Just weeks ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers' Big Three was still being questioned for fit, chemistry and maximization of collective talent. Heading into a potential first-round sweep of the Detroit Pistons, we may finally be witnessing the apex of LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving together.
Up 3-0 against Detroit, all three have been brilliant every single game. The trio are all averaging more than 20.0 points apiece on 46.8 percent shooting or better, displaying the kind of potential we've been waiting for the past two years.
"It's been the best I've seen all three together," head coach Tyronn Lue said after Game 3, per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today.
Last year, it was the two-man combination of James and Irving that worked so well. This season, lineup numbers suggested that James and Love were leading the way, with Irving now the outsider.
Now, all three have come together as originally intended.
So, what's changed?
What Wasn't Working
After all, there were some serious issues plaguing both their playing style and overlapping skills. All three operate best with the rock in their hands, and Irving's career-low 32.1 percent mark from three this year was killing his ability to play off the ball.
"I just don't think Kyrie fits in," one Eastern Conference scout told Bleacher Report right before the playoffs started. "He's a square peg in a round hole with the way LeBron plays. They're better with LeBron at the point and Kyrie off the ball. Kyrie's a scorer, that's what he wants, that's his mentality."
For Love, the major issue has always been his usage in the offense, or lack thereof. His three-point attempts just kept rising, up to 44.9 percent of his total shots. This is great of course, if you're an outside specialist with no post game or mid-range ability.
It didn't suit Love's game.
His post abilities didn't just disappear. In fact, playing style and his own aggressiveness seemed to be the problem.
"Kevin Love really isn't much different from what he was in Minnesota," the scout told B/R. "He was a very good player on a bad team. People expect more out of him, but he's doing what he's always done. He's just not the scorer he was in Minnesota because he got a lot more touches and a lot more looks. On this team he's got a lot better cast around him so he's trying to fit in and he's struggled."
Thanks to some minor changes and sacrifices, Love and Irving are once again fitting in, with James continuing to lead the way.
LeBron's New Legacy: Leadership
For this project to work, there had to be sacrifices.
Love has certainly done his share, ranking third in both shots taken and overall scoring after James and Irving. Able to do whatever he wanted after being taken No. 1 overall in 2011, Irving has had to take a backseat in both ball-handling and serving as face of the franchise.
The one who never had to change anything? James, of course. At least, until now.
Coming from his own previous Big Three with the Miami Heat, James won two MVP awards and was the basis for everything Miami did. Sure, he gave up some shots along the way, but everything was ultimately built around him. The same could be said for his return to Cleveland times 100.
James has never been a bad leader, but the Cavaliers' brass had to have a sit-down with him just weeks ago about his peculiar tweets and behavior. Now, we've seen a more laid-back James in this opening round, one who's deferring to his teammates first and willing to take a backseat to Love and Irving.
"I think just right now we're in a great flow. We understand what we want individually and as a team," James said after Game 3 via NBA TV's broadcast.
"Guys are picking their spots. First of all, we're going to Kev a lot in the post. We want Kyrie as well to be aggressive on pick-and-rolls. For myself, I play off these guys. I just focus on what else I can do to help our team be successful while these two guys carry the load offensively."
This has made a huge difference for Cleveland. While Irving is leading the Cavs in scoring (26.3 points per game), James has hung his hat on defense, passing and vocal leadership. He's been quick to offer praise to Love, Irving and Lue, while staying out of verbal battles with some of Detroit's youngsters.
Forget the scoring, highlight dunks and nightly triple-double threat. This is the James that Cleveland needs.
The leadership, ball distribution and confidence he's instilling in teammates have been a breath of fresh air for the Cavs—and something that's made all the difference for Love and Irving.
Aggressiveness and Role Acceptance
The remaining part of this equation is naturally Love and Irving. Feeding off James' energy and willingness to thrust them into the spotlight, both have thrived.
We've seen a huge increase in Love's overall aggressiveness and passion on the court. He's taking fewer three-pointers (39.1 percent of his total shots, down from 44.9) and making them at a higher clip (44.4 percent, up from 36). His motor when rebounding the ball has been excellent, as he's pulling down a team-high 11.7 per contest.
Irving hasn't magically transformed into the pass-first point guard that many believe he must in order for this trio to work. Instead, he's just maximizing his own impressive offensive skill and has seemingly rediscovered his shot (52.2 percent from three, up from 32.1 percent in the regular season).
Irving said via NBA TV:
I think our preparation going into our second postseason is a lot better. We know what to expect from one another. We're not necessarily concerned with the BS that's going on outside of our locker room. We execute the game plan. We may have some mishaps, but we come to each other and we look each other in the eye and communicate and move on to the next play. Being the three leaders on the team, we've just got to continue to play at a high level.
Combining these small tweaks from all three has led to impressive results.
(Stats based on three-man lineups per 100 possessions, via NBA.com.)
Of course, this has been a relatively small sample size. There's the potential for eight more weeks of postseason basketball, leaving plenty of time for Cleveland to either build on this newfound chemistry or watch it dissolve back into a disappointing mess.
The opponents will only get tougher and more physical as the playoffs progress as well.
So, James must continue his impressive leadership and do all the little things necessary to win. Love has to stay aggressive and avoid falling into a stretch-4 trap once again. Irving doesn't have to average double-digit assists but rather play efficient basketball and pick his spots to take over.
If so, the Cavs' Big Three will have finally arrived. It may have taken two years, but that's a lot better than never.
Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @CavsGregBR.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless cited. Stats via Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise sourced.