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LeBron's Best Team Ever?
By Mike Jasko

Best Supporting Cast

With the three team trade sending All-Star forward Kevin Love to Cleveland finally complete, the new Eastern Conference juggernaut that has become the Cavaliers is nearly assembled. It cost them Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, the previous two #1 overall draft picks, but Love now joins a star-studded cast led by Kyrie Irving and LeBron James.

The difference between the way LeBron left Cleveland four years ago and the way he returned could not have been starker. In the Sports Illustrated letter announcing his return to the Cavaliers, LeBron stressed patience instead of promise. He said, “We’re not ready yet” rather than predicting he’ll win, “Not one, not two, not three, not four” titles, as he did after arriving in Miami.

In 2010 we saw a 25 year old James who had yet to win an NBA Finals game, and had perhaps underestimated how difficult the journey to win an NBA title would be, even after teaming up with Bosh and Wade. He had (rightfully, for the most part) blamed his failure to win a title in his first seven seasons on the lack of talent that surrounded him. Earlier this summer we saw a wiser version of LeBron, now 29, who has won back-to-back titles, been to four consecutive finals, and fully understands how difficult it will be to reach that point with his new teammates.

But there are more than a few reasons that LeBron should be as confident as ever. In fact, the 2014-15 Cavaliers are poised to be the best supporting cast that has ever surrounded the four-time MVP. Without a doubt, the Cavaliers as they are currently constituted put James in a much better situation than the Miami Heat were when LeBron and Bosh joined in 2010. To support this idea, I’ve analyzed the statistics of six of LeBron’s new teammates and compared each to a comparable player he played with in Miami. For all players, I primarily looked at the seasons before they teamed up with James because, for a variety of reasons, playing alongside LeBron will have a notable effect on different stats. I’ve also focused on the statistical areas that are most important to a given players’ role on a LeBron-led team.

The “3” is the Key

During LeBron’s four seasons in Miami, the Heat and Erik Spoelstra gradually figured out that the greatest way to find success with LeBron in the half-court offense is to surround him with capable 3-point shooters. LeBron’s greatest skill on offense is his ability to get into the lane and score or get fouled. Defenses combat this by sagging off of LeBron’s teammates on the perimeter, thus clogging the lane and forcing him to either take a lower percentage jumper or pass the ball. The more dangerous of a 3-point threat that LeBron’s teammates can be, the less willing opposing defenders will be to sag off and clog the lane. So better perimeter shooting means better spacing, which means more room for LeBron to operate and create scoring chances in the paint.

The Backcourt All-Star: Dwyane Wade v. Kyrie Irving

Comparing Kyrie Irving to Dwayne Wade can be difficult since Wade had seven seasons and a title under his belt before being joined by James, while Irving has played just three seasons in the NBA, it cannot be disputed that Irving is a much better 3-point shooter. Through 3 seasons, Dwayne Wade was hardly a 3-point threat at all; shooting 24% from behind the arc, taking less than 1 three-pointer per game. During those first three years, 95% of Wade’s field goal attempts were 2-pointers, and 58% of his attempts were from within 10 feet of the basket. By the end of Wade’s 7th season, his last before LeBron joined the Heat, he had improved somewhat from the perimeter, with a 29% career 3-point percentage. In Wade’s final two years before James came to town, Wade was taking 3.3 threes per game, shooting 31%.

 

3PA per Game

3-Point Shooting Percentage

Percentage of FGA that are 3-Pointers

Percentage of FGA from 10 feet or Closer

Wade’s first 3 Seasons

0.8

24%

5%

58%

Wade’s first 7 Seasons

1.8

29%

10%

50%

Irving’s first 3 Seasons

4.5

38%

26%

38.5%

 

Whether you look at Wade’s 3-year or 7-year totals, his perimeter shooting doesn’t come close to that of Kyrie Irving through his first three NBA seasons. For Irving, the 3-pointer has been one of his deadliest weapons, an important counter to his elite dribble-drive ability. Irving is a career 38% 3-point shooter, taking 4.5 threes per game. His offensive game is much more varied than Wade’s was at this point in his career; shots from 10 feet or closer account for 38.5% of Irving’s field goal attempts, while 26% of his shots are from behind the arc. Clearly the all-star guard LeBron joined in 2014 is a better perimeter option than the one he joined in 2010.

