Biggest Potential Problems for LeBron James and Cleveland's New Big 3
The Cleveland Cavaliers, boasting LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving as the NBA's newest Big Three, are going to be an extremely competitive team throughout the 2014-15 season. At various points during the campaign, they'll even look like prohibitive favorites, though such runs likely won't be sustained.
After all, the Cavs—much like most teams in the Association—will need to overcome a few potential problems if they want to make their dreams of a Larry O'Brien Trophy actually become reality.
Even looking past the money difficulties the team will face down the road—highlighted by Love's inevitably expensive extension and a new contact for Tristan Thompson, who shares an agent (Rich Paul) with LeBron James and will likely be rewarded as such—there are a number of issues that could pop up during the first season of James' return to Cleveland.
Does anything ever go smoothly in professional sports? It usually doesn't, and these Cavs won't be an exception to the hard-and-fast rule.
Irving has never felt much pressure during his NBA career, as the Cleveland Cavaliers haven't been expected to make any noise in the Eastern Conference ever since James left for the Miami Heat back in 2010. This is the first time he'll ever be on a team that many think of as a contending unit, and that's a tough burden for a key player to handle.
Maturing is never an easy process.
The same is true for Love.
While he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves, they were a perennial lottery team. In fact, despite his relative youth, he's already one of the best players ever who hasn't suited up in a single postseason game.
Obviously, he hasn't felt much pressure either, though his 'Wolves were at least considered playoff contenders a few times during his tenure there.
Other key pieces like Dion Waiters, Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova and a handful more haven't had the cooker turned up on them, leaving James, Anderson Varejao, Shawn Marion and some of the other veteran backups as the sole players with big-game experience.
Given the prominence of Irving and Love in the Cavs' plans, that's potentially problematic. They could very well be ready for a deep run, but they don't exactly know what to expect when games get more intense, visiting crowds more hostile and the media microscopes more focused.
The Struggles of a 1st-Year Big 3
It's not easy to win when you're attempting to make so many new pieces mesh together.
Take the 2010-11 Miami Heat, who did manage to win a bunch of regular-season games and waltz their way through the Eastern Conference portion of the playoffs. However, when they were matched up against an inspired Dallas Mavericks squad, they collapsed, and LeBron couldn't figure out how to maximize his talents against a defensive system that virtually negated his impact.
Miami didn't become truly dominant until Erik Spoelstra's trap-heavy defense and offense that relied on constant movement were ingrained in the minds of his players. It also took Dwyane Wade realizing he had to defer to James, becoming a proverbial Robin instead of a second Batman.
That wasn't an overnight process, and the same story will inevitably ring true in Cleveland.
James is a seasoned champion, but he's never played with Irving or Love, both of whom figure to fill massive roles throughout their communal time in Quicken Loans Arena. On top of that, the four-time MVP will have to adjust to suiting up next to a ball-dominant point guard for what's literally the first time in his career, one that has now lasted over a decade.
To top things off, David Blatt is the head coach. While he's a promising presence on the sidelines and has experienced quite a bit of international success, he's an NBA rookie dealing with a roster that already has to work for even the tiniest bit of chemistry.
A slow start shouldn't be considered disappointing, given all these factors. Of course, a failure to look elite right off the bat will lead to declarations that the sky is falling all the same.
That's just the nature of the beast with a roster this talented.
Wearing out LeBron James
James has played a lot of basketball over the last few years, and he's done it all while carrying an enormous burden on his shoulders and facing a never-ending stream of pressure-creating circumstances.
Most players suit up throughout the regular season and make the occasional deep run in the playoffs. However, James went to the NBA Finals in four consecutive campaigns, and he also put his body through Olympic competition in 2012.
Is it any wonder he appeared to be slowing down a bit last year?
He was a step slower on defense, failing to react with as much urgency when closing out on a shooter or stepping over to cut off a driving lane. During the playoffs, he was noticeably exhausted at times, especially when Wade was unable to meet his own lofty set of expectations.
As ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh wrote during the 2013 NBA Finals, James might consistently be worn out at that stage of the season, and it was no different in 2014:
When James struggles in the Finals, the general public immediately points to psychological factors to explain his dropoff. He is mentally weak. He shrinks under the pressure. He lacks Michael Jordan's killer instinct.
But what if it has nothing to do with that? What if his body is failing him? What if it's a simple case of physical exhaustion?
That's something Cleveland will have to consider, especially if the team intends on having LeBron play in a fifth consecutive Finals. So far, the Cavs aren't doing much to help their case, as the arrival of Love means that No. 23 will have to suit up at small forward.
Small forward means more chasing players out on the perimeter and less time using his strength in the post. In other words, it means more energy expended, and thus a tougher time staying fresh at the end of the season.
Miami managed to maintain a healthy balance for him, but that's going to be hard unless Cleveland allows Love to suit up as a center sometimes, which was always a recipe for disaster when that course of action was taken with the power forward in Minnesota.
Dion Waiters' Happiness
During the 2013-14 season, James took 17.6 shots per game.
Meanwhile, Irving took 17.4 attempts from the field during the average contest for the Cavaliers, and Love led the 'Wolves with 18.5 looks per outing.
Together, that's already 53.5 shots per game.
Those three are guaranteed to at least get close to those numbers once more, as they're the unquestioned stars of the new-look Cavs. If you're deciding which players in Cleveland are going to be considered the Big Three, it would be James, Irving and Love, with guys like Dion Waiters, Varejao and Marion left on the outside looking in.
Well, the Cavaliers took 84.8 shots during their average game in 2013-14, and that was already above the league-average mark of 83.0, per Basketball-Reference.com. Even using that higher number—which isn't guaranteed, given the uncertainty surrounding the tempo in Blatt's NBA offense—that leaves the rest of the roster only 31.3 shots per game.
Let's also take out some for the bench.
According to Hoopsstats.com, the bench that called The Q home took 30.6 shots during the average contest, more than all but four teams throughout the Association. Factor in that, as well as Varejao's 7.1 attempts, and Waiters is going to be left taking minus-6.4 shots per game, which is obviously impossible.
Even if Varejao takes 7.1 and the Cavaliers' second- and third-unit dip to 21.6 (the lowest mark in the NBA last season), that leaves Waiters with only 2.6 shots per game, which is far less than the 14.2 he took last season.
Of course, there are a lot of assumptions here.
Chances are, Varejao will be slightly less involved, and the Big Three's numbers will all go down a little bit. But the bench is also going to be closer to 30.6 than 21.6, given the presences of Marion, Thompson and Mike Miller, among others. Those three alone combined for 24 attempts per game by themselves last season.
No matter how the specifics work, Waiters figures to be one of the odd men out.
The Cavaliers are not going to be good at defense.
Period. End of story. As a good friend of mine likes to say for even more emphasis that you'd get otherwise, period dot.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Cleveland finished the 2013-14 season allowing 107.7 points per 100 possessions, a mark that placed them at No. 19 among the NBA's 30 teams. James' presence should help remedy some of the woes, but there are multiple problems with the defensive stylings.
Marion may well be the team's best rim-protecting presence, given the woes of Varejao, Thompson and Love. Considering the former Dallas Maverick allowed opponents to shoot 53.3 percent at the rim on 3.6 attempts per game, per NBA.com's SportVU data, that's problematic.
Additionally, Irving has never exactly been a point-preventer. Perhaps he's been profoundly porous, but never particularly potent on defense.
"Defense is about commitment, resolve, discipline and an ability to concentrate," Jeff Van Gundy said to Cleveland.com's Tom Reed earlier this offseason. "The pressure is going to be exerted by James. He is in his prime and they have a chance to win so as a player you don't want to not play up to your potential defensively."
James should indeed help both Irving and Love play the best defense of their careers, but that won't be an overnight process. Additionally, the level of upside for those two is still unknown, though it's always appeared as though Irving has the physical capabilities to become at least an adequate stopper.
Every heard the saying "defense wins championships" uttered in an NBA context?
Well, the Cavaliers may very well have to disprove it, as they'll likely be trying to become the first team to finish outside the top 10 in defensive rating and win a championship in the same season since Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers did so in 2001.
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