by Ernest Wolfe
Before analyzing Cleveland’s imminent dynasty after the Homecoming, the Return of the King, the Decision 2.0, or whatever else you want to call LeBron’s move back to Cleveland, I want to quickly say something to the dying breed of hardcore LeBron haters still out there:
One thing is clear about LeBron James’ public perception at this point: no matter what he does, there will always be those who shamelessly deride and treat him as a villain. LeBron has coped with pressure to become the greatest NBA player of all time ever since he was in high school.
Such a subjective expectation inevitably leads to constant controversy. Scrutiny over every press conference, headband placement, cramp, and decision James has made throughout his young adulthood and tumultuous twenties. Most fans willing to exercise empathy can hardly blame LeBron for some of his missteps given his circumstances, but unfortunately, empathy tends to yield to sensationalism among sports fans.
Some claim LeBron would be damaging his manhood to go back to Cleveland after Dan Gilbert’s infamous letter. But should he foster more animosity towards the brazen owner who eagerly rode the wave of LeBron negativity and released a nasty public break-up letter, or towards the Heat fans that were caught booing and leaving in the middle of the 4th quarter in Game 4 of the NBA Finals in what ended up as LeBron’s last home game in American Airlines Arena?
But isn’t LeBron a mercenary, a cold and calculated championship chaser? I mean what other superstar switches teams TWICE (well, besides Wilt Chamberlain, Kevin Garnett, Charles Barkley, Shaq (5 times!), Scottie Pippen, Bill Walton, and many others)? Loyalty to one team is much more circumstantial than people like to believe, as there are few great players willing to endure mediocre season after mediocre season with the same team.
The media response to LeBron’s homecoming has been reasonably positive though, so now it’s time to dive into the King’s second reign in Cleveland. Nate Silver published an article a few days ago making the bold claim that LeBron shouldn’t go to either Miami or Cleveland if he wanted to win. Nate Silver is a brilliant and revolutionary statistician, the man who makes predicting presidential elections seem as easy as predicting Wednesday to come after Tuesday. If you follow his footnotes and links, it is practically a full introductory course to advanced basketball metrics. He primarily focuses on a stat called Statistical Plus Minus (SPM) to predict how several teams would perform if they signed LeBron, but as is the case with many statistics, his results are misleading.
Silver declares Cleveland only a 52-win team after signing LeBron, making the Cavs, by his estimation, LeBron’s third worst destination only ahead of the now lowly Lakers and aging Heat. Silver instead postulates that LeBron would have been better served bringing his talents to Chicago, LA (Clippers), or Houston to secure his place as a bona fide legend with a fist full of rings.
However, Silver needs to realize that strict numbers and statistics alone can’t account for how perfect a fit LeBron is for this young and loaded Cavs team. The city of Cleveland hasn’t won a major sports championship since 1964, but that will change in the next couple of years with LeBron rebuilding his home franchise overnight. Cleveland’s issue last year was not a lack of talent, not with one of the best young point guards in the NBA, an athletic and deep front court, and several players capable of making plays in isolation.
The Cavs were in the middle of the NBA in several categories last year and, on paper, seem like a team that should have earned a place in the weak eastern conference playoffs. One of Cleveland’s few glaring statistical weaknesses last season was their inability to finish at the rim, ranking dead last, as they shot a mere 54.8% within 5 feet. Now compare that to how LeBron’s teams fared around the hoop since the 2008-09 season:
LeBron, whose personal shooting percentages continue to rise each year, will make one of Cleveland’s most blatant flaws become a major strength. Andrew Wiggins should only add to that interior shooting percentage with his already elite ability to make plays above the rim.
More qualitatively speaking, LeBron comes to Cleveland as a player who immediately brings an identity and attitude that this young Cavaliers roster desperately needed last year. Who better to mentor Andrew Wiggins, “The most hyped high school basketball player since LeBron”? Who better to help the still only 21-year old Anthony Bennett show more flashes of his smooth offensive game? Who better to make Kyrie Irving accountable on defense and put forth equal effort on both ends of the floor?
Irving is the one with the most pressure to prove himself, and to do it quickly. Some declared him the No Defense Player of the Year and the Most Overrated Superstar in the NBA last season. Here is a list that Kyrie would rather not be a part of, featuring several high contract players who measured out poorly on defense last year based on their Defensive Real Plus/Minus (DRPM):
Point guard defense is largely dependent on a team’s defensive scheme and how other players help on picks, but still, no one is going to claim Kyrie Irving is anything but a lackluster defender in the NBA. Based on DRPM and his salary, Kyrie Irving might actually be the worst defender in the NBA for his contract. However, he still has plenty of time to rescue himself from this undesirable group, making sure he doesn’t go the route of a Tyreke Evans or Brandon Jennings; and while he will never be an elite perimeter defender like Chris Paul, he should at least become serviceable now that he’s accountable to LeBron.
Even on offense, despite Kyrie Irving’s elite ability to get by defenders and hit shots, his contributions were negligible. ESPN Stats and Info was quick to report that Irving was 56th out of 57 eligible players with at least 50 catch and shoot opportunities in terms of his points per play and effective field goal percentage. He has never had a distributor close to the caliber of LeBron feeding him the ball though, and so he should get much better opportunities to display his natural shooting touch in the coming years.
Even if Irving fails to be a true superstar and his contract becomes a slight burden on the Cavs, with Wiggins and LeBron both on roster, Cleveland still have two of the most discounted contracts in the NBA. If there were no caps on individual contracts, LeBron would likely command at least 75% of a team’s entire salary cap. So even with a salary at or near the league maximum, LeBron is a silly discount. By the 3rd or 4th year in his contract, Wiggins will likely already be a star player who still is on a rookie salary scale. For more on the value of rookie-salary contributors, read here.
LeBron also will immediately attract free agent sharpshooters like Ray Allen and Mike Miller to come along at a discount for the chance to get open threes and compete for a championship. The Cavs are overflowing with assets in the form of draft picks, young talent, and now the single greatest commodity in the NBA today: it's very best player. The coastal hegemony in the NBA is over now as The King has set up his kingdom of riches in Cleveland to foster a new era of the NBA that all basketball fans should be excited to witness.