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It Is Happening Again: How the Cavaliers Are Following the Heat’s Model for LeBron

May 2, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Shawn Marion (0) battles for position with San Antonio Spurs forward Boris Diaw (33) during the game in game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center. Dallas won 113-111. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Since the return of LeBron James to Cleveland — and especially with the news that Kevin Love is likely on the way to the banks of Lake Erie as well — the Cavaliers have been on a quiet campaign to get the band back together. Word is that James was none too fond of Pat Riley’s decision to amnesty Mike Miller in 2013, so Cleveland has brought him back into the fold. James Jones — another familiar face from the Heat — was signed by the Cavs the same day. There are rumors about Ray Allen signing, and word came down over the weekend that Shawn Marion would be signing with Cleveland as well.

Jones, Miller and Allen share a past team with James, but what do all four of these players have in common? They’re all north of 33 years old, a status they share with another group of athletes at the time they were brought in to shore up a team built around a Big Three, namely Erick Dampier, Juwan Howard, Jerry Stackhouse and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Ilgauskas was brought on — like Miller and Jones — for continuity from James’ former team. Not quite 33 at the time but nevertheless past their primes were Mike Bibby, Eddie House and Jamaal Magloire.

James’ first season in Miami is now often painted as an abject failure, but that’s a bit harsh. They made the Finals, yet there’s something to the idea that all those veterans the team signed were not the right kind of supporting cast for a deep playoff run. Of the aforementioned Heat players from 2011, only Bibby started games in the Finals (playing 87 minutes total) and Howard and House were the only others to play at all, totalling 54 minutes between them.

The Heat’s Finals loss that year is not all about those supporting players, obviously. The team needed time to gel and grow together, not least because of the unique challenges presented by having James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all on the same team. Eventually, James would learn to leverage his abilities in the post while Bosh stretched his range. It turned out it wasn’t possible to just let those talented players freelance and figure it out, although that may have been part of the idea behind signing those veterans.

At the time, it seemed like the Heat just needed bodies. When Ilgauskas signed, the Heat literally had no centers. You had three young (or at least healthy) star players who would shoulder the burden of scoring and most everything else — the Heat just needed guys to fill in here and there and then also provide that coveted veteran leadership role. They would bring stability to the nucleus and not upset the balance of the team by needing big minutes or to have the ball in their hands.

It just didn’t work out that way. In fairness, it’s not as though Miami righted the ship by signing or drafting or trading for young guys who could do those jobs, but rather by bringing in vets like Shane Battier and Ray Allen who provided very specific skillsets rather than general veteran-ness plus familiarity.

So which way are the Cavs headed? Right now, it’s looking distressingly like that first Big Three Heat team. If there’s one clear weakness that threatens Cleveland it’s defensive issues, and neither Miller nor Jones address that, nor are they absolute knockdown shooters (although they’re far from dreadful). Allen is, but he’s also 39 years old. On paper, Marion can still provide stoic defense, plus feasts on garbage buckets off offensive rebounds — precisely the kind of glue guy who doesn’t need stuff run for him to be helpful. But he’s 36 and clearly on the downslope of his career.

Now, the counter to this is that even if Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett are gone, the Cavs have young players who are likely to contribute more than, say, Dexter Pittman. For all their shortcomings, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson are at least respectable NBA players with upside. Dellavedova showed some flashes.

And then there’s the fact that this time around, James is the elder statesman of the Big Three at 29. Love is 25 and Kyrie Irving just 22. There’s a world of difference between James’ game now and when he came to Miami; not just in how he plays, but in how he understands how he’s most effective. New coach David Blatt certainly has his work cut out for him, but you could do a lot worse as a rookie coach in the NBA than having a player with as nuanced an understanding of his strengths as LeBron with whom to craft a strategy.

And then there’s the fact that that first iteration of the Heat with James might not have been as much of a failure as it appears. If three talents as major as Wade, Bosh and James needed to learn how to play together — and if that learning process was going to take time no matter what — what better way to provide an environment for it to happen than surrounded by veterans on relatively cheap and/or short contracts? It’s actually a lot easier to argue that by year four they should have figured out a better bench than Greg Oden, Michael Beasley and Rashard Lewis than that they made a grave misstep in the first year.

Just as an individual player’s development cannot and should not be rushed, the development of a team’s chemistry — particularly on a loaded team like the Cleveland Cavaliers — cannot be forced. Did the little played vets brought on to shore up the Heat in 2011 impede their chances for an immediate title or did they set the stage for their championships in the next two years?

It’s possible that the Heat’s experience shows that the Cavaliers are making a mistake here, and not just with regard to positions as they neglect the backup point guard and center positions in favor of wings. But it’s also possible that in many ways the path of this next season is already written: a wealth of jaw-dropping moments and victories in the regular season and then a swoon in the playoffs that ends with the Cavs falling short of a title. Whether you deem that a failure or success deferred will depend on how long a view you can take to team building.

Steve McPherson

Steve McPherson is an editor for Hardwood Paroxysm and his writing has appeared at Grantland, Rolling Stone, A Wolf Among Wolves, The Cauldron, TrueHoop, Complex, Narratively, Polygon and elsewhere. His Twitter handle is @steventurous.

