Kyrie). Instead of receiving the brunt of the defensive attention as the primary option on offense, Love and Kyrie will get a diet of open looks.
While they will have to adjust to having the ball in their hands less often, they should be able to make up for taking a fewer number of shots by increasing their overall efficiency. Last season, Kyrie averaged 17.5 field goal attempts and shot 43% while Love averaged 18.5 field goal attempts and shot 46%. In contrast, while playing next to LeBron in Miami, Dwyane Wade shot 54% on 14 field goal attempts and Chris Bosh shot 52% on 12 field goal attempts.
By the end of their fourth season together, the Heat’s Big Three had become a well-oiled machine, moving in unison and creating efficient looks at the basket on almost every possession. Here’s what should frighten the rest of the NBA - on paper, the offensive games of Love, Kyrie and LeBron fit better. Wade has never been a good three-point shooter while Bosh only added it to his game last season. Kyrie took five 3’s per game last season and Love was at 6.6.
The player in Cleveland who will have to make the biggest adjustment is Dion Waiters, as he goes from a second option to a guy who will struggle to get a consistent amount of shots on a nightly basis. Mario Chalmers, the fourth option in Miami, averaged only 7.7 field goal attempts a game, half of what Waiters averaged (14.3). If Waiters can’t improve as a decision-maker and a defensive player, he may end up coming off the bench and playing as a sixth man.
Upfront, Anderson Varejao should be a good complement to Love and LeBron with his ability to crash the glass and move without the ball. While he isn’t a great outside shooter, the amount of space that Cleveland can play it should make that a non-issue and he should make a killing rolling to the rim on the pick-and-roll. The question is whether he will make sense on the defensive side of the floor, as he’s never been a shot-blocker in his time in the NBA.
The defensive side of the ball is where the questions are and that’s where David Blatt will have to earn his paychecks. LeBron is the only player in their current starting five with much of a reputation as a defensive stopper and he took a step back in that department in the regular season, as he seemed to be conserving some of his energy and not going all-out on a nightly basis. With the personnel around him, he may not be able to do that in Cleveland.
That’s why one of their most important additions might be Shawn Marion, as he can come off the bench and defend a number of different positions. While his defensive numbers began to slip last season in Dallas, he was being asked to carry the team on that side of the floor, too much of a burden for a guy in his 15th season in the NBA. As a 20-25 minute player with the Cavs, Marion could be invaluable as a guy who can plug up any holes that spring up on defense.
Going forward, as Cleveland tries to build a roster around their new Big Three, the most important qualities they will need are guys who can spread the floor and defend their position. That’s the only way they will be able to compete with the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder - teams who can put lineups on the floor without a weak link on either side of the ball. As is, come playoff time, Blatt will have to juggle offense and defense off each other.
If the Cavs can’t find a rim protector, which won’t be easy given the amount of money they have committed to LeBron, Kyrie and Love, they can’t afford to have too many holes on defense. While the combined length and athleticism of Wade, LeBron and Bosh allowed the Heat to play small and clean up a lot of mistakes, that won’t be an option in Cleveland. Kyrie has a 6’4 wingspan, Love has a 6’11 wingspan and neither is a plus athlete for their position at the NBA level.
One of the biggest reasons for the Heat’s ability to hit the ground running was that LeBron, Wade and Bosh were elite players on offense and defense, which gave them a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of setting their line-ups and filling out the rest of their roster. LeBron is LeBron, but he will need help on both sides of the ball to win championships. How good can Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love be on defense? That’s what the Cavs ceiling will be.