One area in which Wade clearly had Irving beat at this stage was defense. Wade’s Defensive Rating, which estimates the number of points per 100 possessions that opposing offenses score, was much better (103) than Irving’s (109) is after three seasons. However, there is some hope for Irving on defense. Firstly, he’ll now be on a team led by LeBron, which is sure to bring up his defensive intensity. But also, Irving has gotten 2.1 steals per 100 possessions during his first three years, while Wade, widely considered a great defensive player, notched a slightly higher, 2.3 steals per 100 possessions during his first three seasons. Irving may never match Wade’s athleticism and elite-for-a-guard shot blocking ability, but there is some optimism for him on that side of the ball.

But one more clear advantage that Irving has over the 2010 Dwayne Wade that LeBron joined in Miami is of course, youth. Irving will enter his fourth year in the league this fall at 22 years old. Wade by comparison, turned 22 during his rookie season and was 29 before his first playoff run alongside LeBron. Perhaps the biggest factor in LeBron leaving Miami as early as he did was the rapidly decreasing production of Dwyane Wade. LeBron had to carry an increasingly high load to make up for Wade’s frequent absences and overall diminished efficiency. By the time Miami reached the Finals, it was clear that LeBron was gassed and Wade could not provide enough support to battle back from the Spurs’ barrage. With LeBron now in Cleveland, he will be able to lean on the young Irving to dominate the ball at times, which will allow LeBron to save some energy throughout the season.

The All-Star Big: Chris Bosh v. Kevin Love

As was the case with Kyrie Irving and Dwyane Wade, the biggest factor to look at when comparing Bosh and Love in regard to teaming up with James is their perimeter shooting ability. Chris Bosh has only recently developed the 3-pointer as a weapon and primarily did so as a by-product of playing alongside James. While in Toronto, Bosh frequently shot mid-range jumpers; according to Basketball-Reference.com, 28% of Bosh’s field goals attempted in Toronto were 2-pointers that were 16 feet or further from the basket. Shooting from behind the arc was a much less frequent occurrence for Bosh. During his final season in Toronto, Bosh attempted only 22 three-pointers, and his career 3-point shooting percentage through 2010 was a mediocre 29.8%. It wasn’t until last season, his fourth playing alongside LeBron, that Bosh really adopted the 3-pointer into his arsenal; he shot a career-best 34% on a career-high 218 three-point attempt in ’13-14. He averaged 2.8 three-point attempts per game, the only season in his career in which he averaged greater than 1.0 three-point attempt per game.

Kevin Love also rarely shot the three-ball when he first came into the league, but has increased that rate rapidly during his six-year career. Last season, Love attempted an eye-popping 505 three-pointers and still shot 37.6 %, much better than Bosh’s pre-LeBron rate of 29.8%. Partially due to the Timberwolves terrible shooting in the backcourt, 3-pointers accounted for 35% of Love’s attempts, a percentage that is higher than desirable, and he still shot a pretty decent percentage. The point here being, prior to joining LeBron in Cleveland, Love has been a much more willing and capable 3-point threat than Bosh was in Toronto. Over the past four seasons, Love has taken at least 2.9 threes per game (higher than Bosh’s highest rate of 2.8 per game with LeBron) and shot 37% over that span.

Kevin Love’s arrival also means that James will now be playing with one of the NBA’s greatest rebounders. Over his career Love has averaged an impressive 12.2 rebounds per game. During his years in Toronto (which was his gaudiest period for rebounding statistics), Bosh averaged 9.4 board per game, not a bad numbers by any means.

But Kevin Love is something else on the boards. According to NBA.com, Love has 18.9 “Rebound Chances” (defined as the number of times a rebound occurs within 3.5 feet of the player) per game. Of those 18.9 potential rebounds, Love grabbed 66%, nearly two-thirds. Last season with the Heat, Bosh had only 10.7 such chances per game and made the rebound at a solid, albeit lower rate: 61%.

