If the offseason is any indication, this coming year is going to be a wild one for the Cleveland Cavaliers who now have (on paper) their best team in franchise history.
But that’s just the problem. At this point in time it’s just on paper. The season needs to start, the games need to be played, and the players need to mesh. In some ways, this season can be viewed as somewhat of an experiment, one that will be watched and analyzed by people around the world.
The Cavaliers are taking three high-usage players and will attempt to mesh them together on a roster that has championship expectations. LeBron James had the fifth highest usage rate (minimum 20 minutes per game) in the league at 30.9 percent, with Kevin Love (28.4 USG%) and Kyrie Irving (28 USG%) joining him in the top 20.
Combined, the new Cleveland Big Three have a combined usage rate that exceeds that of LeBron, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade from last season by over six percent. Granted, these three needed to play the majority of their minutes together (minus Wade who appeared in just 54 games), where Love and Irving were the primary players for their respective teams.
This isn’t the first time though that fans have been given this opportunity. After all, it was just four years ago that LeBron, Wade and Bosh chose to join forces for the Miami Heat; and three years before that we got to watch how Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce came together with the Boston Celtics.
How did these two previous big-threes look in regards to usage rate before coming together?
Garnett (27.4 USG%), Allen (29.5 USG%), and Pierce (30.7 USG%)
LeBron (33.5 USG%), Wade (34.9 USG%), and Bosh (28.7 USG%)
Both combinations exceeded the usage rates that were shown by LeBron, Irving and Love from this past season, and both teams still managed to appear in the NBA Finals during their first year. This isn’t to say that the Cavaliers are guaranteed to advance that far this season, but it does show that it is possible for high usage players to learn to play together…and quickly too.
So how do these three mesh? In short, exceptionally well.
Outside of Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies, no player had more touches per game at the elbow (touches that orginate within the five-foot radius nearing the edge of the lane and free throw line, inside the three-point line) than Kevin Love did at 11.2 per game.
In fact, Love touched the ball an incredible amount of times for a frontcourt player, touching it 86.2 times per game. For reference, here are the other players in the top 10: Kemba Walker, John Wall, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry, Michael Carter-Williams, Mike Conley, Ricky Rubio, and Isaiah Thomas. All of them are point guards.
Considering the amount of times the ball found it’s way to Love, he barely kept the ball in his hands for long. In total, Love had the ball for just 2.4 minutes per game, not even enough to put himself in the top 100 for the league. He also made 60.3 passes per game, meaning the ball seldom stuck in Love’s hands.
Love is a unique player in that he can facilitate ball movement from the elbow or post, and can also pick-and-roll or pick and pop. The diversity that Love brings to the offensive end of the floor will greatly help the Cleveland big three to potentially come together very quickly.
The more interesting question might be who the Cavaliers’ primary ball handler will be. Despite being listed as the point guard, Mario Chalmers had little to do with handling the ball for the Miami Heat. The ball was most often found in the hands of LeBron James as the primary decision maker. How does will this now mesh with Kyrie Irving in the fold?
This could either be a problem for the Cavaliers, or an amazing luxury. Is this a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, or simply two dynamic players who can create for themselves and others?
LeBron has the ability to break down a defense with the ball in his hands, which for a man of his size is an exceptional gift. The scary thing to consider is that LeBron is also incredibly dangerous off-ball. LeBron took just 1.6 catch-and-shoot three-pointers per game last season, but hit 48.6 percent of them. Of players who took at least the same number of similar shots, LeBron finished just behind noted sharpshooter Kyle Korver (49.9 percent) in terms of accuracy. (Korver took 4.8 such shots per game, but did so because he never had the ball in his hands.)
That is what makes the combination of Kyrie Irving and LeBron James so tantalizing. We haven’t gotten the opportunity to see LeBron play off the ball with a dynamic point guard running the offense (glimpses when Miami used Wade as the offensive initiator). Just look at the point guards that have led LeBron’s teams in minutes played during his time in the league: Kevin Ollie (at 31 years old), Jeff McInnis, Eric Snow (twice), Daniel Gibson, Mo Williams (twice), and Mario Chalmers (four times). Not exactly a murderer’s row.
LeBron now has the opportunity to catch and shoot from the perimeter, cut to the basket more off the ball, drive to the basket with the ball in his hands, or post up his man down low. What a sight this will be to behold!
Yes, the Cavaliers currently look as though they may have some issues from a defensive perspective, but on paper they look like they could be unstoppable offensive force…it’s only a matter of how long it will take.