Originally written on Waiting For Next Year  |  Last updated 6/7/12

Even with Kyrie Irving in place, the Cavaliers still have much work to do

With the NBA Finals drawing near, it’s only natural for fans of teams not currently playing basketball to look on from a distance, wondering what it must take to be one of the teams representing their conference in the Finals.

Make no mistake about it, the Cleveland Cavaliers are a very long way away from getting there. The first key component is in place. Kyrie Irving was everything the Cavaliers were hoping for, and more, in his rookie season, but when you consider the 4 Conference Finalists, it’s clear that much work needs to be done.

In the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Joe Harden1 as part of their “Big 3”. The San Antonio Spurs featured Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker.

The Eastern Conference Finals have their own clash of “Big 3s”. The Boston Celtics have the original Big 3 in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. Not to mention Rajon Rondo, who is currently better than any of the original Big 3. The Miami Heat have the most infamous Big 3 in the NBA with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.

There’s more than just the Big 3s, though. If you look at the Thunder, beyond Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka, there’s a deep core of solid role players who all excel at knowing their roles and playing their part. Whether it be Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, Daequan Cook, or Nazr Mohammed, the Thunder have surrounded their stars with role players who can contribute something to the team’s success.

Part of why the Celtics have outplayed the Heat thus far in the series is because of contributions from guys like Mickael Pietrus, Brandon Bass, or Keyon Dooling. It’s not that the Celtics need all their role players to contribute equally every night, but thus far they have seemingly been given a clutch effort by at least one of these guys every game. The Heat, on the other hand, outside of a random Shane Battier three pointer here or Udonis Haslem rebound there, have gotten practically nothing from anyone outside of James and Wade, and even Wade has had long stretches of inefficiency in this series.

The point is, while the NBA has always been a superstar-driven league, and superstars have always surrounded themselves with other stars to win Championships, the recent trend of superstar Voltron-esque2 teams has upped the ante. Three superstars alone may not necessarily be enough to win the title anymore.

For the Cavaliers, this can be something of a sobering realization. Anyone who had thoughts of the Cavaliers being just a couple years away now that they have Kyrie Irving are probably in for a rude awakening. This thing is a process and the Cavaliers are still in the early stages.

If the Thunder are the ideal team the Cavaliers are trying to emulate, you have to consider they drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden over three consecutive drafts. The Cavaliers are going to try to take that next step in this year’s draft, but the point is, the Cavaliers have to hit on these next two drafts. Even then, the Thunder drafted James Harden in 2009 and didn’t make the Finals until 2012. If the Cavaliers nail all their draft picks in the 2012 and 2013 drafts and follow the same schedule, they’re looking at 2016 before the Finals are in the picture. And that’s if everything goes perfectly.

This is why even though this year’s draft may not be as important as last year’s was, it’s still of the utmost importance that the Cavaliers don’t miss on these picks. Alonzo Gee and Tristan Thompson are nice players who can be a part of those role players the team needs, but the Cavaliers only have one potential superstar. If Irving is the Cavaliers’ Westbrook, they still need to find their Durant and Harden in these next couple drafts.

Every draft that they miss on sets them back at least one season, if not more. The more misses the Cavaliers compile, the more likely Kyrie Irving is to eventually leave. These are the stakes of building a Championship team.

—–

Of course, there is one other option, the elephant in the room in the shape of the rumor that just won’t die. And that’s the chance of LeBron James returning to the Cavaliers. James can opt out of his contract with the Heat in 2014, and if the likes of Brian Windhorst are to believed, LeBron could be trying to work his way back to Cleveland. If the Heat don’t win the title this year, that gives them two more shots at it before LeBron can leave. The Heat could easily win any or all of the next 3 championships. They have the talent. But they are a fundamentally flawed team.

The Celtics, Spurs, and Thunder were all constructed to be teams. They found pieces that all could fill different roles and niches. The Heat were constructed to just be an insane collection of talent. A museum of basketball greatness, if you will. But the problem is, LeBron and Wade have identical skill sets. Neither player is all that great playing off the ball. Both excel in creating with the ball in their hands. Neither one is a great outside shooter. Both players prefer using their physical abilities to bully themselves into the lane for either a layup or to draw fouls. Or both. Chris Bosh does give them an inside presence and the Heat have tried their best to surround them with outside shooters, but the whole system is flawed.

In the NBA playoffs, the games tend to slow down, resulting in a half court game where offensive efficiency and creativity is at a premium. The Celtics run that phenomenal pick and roll game with Rondo and Garnett while Pierce and Allen work their tails off without the ball to set themselves up in prime position to score. It’s a thing of beauty to watch, actually, when it’s working. The Heat just take turns between James and Wade creating a shot for themselves or just kicking it out to someone like James Jones or Norris Cole for a corner three.

It’s the same fundamental flaw that makes one wonder if welcoming James back to Cleveland is a smart basketball decision. Set aside the emotional side of it because obviously the vast majority of Cleveland fans do not want LeBron back. But from the basketball side of things, as sacrilegious as it sounds, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving may not be a great fit together either.

LeBron is one of the most unselfish superstars the game has ever seen. So it seems strange that it’s so hard to figure out how to build the ideal playoff offense around him. The problem is, LeBron just has never been a great off-ball player. He doesn’t want to post up, and he doesn’t like to work around off-ball screens. He’d rather have the ball in his hands and run the offense through himself. Which is a problem when you already have Kyrie Irving.

Look, if the choice was as simple as winning an NBA title with LeBron in Cleveland or never winning one without him, I’m taking the Championship with him. But it’s not that simple. The Cavaliers tried it once and couldn’t figure out how to win a title with LeBron. The Miami Heat are struggling mightily to figure out how to make that work. Beyond even play style or skill set, there are other distractions with LeBron.

James fell out of favor with Mike Brown, and he’s been a thorn in Erik Spoelstra’s side. As early 17 games into his first season with the Heat, there were rumors that LeBron was trying to sabotage Spoelstra and to get Pat Riley to coach the team. Do the Cavaliers want to go through a similar experience with Byron Scott?

For all the on court greatness LeBron can deliver, there’s no doubt a certain circus sideshow is always surrounding him. Would he help Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and whoever the Cavs draft in the next two years win a Championship in Cleveland? Or would he become a gigantic distraction to what the Cavaliers are now trying to build?

If the Thunder win the Championship this year, it should embolden not just the Cavaliers, but all small market teams throughout the NBA that with some smart drafting you can build a team that can take down the so-called evil empire that is the Miami Heat with LeBron James.

For most Cavalier fans, the only thing better than winning a Championship with LeBron would be winning one by going through him. We’re still several years from a point where that can be reality, but make no mistake, that’s the route the Cavaliers are currently trying to go. We’re a long way from a point where LeBron returning to the Cavaliers makes any kind of sense whatsoever.

___________________________________

  1. if you count Serge Ibaka in that group, they actually have a “Big 4”
  2. or Captain Planet, if you prefer that skill-combining metaphor
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