It is, perhaps, instructive to start by recalling the 2010/11 Miami Heat started the first month of the season just 9-8.
They did not go on to have the Eastern Conference’s best record. They did not win the NBA Finals.
The Miami Heat in Year 1 of their brief LeBron James Era were, by and large, considered disappointments.
So the only question for the Cleveland Cavaliers as they fire up Year 1 of the Second Reign of James is not whether this will work – LeBron will surely win another title in his NBA career, just as he eventually did in Miami, presumably with the Cavs – but rather how long might it take to work?
Offensively, the pieces would seem to be in place for this Cavaliers team to click right away.
James is a menace inside, a “small” forward unlike just about any other in basketball history in that he can and does score practically at will near the bucket. He took 673 shots inside last season and made an astounding 74.9 per cent of them. For reference, DeMarcus Cousins was the highest scoring centre in the league last year, and he took 787 shots inside and made 54.64 per cent of them. Blake Griffin took 810 and made 64.20 per cent.
There is nobody like LeBron.
Defences invariably have to gravitate toward him, which creates open looks from three-point range for his teammates. This helped Ray Allen extend the shelf life on his career in Miami and even Chris Bosh developed a useful three-point habit over the past couple seasons.
Cleveland don’t have a three-point specialist like Allen right now – although he may very well join on as a free agent at some point – but Kyrie Irving is a passable three-point shooter and Dion Waiters took a big step forward toward being a pretty decent one last season.
Then, of course, there’s Kevin Love, a dangerous stretch forward who has shot well from three through most of his career despite being the offensive focal point in Minnesota. With the open looks he’ll get from playing with LeBron, the 26-year-old power forward could have a banner year from distance.
Irving is a good, if not great, distributor, but again – playing with James will help him nurture that skill and open up passing lanes that previously didn’t exist with a lacklustre Cavs offence.
Love and Anderson Varejao, one of the game’s best volume rebounders and another strong one in his own right, will clean up the glass with help from LeBron, an obvious physical presence and very good rebounder for his position.
The Cavs have also hired David Blatt from Euroleague winners Maccabi Tel Aviv, a coach generally considered to have a bright and creative offensive mind.
Cleveland, basically, should have no problem scoring lots and lots and lots of points.
Defence will be more challenging. Irving is largely considered a bad defender, as is Love. Waiters is also not well regarded – that’s three-fifths of the way to a very bad defensive starting five. But there are caveats and reasons for hope here, still.
Love has kind of an unfair reputation for being hopeless defensively – positionally his awareness is strong and his quickness to help on the wing is above average. Even if he’s not physically imposing inside, he does a lot to obstruct an opponent’s offensive flow simply by standing in the right place at the right time and being big.
Varejao, too, moves pretty well around the interior, even if he’s not a traditional stand-up deterrent at the rim.
Waiters, for his part, has the size and strength to be a very good defender for his position. His discipline needs work, but that doesn’t make him different from many 22-year-olds.
And then there’s LeBron, probably the best pound-for-pound defender in the world. He can shift to or help on pretty much any position, and simply having him in a line-up gives a team a leg up on being at least acceptable defensively.
Are there flaws here? Sure. Their depth will be tested – Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood, James Jones and Mike Miller are all 34 or older and it’s unclear what any will truly bring to the table. Tristan Thompson is a nice defender, but if Varejao gets hurt (he played in only 81 games from 2010/11 to 2012/13), he’ll likely be stretched starting at centre. Their backup guard rotation leaves a whole lot to be desired.
Let’s be real here, though. The Cavs have LeBron, and Love, and Irving.
It will take some time to gel, especially defensively, and stretches with their second team on the floor could get ugly.
But ultimately Blatt probably could have brought nine guys along from Tel Aviv to team up with those three, and Cleveland would still be the prohibitive title favourites.
LeBron by himself can get you 90 per cent of the way to a title, as his first run with the Cavaliers surrounded by a laughable supporting cast showed.
The 2014/15 Cavs should have more than enough to make that extra 10 per cent.
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