Once LeBron came back to Cleveland, he had a winning blueprint that he wanted to replicate. In Miami, Pat Riley surrounded the “Big 3” of LeBron, Wade, and Bosh with three-point snipers, such as Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, and Mike Miller, the list could go on. Riley’s fighter mentality and cut-throat culture made his teams’ formidable forces for decades. LeBron soaked in all of Riley’s teachings and was ready to use this base to build the Cavaliers with this newly learned knowledge. His time in Miami not only made him a champion but more importantly showed him what type of key components it takes to win the ever so coveted ring for Cleveland.
His final season in Miami was summarized by the lack of help he received in the playoffs against the Spurs:
LeBron’s Playoff Stats: 27.4 PPG, 7.1 REB, 4.8 AST, 57% FG, 38.2 MPG
*LBJ was top 3 in every statistical category for the team
Dwayne Wade’s Playoff Stats: 17.8 PPG, 3.9 REB, 3.9 AST, 50% FG, 34.7 MPG
Chris Bosh’s Playoff Stats: 14.9 PPG, 5.6 REB, 1.1 AST, 51%, 34.3 MPG
It was clear watching the season that Dwayne Wade was no longer going to be “Flash Gordon” again with only playing 30 minutes a night. His body and knees just wouldn’t allow it as he ranked 10th on the team in the 2013-2014 campaign with 53 games played. He was taking many games off during the regular season to save his body for the postseason, which in turn taxed LeBron’s body even more than normal as someone had to help make up for the scoring load that was now missing. It was also very apparent the system was not using Chris Bosh correctly. Bosh, a perennial All-Star, was being relegated to the third wheel and being forced to accept his role as a spot up shooter rather than being able to create with the ball as he did for years in Toronto. With LeBron on his team, he never once scored 20 PPG in a season and never averaged more than 8.3 RPG. Stats much different than his Toronto days, as should be expected when taking a back seat to two players of Wade and LeBron’s caliber. Nobody expected such a drastic drop-off. However, it was apparent the way he was being used wasn’t working. LeBron’s increased workload season after season coupled with D Wade’s ailing body and Bosh’s lack of production factored in with LeBron’s desire to depart from Miami. Another key factor for leaving Miami was his desire to win a championship for his hometown state, Cleveland.
LeBron wanted to get a supporting crew around him which was younger and healthier so he did not have to carry the burden of the team all alone. So he teamed up with one of the league’s up and coming offensive juggernauts in Kyrie Irving and forced a trade for Kevin Love. The trade was a 3 team deal between the Timberwolves, 76ers, and Cavaliers but only the Cavs and Wolves part affected LeBron.
Cavs Traded: Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins
Wolves Traded: Kevin Love
Now on paper, this trade makes a lot of sense. It ships away two younger players who LeBron would have had to help shape and groom for a couple years, for an already established big man with elite rebounding ability. LeBron was clearly in “win now mode” and did not want any part of molding a successor to his throne in Wiggins (as that would set Dan Gilbert up for long-term success). Yet, when the season rolled around Kevin Love lost 30 pounds in preparation for what he believed would be a run and gun style offense as the Heat had played during the “Big 3” tenure. With this drastic weight loss, Kevin no longer had the advantage that made him such a great rebounder, something he has willingly admitted on several different occasions over the last couple of years. Kevin is in no way, shape or form an uber-athletic guy who can out jump you but was known for throwing his 270-pound frame around to grab boards and it worked to perfection. During his tenure in Minnesota, he averaged at minimum 11 RPG except for his rookie season, a feat he has only conquered once as a member of the Cavaliers. Just as with Chris Bosh, Love was and still is being used as a spot-up shooter to stretch the floor for LeBron and Kyrie to drive at will rather than playing to his strengths. Kevin has been healthy for 2 of the 3 NBA finals that the Cavs have played in during his 3-year tenure, as he was hurt in the 2015 playoffs against Boston in the first round. This is in no way his fault but makes it tougher to gauge what he brings to the Cavs during key moments of playoffs.
Playoff Career Averages: 15.5 PPG, 9.4 REB, 2.0 AST, 41% FG, 30.9 MPG
*Only playoff appearances have been with the Cavs
Yet, watching Cleveland play the offensive juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors, Kevin’s miscues with athleticism are highlighted. Kevin is not a fast player, which makes it difficult for him to play against the run and gun speedsters of the Warriors. Once switched onto a player like Curry, for example, he gets beat almost immediately with the 2016 game 7 being the outlier. Imagine having Wiggins long and athletic frame on the court instead to defend and combat their athleticism with his own. The Cav’s game plan is to just use Kevin Love as a decoy in the corner for offensive purposes anyway, as they have all but completely cut the post up game that made him so dangerous in Minnesota. You’re telling me that Wiggins couldn’t be stashed in the corner after year one? His dribble penetration and post game were NBA ready the day he stepped in the league. All he needed was the 3 point shot to consistently fall. He can defend with the best of them with his wiry, yet athletic frame. Even more importantly, however, he doesn’t get hurt like Love does. In his 9 career seasons, Kevin Love has never played a full 82 game season, Wiggins has only one of his 3 seasons where he hasn’t played 82, and he played 81 games that year…. I am not saying Kevin Love isn’t a top 25 talent, I’m just showing that maybe, just maybe LeBron messed up by trading Wiggins in his return. He easily could have taken advantage of the young and very athletic frame that Wiggins has against a young team like the Warriors. The Warriors are filled with young players under the age of 30 who go out every night and outrun their opponent. LeBron could have easily helped mold the kid into the style of play he wanted and had an entire season to prepare him for the playoff run, something he had to do with young players like Kyrie and Tristan Thompson anyway. I understand the “win now” logic but if his intent was to stay and set up a dynasty in Cleveland for the next 10 years, he would have never traded Andrew Wiggins. I truly believe if LeBron had any player on the court in the 2015 NBA Finals that could have averaged 20ppg and played defense (Wiggins), he would have walked away with a chip sooner than he did for Cleveland. This is always going to be a what if when LeBron’s finals legacy comes into play.