Twitter has created a monster. During the free agent madness of LeBron James and his Decision 2.0, we have tracked private jets, passed around pictures of moving vans and Ferraris, fire bugged websites, and pieced together reports and counter reports from various “sources” throughout the league. Breadcrumbs have been sprinkled throughout the web for amateur Sherlocks to discover hoping to be led to the truth (Mike Miller posted a picture with LeBron’s Cleveland jersey in the background? WHAT?).
On the home front, Cleveland fans are tugging at his heart strings – spend the season with your friends and family; raise your kids in Akron; win that championship you promised Cleveland (or go down trying); right the wrong of an ill-advised T.V. special that insulted a loyal fan base and alienated you from your hometown team. Meanwhile, Heat fans are countering with Dan Gilbert’s infamous (in-famous? IN-famous?) comic sans voodoo tirade and CNN style footage of Cavs fans burning his jerseys like insurgents in the streets. And while the emotional aspects do come into play, the most important and largely forgotten factor is the basketball itself. Who gives LeBron the best chance to win now and in the future?
THE MIAMI HEAT
The cap situation in Miami is well understood. If LeBron returns to the Heat he is bound to obligation to both Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade. Rumors that Riley could shuffle the deck and replace Bosh with Melo or trade Bosh to get Kevin Love are erroneous. While Pat Riley is comfortable (and thrives) in the villain role, LeBron is not about to betray a teammate who helped him win not one, not two… ok, two championships. Both Bosh and Wade opted out of big money, so a massive pay cut that was first speculated is unlikely. If LeBron and Bosh get the max and Wade takes a modest pay cut, the Heat would still lack buying power to attract a significant championship piece. And as of now, the Mid-Level and Biannual Exceptions are tied to role players PF Josh McRoberts and SF Danny Granger leaving little room to do much else. A sign and trade of Mario Chalmers is a possibility but it’s hard to believe his value would be enough to net much more than an additional role player.
The Heat were able to grab NCAA champion Shabazz Napier in the draft; an excellent pickup for a team needing to upgrade the PG position. He might not be an elite talent but has the experience and ability to be a competent option for a projected roster that only needs defense, shooting, and decision making from the PG – considering that the offense is run through LeBron especially in late game situations. Napier was the only player that caused LeBron to come out of the woodwork and tweet “my favorite player in the draft!”.
But the “Big Three” is dwindling down to the “Big One and Above Average Two”. Dwayne Wade’s health has always been an issue but has miraculously avoided any serious problems during the Heat’s four year run to the Finals. But each year is a roll of the dice for the 32 year old SG on the downside of his career, and last year we saw clear indication that he is beginning to break down. He only started in 53 games last season, and for the first time since his rookie year, Wade’s PPG dipped below 20 to 19.0 (though his shooting percentages have remained efficient). His advanced stats show a decreasing contribution to the defensive side of the floor as well which coincide with his ineffectiveness in the Finals based on the old-school eye test.
Chis Bosh on the other hand has remained consistent as a third option. He has developed range to an already effective jumper out to the 3pt line, and plays better than advertised defense according to advanced stats. However, similarly to Wade, his PPG has fallen to the lowest it’s been since his rookie year to 16.2. Additionally, he is often overwhelmed on the boards (being undersized for the center position) and pushed around in the paint. No clearer example than how he was abused (again) by Tim Duncan in the Finals. In last year’s playoffs, Bosh averaged a measly 5.6 rebounds per game down from previous postseason’s 7.3. Both LeBron’s sidekicks are getting worse, not better.
To round out the roster, the Heat will have to either resign role player relics like Ray Allen and Chris Anderson or use the veteran minimum to add more over-the-hill ring chasers. Would this team be an improvement from last year? And with the Big One and Above Average Two taking up all the cap space, are they likely to be anything but worse as the years go on? They could still be favorites in the Eastern conference for a few more seasons, and Pat Riley is certainly capable of finding an ace up his sleeve.
THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Sentimental reasons aside, the Cavaliers have a lot to offer LeBron James. They have an all-star caliber PG in Kyrie Irving, who is already a more dynamic offensive player than Wade at this point in their careers, with a chance to get even better next to the four time MVP. And at only 22 years old and under contract until 2020 (let that sink in), LeBron has an elite level running mate for the foreseeable future. Irving still needs to improve on the defensive end and become a better floor general, but freeing him from the shackles of Mike Brown’s “stanky leg” offense and into the wide open movement of new coach David Blatt’s Princeton style system should help him take the next step. Additionally, PGs usually hit their prime later in the careers compared to other positions because of the mental aspects of their responsibilities. Kyrie has already shown a talent for breaking down the defense with the dribble and making the home run pass. There’s little doubt that he should only improve in his playmaking ability especially with wing players like LeBron James and new addition Andrew Wiggins finishing the play.
This year’s number one pick is an intriguing block to the Cavaliers’ rebuild. No one knows exactly what his impact could be in his rookie year. While LeBron called Shabazz his favorite player in the draft, he would likely acknowledge Wiggins as potentially the best prospect. Wiggins has a team first attitude, is a freaky athlete, a passion for defense, and a developing jump shot – all attributes that compliment Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. While it might be a risk to pursue an NBA championship with such young budding stars, LeBron could take the long view seeing a little patience on the front end lead to a potential dynasty for the duration of his career. It would also give him an heir apparent in Andrew Wiggins to mold and guide as a part of his legacy similarly to David Robinson and Tim Duncan. However if the Cavs want to add another top ten superstar in Kevin Love to partner with LeBron and Irving, they may have to make the difficult choice to include Wiggins in the deal.
The rest of the Cavs current roster feature a number of young lottery talents: Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett, and Tristan Thompson. All three guys could have an important role to the team going forward, but also could be used as trade pieces to add veterans because of their upside and rookie deals. Thompson represents the type of “glue-guy” who can fit in right away. Though his ceiling is much lower than the other aforementioned players, he contributes on the boards and gives great energy without needing to be included in the offense.
Waiters and Bennett offer quite a bit more upside. Waiters is entering his third season and has displayed the ability to score in bunches. With a strong frame, quick first step, and excellent handle, he can also create for others. But with Kyrie, LeBron and potentially Kevin Love, would there be a role for Waiters? Considering his previous clashes with Irving and attitude problems, it seems more likely that he would be included in a deal for Love or in a separate deal for another piece (shot blocking center?).
Last year’s disappointing pick from an already underwhelming draft, Anthony Bennett, is the largest value swing on the roster. By that I mean he could either be a marginal chip in a multiplayer deal, or he could be the NBA’s biggest surprise. After a disappointing season, Bennett committed himself to prove the doubters wrong and make the haters drink their own poison. Reportedly he has been working all offseason long two, even three, times a day to get into better shape and develop his game. The latest clips from the Cavs’ summer league practices testify to his work ethic. He looks 30 pounds lighter but even stronger in his arms and upper body. If he can have a stellar summer league, he will either give the Cavs confidence in his immediate contribution or raise the asking price in a potential trade.
Outside of the youth, the Cavaliers still maintain LeBron’s main man in Anderson Varejao. LeBron cares about who he plays with more than who he plays for and perhaps no teammate is well-liked more so than the one fans call “Wild Thing”. If LeBron signs with the Cavs, they still have enough wiggle room to add a few veteran pieces to round out the team, and have some valuable commodities next year with Brendan Haywood’s 10.5mil expiring deal and Jarrett Jack’s 6.6mil trade exception. The Cavaliers can be Eastern Conference Finals good this year even without changes and significantly better next year from experience and adding more pieces with their flexibility. But if they are able to make a few deals this season, they could be Eastern Conference favorites this year and several years to come.
The few caveats regarding Coach and GM are reasonable ones. In spite of his pristine reputation, there are no guarantees that new coach David Blatt can excel in the NBA. Same goes for GM David Griffin. But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was a youngster with zero rings before LeBron James and that was of no real issue.
In the end LeBron might stick around a little longer in Miami, trusting in Pat Riley and hoping that Wade and Bosh hold up their end of the bargain. But for the sake of his family, his legacy, and his basketball aspirations both now and in the future, he might regret passing on the best chance he has to return and win with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Follow Britton L. Roberts on twitter @theBLRreivew
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