It’s official: LeBron James has returned back home to the Cleveland Cavaliers. With his emotional essay published by Sports Illustrated, he has put an end to all the uncertainty of where he would ultimately end up—his Decision 2.0.
The same cannot be said for how the new Cavaliers offense will look. Because as heartwarming as his return to Cleveland is (at least for those not in Miami), one thing is for certain—LeBron is leaving a team with a proven identity for another that has just started to look for one.
His four years with the Miami Heat have allowed him to serve as the hub of the offense in a small-ball setup, making him the primary playmaker surrounded by shooters. Without a doubt, it was successful, with four straight NBA Finals runs and two back-to-back championships.
But now LeBron has left that behind for something much less definitive. There’s no doubt that there’s talent in the Cavs roster, with five top-four picks in the last four years, but this is also a team that has fired two coaches in the same time span and recently signed a new one.
Last year, the Cavs had an offensive rating of 101.3, the eighth-worst in the league. As of now, the Cavs have no structure—unlike, say, the Heat if he had re-signed with Miami.
Yet LeBron knows this, perhaps more than anyone else. In the Sports Illustrated essay, he admitted that the Cavs’ formation of an identity “will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that.”
So what will the Cavs’ new offense look like? With the madness of free agency this year, the team's roster can transform at any minute. The acquisition of another star, such as the rumored trade for Kevin Love, per James Herbert of CBS Sports, would especially have a significant impact.
As a result, my analysis will be assuming that the current roster (with the addition of James) as of July 11, 2014 remains intact. What follows is a preliminary guess of how the addition of LeBron will impact the Cavs in the more glamorous side of the court.
A Motion Offense
Thank the heavens for the Cavs’ hire of new coach David Blatt.
Don’t know who he is? I don’t blame you. He has made his name in international leagues.
And he has won. A lot.
Grantland’s Danny Chau describes his career:
In his 21 years of coaching professionally, David Blatt has won 17 championships in various leagues and tournaments, most recently leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to a Euroleague championship in May; he is simply one of the great winners in basketball today… Blatt has won a EuroBasket title (2007), a Euroleague title (2014), and an Olympic medal (bronze, 2012). There are only five other head coaches in basketball history who have hit that trifecta.
And at the forefront of all of Blatt’s success is his offensive philosophy.
Hardwood Paroxysm’s Zachary Bennett has more on this:
Blatt played at Princeton University from 1977-1981, and his offenses have exhibited similar fundamentals that were bestowed upon Blatt in college. Necessary is floor spacing, back-door cutting and constant motion from every player on the floor. The ability to make shots is also ideal for players hoping to thrive in this philosophy.
That’s right: Blatt draws from the same Princeton offense that helped make Phil Jackson’s insanely good triangle offense.
Here’s an example of Blatt’s offense in motion:
Players are disciplined and whip the ball around in search of a high-percentage shot. This scheme has more potential to create elite offenses than the uninspired philosophies that rely heavily on isolation and individual talent.
Starting next season, Blatt will end the reign of the stagnant offenses that have cursed the previous coaches of the Cavs. Instead of playing against a team with a beautifully selfless offensive philosophy like LeBron did against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals, he can be a part of one with the Cavs.
…With Some Alterations
Of course, there will be some changes to make and wiggling around to do.
For starters, Blatt has never coached in the NBA. He will have to get used to the higher athleticism and level of play all around the Association as well as study current NBA defensive philosophies.
In addition, with all due respect to Blatt’s previous players, he has never had an opportunity to coach a playmaker of LeBron’s caliber. To maximize the team's talent, the coach will have to run the offense through LeBron, much like what Erik Spoelstra learned to do in the last few years.
Although it might be a slight shift from what Blatt is used to doing, he will be able to pick it up.
But he might have trouble with one thing. Blatt’s offensive philosophy, along with its beautiful cutting and ball movement, rides on one important factor—good floor-spacing.
And good floor-spacing depends on one big thing: shooting. LeBron knows this as well as anyone—the Heat’s success depended on having three-point shooters all around him, including the center at times. The Heat’s ability to stretch the floor allowed James and others to not only attack the rim but also make plays that result in easy shots.
Unlike the Heat, the Cavs do not have that luxury. Whereas the Heat have had a top-10 three-point shooting team for three of the last four years, the Cavs have failed to even come close, ranking 18th in three-point percentage last year.
The loss of Hawes hurts the most, as his 44.8 percent three-point percentage last season as a center for the Cavaliers could have expanded their offense next season.
Instead, they will have to make do with what they have. In fact, their starting five is even up for grabs.
LeBron will surely start, as will Kyrie Irving, but the rest is unknown. With Tyler Zeller traded away to the Boston Celtics, Anderson Varejao will most likely start, although his injury history suggests that he may not be able to for much of the season. Over the last four years, he has failed to start more than 31 games in a season.
From there, it gets even trickier.
If 2014 first overall pick Andrew Wiggins starts, he could either play shooting guard or small forward, with each carrying huge consequences.
If Wiggins starts at shooting guard, Dion Waiters would be demoted to the bench. The problem with that is that Wiggins shot 34.1 percent from three-point range last year in college, which would be below average in the NBA. And that’s before you take into account how much further the arc is in the pros.
On the other hand, Dion Waiters tied for the highest three-point percentage out of all the Cavs players remaining from last season at 36.8 percent. With less shooting (and playmaking), the floor spacing would suffer.
If Wiggins starts at small forward, LeBron would be shifted to the power forward slot, kicking out Tristan Thompson. Although this would mean good things for the offense, injecting the starting five with a blend of shooting and athleticism, the defense would suffer.
It is well-documented that LeBron played as a small-ball power forward for the Heat in recent years, but he was only able to get away with it when he didn’t have to guard bulkier, stronger big men—players such as David West, Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph. Instead, players like Shane Battier and Rashard Lewis picked up those assignments, freeing James from wearing down.
Unfortunately, Wiggins would be far too undersized to do that, and LeBron would be subjected to the brutal punishment that could result from guarding power forwards.
And a worn-down and unhealthy LeBron is the opposite of what the Cavs need on offense.
With some hope, the Cavaliers can reload this free agency and attract not only shooters but also high IQ players who understand the mechanics of cutting and ball movement.
The Bottom Line
The Cavs offense looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.
Athleticism and youth can be transformed into ball movement, and the Cavs have a lot of potential.
As of now, however, they face some potentially thorny issues. They will need to find shooting and an identity—things that have eluded them since LeBron left in 2010.
And now he’s back.
They’ll need time to develop on both ends of the court. But with young talent led by the best player in the world on their side and a coach described by many as an “offensive genius,” the Cavs are in a great situation.
Now it’s up to them to take advantage of it.