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Get to the Point (Guard): LeBron James’ Search for a One

Feb 16, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Eastern Conference forward LeBron James (6) of the Miami Heat tries to take the ball away from guard Kyrie Irving (2) of the Cleveland Cavaliers during practice for the 2013 NBA all star game at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

There were plenty of reasons for LeBron James to go home. The Miami adventure, which resulted in four Finals appearances and two titles, had run its course. He saw a chance to return a hero, to right some of the wrongs ‘The Decision’ had spawned. James had the opportunity to put his stamp on an NBA roster, more or less assuming the role of General Manager, which was impossible with Pat Riley calling the shots in South Beach. And then there was the prospect of playing with Kevin Love, a true stretch four, rather than Chris Bosh, who’d made valiant efforts to become one, but ultimately wasn’t.

With all the press the Love trade has gotten, and all the speculation surrounding where the Cavaliers belong on the list of title favorites, Kyrie Irving has gotten lost in the shuffle. There’s a case to be made that the presence of the 22-year-old budding star had as much to do with drawing the King to Cleveland as anything else, and it all has to do with the fact that Irving is a skilled point guard, the kind of player LeBron has wanted to play with for a long time.

When Lebron teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh back in 2010, the fact that the new-look Heat lacked a dynamic point guard wasn’t perceived to be a problem. James and Wade were the primary ball-handlers, initiators, shot-takers and directors of the offense. The two each ranked in the top-5 in the league in usage rate, the team won 58 games, and ultimately fell in six games to the Mavericks in the Finals – not a disappointing outcome, considering how hastily the rest of the roster was put together around the Big Three. Carlos Arroyo and Mike Bibby spent much of the time as the nominal point guards that season, though the Heat’s future point guard saw time as well: Mario Chalmers.

Arroyo and Bibby emphasized passing and getting out of the way, but Chalmers was generally more assertive over the next 260 (out of a possible 286) starts he made at the point for Miami. During that span he averaged 9 points, 4 assists and 2 turnovers on 44/40/77 shooting splits. The numbers are nondescript; what earned Chalmers attention was his treatment by the Heat veterans. He was, in the eyes of his superstar teammates, their idiot younger brother, always to blame when mistakes were made, the whipping boy when a defensive assignment was blown or an open man wasn’t passed to on offense. LeBron, especially, wasn’t afraid to let ‘Rio have it from time to time, often over Chalmers’ shot selection, defensive intensity or lack of court vision. While plenty of effort was made to gloss over or downplay the public shows of resentment, it’s certainly fair to conclude that the relationship between Lebron and his point guard was contentious.

During the NCAA tournament in March and April, Lebron finally had some nice things to say about a point guard – Shabazz Napier of the (eventual National Champion) UCONN Huskies. “Nice” is actually an understatement – he gushed about Napier on Twitter, even going so far as to declare there was “no way you take another PG in the lottery” before him. On draft night, James doubled down on his earlier praise by declaring Napier was his “favorite player in the draft” shortly after his name was called… by the Miami Heat, who’d moved up to take him, presumably to please their soon-to-be-free-agent superstar.

Less than a week later, when free agency opened, Miami’s first target was Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, a fiery point guard with a rising stock and a game that would’ve complemented LeBron nicely. Brian Windhorst reported there was mutual interest between Lowry and the Heat, but it ultimately didn’t work out, as he returned to the Toronto Raptors on a 4 year, $48 million deal. Afterwards, the Heat’s offseason began to spiral downward, and on July 12th, they learned he was leaving South Beach and heading back to Ohio.

On July 1st, Kyrie Irving agreed to a 5 year, $90 million extension that could keep him in Cleveland through 2020. In three seasons, Irving has been Rookie of the Year, a two-time All-Star, and was the 2014 All-Star Game MVP. Despite the fact that the Cavaliers have won just 35% of the games he’s played, the general consensus around the league is that Irving is merely the victim of his organization’s overall dysfunction. While he has some shortcomings (especially on the defensive end), he’s easily in the upper echelon of point guards in the NBA.

