LeBron James’ decision to return to Cleveland makes the Cavaliers an instant contender and a favorite to win the NBA title, according to many oddsmakers. It also raised many questions.
1. How good are the Cavaliers now? James, the No. 1 draft pick in 2003, will join three of the past four No. 1 picks. Getting excited about him pairing with Anthony Bennett, the disappointing top pick of 2013, might cause a snicker or two, but a supporting cast of Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins is a long-term upgrade over a Miami Heat team still relying on a broken-down Dwyane Wade.
Irving is the first elite point guard James has played with. At 22 years old, he was the 2011-12 rookie of the year, is a two-time All-Star and has averaged more than 20 points per game in two seasons. His durability is a concern, though, going back to his abbreviated college career at Duke. But he has produced a player efficiency rating of 20 or higher in each of his first three seasons. Once asked to make fans forget James, he can now focus on playing alongside the team’s prodigal son.
Wiggins, the top pick this year, is still a project, but he is expected to be NBA-ready on defense. The good news is that James is the NBA equivalent of a rising tide that lifts all ships. Just ask anyone familiar with the phrase “Mo Williams, former All-Star.” With James’ tutelage, it is easy to believe Wiggins can develop into a new version of Scottie Pippen if the team retains him.
2. How much better can the team get? A persistent rumor has had the Cavaliers trading for Kevin Love, the sweet-shooting power forward of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Reuniting James and Love, teammates on the U.S. national basketball team, would give Cleveland a third All-Star, but it likely would come at the expense of Wiggins.
One or two of James’ friends also likely will bolster the roster. The team has some cap room, after a three-way trade with the Boston Celtics and the Brooklyn Nets. Mike Miller and Ray Allen, talented shooters, have been mentioned as possibilities.
3. Should the San Antonio Spurs be worried? In Miami, James combined with two of the league’s elite veterans in Wade and Chris Bosh. Even with that, it took until Year 2 for Miami to win a title. The younger Cavaliers should not be expected to win it all right away.
On the other hand, the Spurs may have dodged a bullet if Bosh ends up not signing with the Houston Rockets, as had previously been expected. Bosh, who is now expected to return to Miami, would have given Houston a stretch-four that immediately upgraded the team’s defense and offense.
4. What becomes of the Heat? While Wade and Bosh opted out of the rest of their contracts with Miami, it is hard not to see Wade coming back as the face of the franchise. Bosh returning as well could keep the team in the playoff hunt, as he has shown an ability to take over games when James and Wade are out, and was a franchise player in his own right for the Toronto Raptors. Teaming them with Shabazz Napier, the Connecticut point guard the team traded for at this year’s draft, along with Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts, a pair of free-agent signings, does not make the team a title contender, but they would be far less destitute than the Cavaliers were when James left in 2010.
5. What is the legacy of the Big 3? Controversial from the start, the Big 3 were an unadulterated success. James, Bosh and Wade went to the NBA finals in all four seasons together, winning twice, and reeled off a 27-game win streak in 2013 in which they played some of the best basketball in recent memory. The team never was just three players, with Shane Battier, Allen and even the eccentric Chris Andersen filling vital roles, but the superteam created by the Big 3 was something great while it lasted, even if the average fan always seemed to be rooting against the Heat.