LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are obviously going to make the Cleveland Cavaliers into one of the NBA's best teams. Whether they're capable of moving past the Chicago Bulls and the rest of the Eastern Conference is up for debate, but they'll at least be a part of the competition for a No. 1 seed throughout the 2014-15 campaign.
But how do they stack up historically? Northeast Ohio now boasts an unprecedented amount of upside and potential, but does this Cavaliers squad have the best Big Three of the superteam era?
If we define the "superteam era" as the last seven seasons, dating back to when Danny Ainge assembled the Big Three that quickly turned around the Boston Celtics, then the field is a lot narrower. The C's of the early 1980s—Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish—don't count. Nor does the Los Angeles Lakers' trio of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, dominant as it may have been.
And that's how it should be.
Back then, those teams were the exceptions. They weren't the rule. Additionally, they were largely compiled in organic fashion, though some trades were obviously still involved. Such was the case for the Chicago Bulls' devastating triumvirate of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman during their second three-peat in the '90s.
But the Celtics changed things when Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett joined an incumbent Paul Pierce, engineering one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in NBA history. All of a sudden, that became the route du jour for championship-caliber team construction. It didn't even take a full season for the Lakers to react and trade for Pau Gasol, pairing him up with Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum.
Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs steadily plugged along, content with their own Big Three of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, one that already had championships to its credit and would later earn more. That trio was assembled as organically as possible, but it's impressive in and of itself that Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford and the rest of the San Antonio front office have been able to fight off every suitor that emerged for one of those three stars.
The Oklahoma City Thunder stumbled upon a troika of their own—Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. The Miami Heat built one seemingly from scratch, luring the talents of LeBron James and Chris Bosh to South Beach in the summer of 2010.
And that's saying nothing of the failed trios.
The Lakers tried to form another triumvirate with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, but the eventual ill feelings and quick departure made them the closest comparison we have to Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. The Brooklyn Nets thought they might have something special with Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. The New York Knicks teamed up Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler with Amar'e Stoudemire.
Whether the constructions have been successful or not, the concept of a Big Three has become ubiquitous in today's NBA.
Some fans like the idea, as it tends to promote high-quality basketball and make it easier to catch multiple stars in action at the same time. Then again, a large crowd feels nothing but vitriol over the idea of manufacturing excellent teams, as there's this notion that stars of the past wouldn't have taken the "easy route" by teaming up with other great players.
Is it right? Is it wrong? That's irrelevant here. It's a discussion for another time and place.
No matter your leanings, it's happening, and it's been happening for years now. The new-look Cavaliers are only the latest iteration in this "superteam era," but they're far from being the best right now.
Individually, Cleveland has a handful of absolutely fantastic pieces.
James is the best player in the NBA, even if Durant is coming off a season in which he finally got over the hump, stopped finishing second and got his hands on the coveted Maurice Podoloff Trophy. Love is without question one of the league's elite power forwards, capable of making incredible offensive and rebounding contributions, even if his defense is questionable at best. Irving is an up-and-coming point guard with a knack for scoring and handles nearly unsurpassed throughout the vast reaches of the Association.
There's just one problem.
Irving and Love have never played meaningful NBA basketball. Their regular-season games have mattered, sure, but neither player has been involved in a crucial stretch run that propelled his team into the playoffs. Nor have they played a single postseason game.
In many ways, that's understandable, seeing as neither player has been in a situation in which his front office has surrounded him with high-quality talent. Irving is still just 22 years old, while Love is four years his senior. Both players have plenty of time left to continue growing and learning the ropes when it comes to postseason basketball.
Comparing them to the Spurs right now is foolish, especially considering all that the trio has accomplished under Popovich's supervision. Except for Bird, McHale and Parish, no group of three players has ever won more games than this San Antonio pairing, who moved past Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson and Michael Cooper during the 2013-14 campaign.
And as Parker told NBA.com's Fran Blinebury right before surpassing that Lakers trio, this sustained success means a lot to them:
A great run and it feels very special. I feel very blessed to play with Timmy and Manu and I feel very lucky and privileged to be named next to Magic Johnson and Kareem and Michael Cooper.