Love has had his share of criticism in the wake of this trade, namely for his defense and his inability to make the playoffs in his six seasons in Minnesota. While Love does not have great individual defensive statistics, Bosh played on a similarly poor defensive team in Toronto and the defensive ratings show as much. With Bosh on the floor for the Raptors, opponents scored 107 points per 100 possessions. While in Minnesota, Love’s team gave up slightly fewer, 106 points per 100 possessions. While Bosh was able to lead his team to two playoff appearances with Toronto, he was undoubtedly playing in a much weaker conference than what the Western Conference has become in the past few seasons. Love’s teams in Minnesota have been among the worst supporting casts for an All-NBA player. Tom Haberstroh pointed out in a recent article on ESPN Insider that Love had zero “fringe All-Star” (Top 40 in the NBA in Win Shares) teammates on his team last season. He was the only All-NBA player with no such teammates last season. Things will be much different for Love in Cleveland. So clearly, Love has major advantages in perimeter shooting and rebounding over the Chris Bosh that teamed up with LeBron in 2010.

The Other Starters: Mario Chalmers & Joel Anthony v. Dion Waiters & Anderson Varejao

Mario Chalmers and Dion Waiters make for another apt comparison. Both players had two “LeBron-less” seasons before being joined by James. In the 2009-10 season, Chalmers’ second, he shot 32% from 3-point range and 40% overall from the field. Last season, which was Waiters’ second, he shot a higher percentage; 37% from 3, 43% overall from the field. Waiters is also widely considered to have a higher ceiling than Chalmers did at this point in his career.

Miami’s other primary starter when LeBron first joined the Heat in 2010 was Joel Anthony. Anthony was averaging 3 rebounds per game at the time and his total rebound percentage was 11.0%. The likely fifth starter on this Cavaliers team will be Anderson Varejao. He has averaged 7.8 rebounds per game throughout his career and over the last four years has put together a 20.0 total rebound percentage. In the case of both remaining starting spots, the 2014-2015 Cavaliers seem much better off than the 2010-2011 Heat, according to the numbers.

Key Bench Pieces: Haslem v. Thompson, Battier v. Marion

In addition to the advantage held by the starting five of the ’14-15 Cavaliers over the ’10-11 Heat, LeBron’s new team appears to be stronger off the bench as well. Of course, James Jones and Mike Miller have signed with the Cavaliers this summer after playing with LeBron in Miami. There also continue to be suggestions about Ray Allen either retiring from the NBA or joining the Cavaliers after playing the last two seasons in Miami, so those three players must be left out of this discussion.

With the departure of Anthony Bennett in the Kevin Love trade, Tristan Thompson looks poised to fill a similar role to the one played by Udonis Haslem during LeBron’s stint with the Heat. When looking at Haslem’s stats prior to LeBron joining the Heat and excluding his rookie year, he averaged 10.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 0.3 blocks per game. Thompson has played three seasons in the NBA, and in the last two he has averaged 11.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 0.6 blocks per game. Thompson is obviously much younger now, 23, than Haslem was when LeBron joined the Heat in 2010.

While Shane Battier was not on the 2011 Heat team that lost to Dallas in the Finals, he was an important piece to the two title winning Heat teams in 2012 and ’13. To further demonstrate the way in which the present day Cavaliers are ahead of where the Heat were when LeBron joined them, I’ll compare him to the Cavs’ newest apparent acquisition, Shawn Marion. For the sake of the comparison, I’ve looked at each player’s two seasons prior to joining LeBron’s team. I compared the players’ points per 100 possessions, rebounds per 100 possessions, and Player Efficiency Rating, which is a complicated metric that boils a players’ stat line down to one number, which is then adjusted so that the league average is always 15.0:

 

Points Per 100 Poss.

Rebounds Per 100 Poss.

Player Efficiency Rating

Shane Battier (‘09-11)

13.0

7.7

11.8

Shawn Marion (’12-14)

18.0

11.8

15.7

 

As you can see, Marion contributed to his team at a higher level during the last two seasons than Battier did during his two seasons prior to joining James in Miami. From top to bottom, this new Cavaliers squad is not just better suited for success than LeBron’s initial Heat squad put together by Pat Riley in the summer 2010. But they are also the best and most “LeBron-friendly” supporting cast that the four-time MVP has ever had. 

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