The fact that the 2015 NBA Finals went six games was a testament to the greatness of LeBron James. And greatness is exhausting.
LeBron's play wasn't quite as exhausting as his work in the 2014 NBA Finals, but it wasn't all that different. That may have been due to the fact that the style the Cavs played - lots of isos and late in the shot clock pick and rolls with LeBron pounding away the shot clock slowed the game down with the hope of extending LeBron's gas tank well into the fourth quarter. It worked about as well as it could have. It really shouldn't have to be so difficult for James, and it shouldn't be moving forward.
This, of course, assumes that the Cavs will be healthy for most - if not all - of next year. When LeBron had to really drag the Cavs to six games, it was because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were both out for the playoffs. Them being heathy is step one in the Cavs being able to give LeBron rest due. Aside from the star, the Cavs have two versatile, high-end role players and the rest of the supporting cast having defined roles that they should thrive in.
Irving and Love are the beginning and end
This past year, the Irving-Love was Cleveland's most used two-man combo per Basketball-Reference and it was a very good pairing. The Irving-Love duo was 13.6 points better per 100 possession than the opposition. And as we know, Love wasn't used to the full extent of his abilities last season.
If the Cavs do use Love in a different way, it's one way to lessen LeBron's burden. It's the obvious fix - and for good reason: Kevin Love is very good at basketball. This past year, 68.4 percent of Love's shots came in catch-and-shoot situations - up from 34.8 percent in 2013-14. In his last year with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Love was one of the league's very best offensive players. He made over 50 percent of his two-point shots, had a TS% of 59.1 and made 3-pointers at a slightly higher rate than he did last season. And this wasn't a long time ago - Love is a year and a role change removed from his best season. It stands to reason that Love, while not completely moving away from the role he had last year, can assume a bigger role in the Cavs' offense. Somewhere between 3-5 more post-ups a game might slow an already relatively down tempo Cavs team down a little, but Love's probably going to be very good with a few more touches. He was good at it last year too - with almost a quarter of his touches coming on post-ups, Love scored .98 points per possession.
Irving ideally would be his partner in crime. It's already well known that Irving was phenomenal in isolation last year - amongst players who were in isolation at least 12 percent of the time, Irving ranked fifth in points per possession. And not surprisingly, Irving was elite as a ball handler too, ranking in the 86th percentile. But he was great in other ways too. With a career low - but still high - usage rate of 26.2, had a turnover rate of 11.8 percent - the lowest of his career. The 2014-15 edition of Irving was the best version of himself this past year.
Love and Irving have comparable games too - and not just in Pepsi commercials. Irving, as noted, is deadly in the pick and roll due to his ball handling abilities and Love is a more than adequate roll or pop man. If the Cavs run some form of pick and roll/pop with Irving and Love, opposing defenses face the tough choice of either doubling down on Irving or leaving Love in a one-on-one matchup. And if the Cavs throw the ball into Love on the elbow or on the block, Irving will be lurking on the weak side to either shoot or take his man off the dribble. Neither option is great, Bob.
If the Cavs don't want to play LeBron on a back-to-back or he's dealing with nagging injuries like last year, Irving and Love make resting LeBron a reasonable course of action. The NBA season is long and, for the Cavs, what really matters comes at the very end. Having Irving and Love makes playing the long game possible and, at times, worth while.
Thompson and Shumpert fill in the big gaps
While not as integral as Irving or Love, Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert have their own major roles to play. Their roles are important in a different way - since neither player is going to score, it's their versatility that enables the Cavs to play different lineups - lineups that give LeBron a chance to rest, even if he's playing.
With Thompson, the appeal is obvious. He rebounds like a librarian reads and eats up space large amount of space inside. In addition, his ability and willingness to do the dirty work allows the Cavs to do some different things with their lineups. He can play with Love, Mozgov or anyone else the Cavs decide to pair him with. And the big thing with Thompson is that he's become so good inside that when the Cavs go small with him at the five and LeBron at the four, LeBron can still play outside and doesn't have to bang inside with bulkier forwards.
Perhaps most importantly, Thompson can play the four or the five with little difference in terms of skill and while he's not Mozogv when protecting the rim, he goes a pretty respectable job.
Meanwhile, Shumpert is an ideal fit as the Cavs' two-guard. You'd like him to be a better shooter - he was really good early on and then injuries and natural regression set in - but his defensively versatility at least somewhat makes up for his shooting flaws. He's not quite bulky enough to defend fours, but Shumpert can defend point guards, shooting guards and small forwards. The obvious benefit is that he can guard Irving's man an certain nights, but he can do the same thing with LeBron's. Until crunch time comes and LeBron likely ends up guarding the opposing teams best player, Shumpert can guard said player and let LeBron guard someone off the ball, someone who isn't going to be the be opposing team's primary option. Even if this happens just a few times over the course of 82 games, that matters and helps LeBron in the long run.
Everyone else can complete the puzzle
Behind Thompson and Shumpert, the Cavs' role players have roles that, in theory, lessen LeBron's role. For starters, Timofey Mozgov's presence gives the Cavs a defensive anchor and, if healthy, Anderson Varejao gives the Cavs another big that keeps LeBron out of the paint. James Jones can give the Cavs a shooter that fits off Irving and Love if the Cavs decide to rest LeBron and J.R. Smith's ability to create has value if he returns next year. Matthew Dellavedova helps too due to his penchant to do the dirty work.
The keys, though, might be free agent signings Richard Jefferson and Mo Williams. Jefferson, who was officially announced as a Cavalier last night, might be what Shawn Marion was supposed to be last season. He won't provide the same defensive versatility Marion was supposed to, but he's two years younger than Marion was and a better shooter. In Dallas last year - oddly enough, Marion also came to Cleveland from the Mavericks as a free agent - he started 18 games and played 16 minutes a night consistently with the Mavericks being just 0.2 points worse per 100 possessions with him on the floor. And at 35, he had the second highest three-point percentage of his career while taking 4.4 threes a night. Jefferson is a player the Cavs can use to give LeBron a night off from time to time.
As for Williams, it ultimately will depend what type of player he'll be in his second stint with the Cavs. Since being traded during the 2010-11 season, Williams has been a nomad of sorts. In that time, he's also become a gunner and he's not the same Williams who made an All-Star game with Cleveland. Expecting him to be one again is asinine, but it isn't unreasonable to think he'll become a mix of the old and new Mo Williams next year in a better situation. If his shooting numbers go up - he had his second lowest field goal percentage last year - and his turnover rate drops when his usage rate drops, Williams is a really nice fit for this Cavs team. As Irving's backup, he should be able to create in a way that means LeBron doesn't have to bring the ball up every possession when Irving is off the floor. At worst, Williams should provide secondary creation in the same way Smith does.
Still, being leaned on is nothing new for LeBron. Since day one of this NBA career, LeBron has been tasked with being the man and it wasn't until he moved to Miami that he really didn't have to do it all constantly. And you could argue that he's still capable of doing it all himself, at least to an extent.
And last year, the Cavs tried to build in the same way and LeBron was never really fresh until he took his two week trip to South Beach. He'll turn 31 during the middle of next season and at some point, the record number of minutes he's played will catch up to him in some way next year. And perhaps father time will catch up to Jefferson, Varejao and others this year like he caught up to Marion and Mike Miller a year ago. And no one would argue that the Cavs are better without LeBron.
At the end of the day, though, it's in the Cavs best interest to get him rest and reduce his burden so when he needs to shoulder it all - or at least more of the load - come June, he can. On paper, the Cavs are built to let LeBron get charged up.