I grew up watching them and never thought in my wildest dreams that my name would be next to them. It’s crazy just to think about it. Once I retire, I can look at it and enjoy it. Now I try to stay focused on the season, but it’s unbelievable.
Since then, the Spurs have won another title. It's their fourth since Ginobili joined the squad as a second-round draft pick. They may have been assembled before my arbitrary cutoff date in the summer of 2007, but they haven't been disassembled since.
Again, there's no point in bothering with a comparison between the Spurs and these new Cavaliers, but how does Cleveland stack up against other candidates—and this is key—at the time of assembly?
When Garnett came to Boston, he had only just turned 31, still squarely in the midst of his prime. While with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he'd carried his team to the playoffs multiple times, won an MVP and established himself as one of the very best two-way players in the league.
Allen, meanwhile, was just a year older. Though his athleticism was no longer as stellar as it was early in his career, he remained a superstar, coming off a season with the Seattle SuperSonics in which he averaged 26.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. A battle-tested seven-time All-Star, he already had 37 playoff games to his credit, including a run to the Eastern Conference Finals with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Plus, Pierce was nearing the 30-year milestone and had been a part of multiple playoff runs with the Celtics during the opening salvo of his NBA tenure. And he was arguably the least successful of the three prior to their union in Beantown.
And how about the Big Three James is leaving? When the Heat assembled in 2010, Wade (who had a Finals MVP to his credit) was being joined by a multi-MVP player and Bosh, who had proved himself as a No. 1 option with the Toronto Raptors. It was the big man who had the weakest resume, but he'd led Toronto to the postseason twice while serving as the top player.
These Cavaliers simply don't have the necessary experience to stack up against the other dominant Big Threes of this "superteam era," at least at the time of inception.
But that doesn't mean they'll be kept from the top of the heap for too long.
Even though the NBA world will inevitably be swept away with immediate expectations of titles, this Cleveland Big Three was assembled with the future in mind.
While the youth of Irving and Love keeps the trio from coming anywhere close to earning status as the top Big Three of the "superteam era," it also works in its favor going forward. Garnett, Pierce and Allen had to peak right away, as each was heading out of his prime. The same was true with James, Bosh and Wade, as well as Gasol and Bryant, though to a lesser extent.
Limited windows abounded. But that's not the case for these Cavs.
James isn't going anywhere for at least a little while longer. He's a skilled enough player that he'll be able to stave off the ill effects of Father Time with his ridiculously cerebral play, his efficiency, his burgeoning post-up skills and his all-around game. Even if he's not numero uno in the basketball world, he won't be moving past cinco for a long time.
And how about Irving?
That's not an exaggeration.
Irving has a long way to go if he hopes to move past Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, John Wall and the other point guards currently in front of him. He'll have to play much more focused defense, improve his shooting efficiency and start leading a team rather than posting big, gaudy stats on a lackluster squad.
But he can do it.
"Accompanied by fellow stars and playing on a real title contender, Irving has the chance to develop in ways he couldn't before," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale explained while breaking down what it would take for Irving to ascend to that pole position. "He has safety nets most cannot even fathom."
And one of those safety nets will be an ever-improving Love, who finally gets to play on a team with a shot at doing something special. He's been an incredible source of numbers, historical performances and awe-inspiring box scores during the initial years of his NBA career, but his resume remains devoid of even a cup of coffee in the postseason.
Even though he won't turn 27 until the 2015 offseason is drawing near to its conclusion, he may already have the best resume in NBA history for a player without a single playoff game under his belt. He's been that good while laboring away on nondescript Minnesota teams.
How will he play when defense finally matters? How will he fare when he has incredible offensive talents drawing defensive attention away from him? We have no idea, but the questions themselves are certainly intriguing for a player who somehow seems to be getting better each year he's healthy.
Don't be surprised when the Cavaliers follow that same pattern.
Is this the best Big Three assembled in recent memory? Absolutely not.
But it can be.