  • BUILT4WAR

    Its a wrap, the east is now competing for second place. Long live the KING!

  • Pat Leonard

    The nice thing for the Cavs is that they still have their draft picks. They can use these to add cheap young players who can provide energy and can also be groomed for the future. The Heat were able to add a nice role player in Norris Cole (obtained from the Beasley to Wolves deal), but then had no other first round picks to use (even this season as their pick went to the Cavs and now to the Wolves in the Love deal). Point guard looks solid with Irving and Dellavedova (LeBron and Dion Waiters can play de facto point guard when needed and do well in that role). Backup center is an issue and can be addressed in next summer’s draft, but until then it’s looking like a very thin position.

    • http://www.AverageBro.com/ ab

      They also gave away some solid young players with upside (Tyler Zeller, Carrick Felix, and Sergei Karasev) when they needed to clear the cap for Lebron. On a team with James, those are the exact types of young role players you can use to fill out the roster/rotation cheaply. They’ll be picking in the late 20s the next few years, so those draft picks aren’t going to help much.

      • Pat Leonard

        Felix is a non-factor and I don’t think much of Karasev, although the Cavs already have more wings than they can play. Losing Zeller did hurt. He was a good, young backup center, but that was the cost of clearing cap space for LeBron. Oh well. The Cavs actually have the Grizzlies’ first round pick for 2015, which could be decent. They are always a Z-Bo or Marc Gasol injury away from missing the playoffs, putting that pick in the lottery. Also, drafting in the late 20’s can land some good role players. That’s where the Heat found Norris Cole. That’s where the Thunder grabbed Serge Ibaka. That’s where the Spurs found Tiago Splitter, etc, etc. The draft picks are certainly useful.

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  • steppxxxxz

    Im not sure they will even win that many games. Who exactly is going to play defense>? After Marion, who is well over the hill really, there isnt much defensive strength. Irving was awful last year on D, Thompson isnt very effective, Varejao is injury prone and limited anyway, and Waiters …well, he showed flashes on defense, but lacked consistency. It takes time for organizations to turn it around, and Im not buying the Cavs as winners of the East at all. Bulls, Raptors, and Wizards all look at least as good.

    • http://www.AverageBro.com/ ab

      I think the East will have more parity than we’ve seen in years. The Cavs and Bulls are probably going to win 55 games or so, but Toronto, Washington, Miami, etc. are going to be right behind them. Those are 3 solid teams, all of which should win 45+. Atlanta, Charlotte, and Brooklyn are also playoff teams.

  • Chrisgar

    I think the Cavs are doing the right thing. Right now, they can only offer the veteran’s minimum — getting Marion, Miller and possibly Allen at their salary is the only way the Cavs could complete the rotation roster with reasonable players.

    With the salary cap — there is a penalty to signing 3 max/close-to-max players. This is it.

    I think Waiters & Irving & Love can play reasonable defense — but it will take some time. That’s why Marion’s signing is important — it will free Lebron from doing all the heavy defensive lifting for wing players. It would have been great to keep Wiggins — but can’t have everything.

    Backup Center is still an issue. (they are still in better shape than Miami ever was because of Andy)

    Plus — they have draft picks as someone else said.

  • Al-Zamar McKinney

    Your argument is silly. But before I get into that, let me address this: What is an absolute knockdown shooter? You claim Mike Miller is not one yet he shot 45.9% from 3 last year and 48.3% in the playoffs. On the other hand, you claim Ray Allen is an absolute knockdown shooter yet he only shot 37.5% from 3 last year (his worst percentage since 2010) and 38.8% in the playoffs. Odd… Now, for your ridiculous argument.

    The 4 oldest regular rotation players on the Spurs are as old as the 4 oldest regular rotation players on the Cavs.

    Spurs:
    Tim Duncan (38)
    Manu Ginobili (37)
    Tony Parker (32)
    Boris Diaw (32)

    Cavs:
    Shawn Marion (36)
    Brendan Haywood (34) [can't play; foot injury]
    Mike Miller (33)
    Anderson Varejao (32)

    At this point, if we’re strictly talking about the age of each team’s regular rotation players, then San Antonio is actually older than Cleveland. Furthermore, it’s not like any of the guys listed above except Varejao will be relied on to play significant minutes (25 minutes) and Brendan Haywood has to be replaced since he’s still injured (Ekpe Udoh, Greg Stiemsma or Emeka Okafor are all younger than Haywood). Miller and Marion specifically can be extremely effective in limited minutes (15-20 per game). Even if you add Allen it’s still not a problem. You can imagine replacing Haywood with someone like Stiemsma (28 years old), then adding Allen would still only make our 4 oldest regular rotation players as old as the Spurs.

    Also, I noticed you didn’t write a straightforward crappy article because you threw in a tortured comparison to the 2011 Miami Heat. Riley threw that team together on the fly with really no consideration for how the pieces would fit together. However, Cleveland is obviously not taking that route. If you have the most versatile playmaker in the NBA how could you best maximize his offensive playmaking ability? With 3-point shooters. Miami has already proven that this formula works, which is why signing Miller (and Allen if he comes) are smart decisions. Marion is an all-around glue guy so he also fits.