LeBron has pined for a quality point guard, and now (barring injury) he’ll be paired with one for multiple years. Why might Kyrie’s presence, beyond the fact that he’s a star, have played a part in James’ homecoming? What will it mean for LeBron’s game, both in the short-term and long-term?

James will almost assuredly be Cleveland’s primary ballhandler for at least the next couple of seasons. He’s sported a top-6 usage rate, league-wide, each of the past seven seasons, and has ranked in the top ten in that category every year of his career. Few players are more devastating with the ball in their hands, whether it’s in transition, isolation, or running the pick and roll. He won’t diminish Irving’s opportunities completely – James and Wade were both high-usage rate players while they were teammates – but the offense will function best when the ball runs through LeBron.

But the decision to move to Cleveland wasn’t motivated solely by 2015 title hopes. It’s possible this was LeBron’s last move, and he wanted to find a place where he can age well. Having a young, accomplished ball handler around – someone else who can take the ball into the teeth of the defense and soak up the abuse handed out in the lane – could aid in LeBron’s self-preservation. Rather than doing the driving and dishing, he can be free to be a spot-up shooter, a post-up master, or a devastating off-ball cutter. All of those options are much less taxing than gaining a full head of steam and charging into the paint, over and over again, night after night after night.

There’s reason to believe LeBron will succeed without being the primary offensive initiator – his game is already moving in that direction. James’ spot-up shooting percentages have improved, steadily, over the past five seasons. He shot 38% from the floor and 35% from three on spot-up shots from 2009-1o through 2011-12, per Synergy. Those numbers improved to 48% and 44%, respectively, over the past two seasons. In terms of points-per-possession, LeBron was the 6th most effective post-up player in the league last season, a drastic bump over the year before, where he ranked 44th. In 2009-1o (the final year of his first stint with the Cavs), James posted up 6.3% of the time. Last year, that number was 14%. As he’s aged, LeBron’s game has evolved, and as he moves into his 30s, it’s reasonable to expect it to change even more. Being able to stand on the perimeter as an effective catch and shoot three-point sniper, as well as posting up and knocking down turnaround jumpers, ought to keep him fresh during the grueling 82 game season. The presence of Kyrie Irving could aid in such a transition taking place.

A historical argument can also be made concerning the necessity of having a quality point guard around, especially for forwards. LeBron turns 30 on December 30th, meaning this is his age 30 season. Most of the top forwards in league history were done winning titles around age 30 (if they won one at all). Worthy won his last one at 26, Larry Bird at 29, Rick Barry and Paul Pierce at 30. Julius Erving and Dirk Nowitzki each earned a ring at 32. Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Dominique Wilkins never won a championship, and when Elgin Baylor finally got his, he was a washed-up 35 year old at the end of the ’72 Lakers’ bench.

What did almost all those players have in common? A quality point guard to help them age. Baylor had Jerry West, Worthy had Magic Johnson, Bird had Dennis Johnson, Pierce had Rajon Rondo, Dr. J. had Mo Cheeks, and Dirk had Jason Kidd. Barkley (Kevin Johnson) and Malone (John Stockton) made the Finals, but only with very good point guards in tow. Rick Barry won the ’75 NBA title without a standout point guard on his roster, but the game has changed a lot in 40 years. (I mean, seriously, look at how he shot free throws.) And once ‘Nique hit 30, with little more than replacement-level point guards to help him out (sorry Spud, sorry Doc), his Atlanta Hawks teams fluttered between 38 and 43 wins and were bounced in the first round of the playoffs the two years they managed to squeak in.

LeBron is better than Dominique Wilkins ever was, but the point is valid, nonetheless. As forwards age, having a quality ball handler around can help them do so a bit more gracefully. The presence of Kyrie in Cleveland could help LeBron do the same thing. And even if ending up with a good point guard wasn’t a stated, primary motivator, even if everything outlined above is merely circumstantial, it’s certainly a positive ancillary benefit.

William Bohl