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.