What is there to say about LeBron James? What adjectives are left? No player in the NBA gets covered like James. No player in the NBA plays like James. No player in the NBA could. He's a four time Most Valuable Player award winner. He's won two NBA championships. He's played in the NBA Finals for four years running, five times overall. Over his last two seasons in Miami he shot 56.6% from the field and 39.1% from three point range while averaging 27 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game. His shot chart looked like this last year:
So it's insane, and not particularly fair. He's playing a different game than nearly everyone else. It isn't just that he was 18% above the league average at the rim. It's that he was able to do that while attempting 592 shots there. Wings aren't supposed to have true shooting rates of 61.3 over six years of action, but that's what James has done. He plays multiple positions on the floor. He guards multiple positions on the floor. He's 6'8, so he sees over double teams and is better at passing than most of the Association.
He's good. He can play the post and score efficiently, or punish defenses for doubling. He will run the offense some. David Blatt will be challenged to find the best possible use for the best player in basketball. What are some things for the Cavaliers to keep in mind with James this year and beyond?
James should have fun with Kevin Love
Kevin Love and LeBron James were two of the best offensive players in basketball last season, and they appear to have skill sets that perfectly complement one another. From Zach Lowe's grantland preview of the Cavaliers:
Legit size is part of what makes Cleveland so terrifying on offense. Miami had to contort itself uncomfortably to find the ideal floor spacing for LeBron’s inside-out game to breathe. The Heat downsized, with Shane Battier as an undersize shooting power forward, and held it together on defense with frantic rotations and elite speed.
The Cavaliers can functionally play small while remaining big, and that’s because of Love. He’s a real power forward, not a wing bravely masquerading as one, and he has true quick-release 3-point range. Cleveland might not be able to mimic Miami’s "five-out" style in a literal sense, since its centers can’t shoot 3s like Chris Bosh, but that distinction is meaningless.
What's Lowe talking about? The Miami Heat were nearly unstoppable offensively with shooters to surround LeBron with. Chris Bosh extended his shooting range and the Heat had a combination of Rashard Lewis and Shane Battier play the hybrid 3/4 role. They sacrificed defense and rebounding and for the most part it didn't matter because they outscored everyone. The Cavaliers? They can stay big with Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson and have Kevin Love stretch defenses without sacrificing any of that.
Nothing Kevin Love does offensively should diminish the skills of LeBron. Even when Love gets the ball in the post, teams will be forced to double, and James has turned himself into an excellent three point shooter, particularly from the corners. James as the pick and roll ball-handler with the cerebral Love deciding whether to pop or roll has the potential to devastate defenses, particularly with Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Mike Miller feeling their way around the perimeter for open spot up opportunities.
What Kyrie Irving could mean for LeBron James
James has never played with a player like Irving. For nearly all of his career, the player filling the point guard role for LeBron's teams has had a placeholder role. Get the ball up the court, hit spot up threes, defend. Irving can do the first two, of course. The third, well, we will see. But more importantly, Irving can do a whole heck of a lot more. As William Bohl put it for Hardwood Paroxysm, this is a new feature:
LeBron has pined for a quality point guard, and now (barring injury) he’ll be paired with one for multiple years. Why might Kyrie’s presence, beyond the fact that he’s a star, have played a part in James’ homecoming? What will it mean for LeBron’s game, both in the short-term and long-term?
James will almost assuredly be Cleveland’s primary ballhandler for at least the next couple of seasons. He’s sported a top-6 usage rate, league-wide, each of the past seven seasons, and has ranked in the top ten in that category every year of his career. Few players are more devastating with the ball in their hands, whether it’s in transition, isolation, or running the pick and roll. He won’t diminish Irving’s opportunities completely – James and Wade were both high-usage rate players while they were teammates – but the offense will function best when the ball runs through LeBron.
But the decision to move to Cleveland wasn’t motivated solely by 2015 title hopes. It’s possible this was LeBron’s last move, and he wanted to find a place where he can age well. Having a young, accomplished ball handler around – someone else who can take the ball into the teeth of the defense and soak up the abuse handed out in the lane – could aid in LeBron’s self-preservation.
In the preseason (which was just the preseason, of course) James went out of his way over and over again to make sure Irving was the one initiating the offense. That's not going to be a constant feature. James can and should and will initiate the offense quite a bit. But James has consistently worked to expand his game to help get ready for a time when he doesn't carry such an offensive burden, or have quite the same creation responsibilities. As mentioned before, he is now a capable three point shooter. He showed great skill last season in limited opportunities as the pick and roll finisher. Already in the preseason, Irving and James have flashed this type of pick and roll. With Kevin Love and other floor spacers, with LeBron's finishing ability, well
His skills in the post likewise will limit the need for him to set up the offense. It might also free him up to expend more energy defensively, where he took more possessions off than ever last season. The Cavaliers strong rebounding abilities will likewise lessen the burden on what is expected of him from an effort perspective. The hope is that he is asked to do less, and that this can extend his career. Which leads us to
What the Cavaliers can do to keep James fresh
James turns 30 right before the New Year on December 30. He's not old, no, but he has played an ever increasing load of minutes in his career. He's played Olympics basketball, and he has played deep into June over and over again. He may or may not have an unspoken lifetime contract with the Cavaliers at this point. He's never played less than 37.5 minutes per game for a season. Hopefully that changes this year. James is a long term investment, and the Cavs should maximize that. With Love and Irving, the Cavaliers should be able to structure lineups to succeed even without him on the floor.
Strategic nights off, increased responsibilities for Irving and perhaps even Dion Waiters can help preserve LeBron James. Even if David Blatt isn't thinking about age-36 LeBron James, I hope he is thinking about June LeBron James, who was ridden hard by his last Heat team and ultimately suffered dehydration issues. James never gets hurt, shoulders a huge burden. He wants that. He's one of the best ever. It's up to the Cavaliers franchise to harness what he can provide. If they do so, there might be a championship parade or two in Cleveland's future.
After all, the team does have LeBron James.
Statistics used courtesy of basketball-reference.com unless otherwise stated.