NBA

Numbers Game: LeBron returns to Cleveland

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Scott Cullen
7/11/2014 3:42:48 PM
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In a stunning turn of events, the best basketball player on the planet has changed teams through free agency.

Numbers Game breaks down the biggest move of the NBA summer, one of the most remarkable free agent moves in NBA history.

The Cavaliers Get: SF LeBron James.

James, 29, has been the best player in basketball over the past decade. In 11 NBA seasons, he's averaging 27.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game. In the history of the NBA, there are three other players that have averaged at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists per game and the list is spectacular: Michael Jordan, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.

If LeBron is not at the peak of his powers, he's awfully close. He's shot 56.6% from the field over the past two seasons and last season's True Shooting Percentage (combining twos, threes and free throws) of 64.9% was the best of his career. As James has improved his jump shot, he's become ever more dangerous offensively because, in the open floor, he's still a finisher without peer, moving a 6-foot-8, 260-pound frame with unmatched athleticism and control.

Part of the reason that James has been the best in the league is that he has a toolbox that others can't compete with. No one else that size can move like LeBron. That's not to diminish his game, because it's more than merely bulling his way to the basket. He's as unselfish with the ball as any NBA superstar, can play effectively anywhere on the floor when needed and has expanded his offensive repertoire, adding more post-ups in recent years.

Undoubtedly, LeBron is great. An all-timer. But there have been signs of age catching up to him, if ever-so-slightly. He's been extremely durable throughout his career, never missing more than seven games in a season, but his back acted up at times last season and that's worth keeping an eye on, lest we be fooled into believing that he's superhuman.

Returning to Cleveland, James is going to invigorate a franchise that has been a rudderless mess since he left in 2010. As the roster is currently constructed, PG Kyrie Irving, SG Dion Waiters, PF Tristan Thompson and C Anderson Varejao could easily surround James in the starting lineup. But, the Cavs may try to move Waiters, hoping to keep first overall pick Andrew Wiggins, in an attempt to land PF Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Even if Wiggins has to be moved to get that deal done, the Cavs would have an excellent starting five.

One of the facets that James brings to a team is that he makes any team instantly desirable as a destination. Players that want to win recognize the opportunity to do that with LeBron, who won two titles and lost two NBA Finals in four seasons with the Miami Heat. Adding someone like Love to a team that has James and an up-and-coming point guard like Irving is enough to be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. For a team that won 33 games last season, it's a dramatic upturn in their fortunes.

But, worry about Love when Love joins the Cavs. James' arrival makes the Cavaliers a playoff team and they have the young assets, gained through top draft picks, to either surround James with a capable supporting cast or to move some of those pieces in order to accelerate the plans.

It's a difficult weight to bear, as the player deemed to be the best on the planet. LeBron enjoyed his time and success in Miami, but there may have been something pushing him in that direction, away from Cleveland in the first place, to chase championship rings because, like every other challenger to the throne, he sees Michael Jordan's six championship rings and knows that's the benchmark in the modern era.

Maybe LeBron will get to six championship rings someday. Depending on how the Cavaliers' roster shakes out, it's certainly feasible that they will be contenders every year that James is there. But, when it comes to an enduring legacy, maybe it means more to an Akron, Ohio kid to win one for Cleveland, where there hasn't been a championship in forever (the Browns last won the NFL title in 1964) and maybe LeBron, having been there and done that, feels like he can lead a Cleveland team to a title.

Whatever the reason, and LeBron was much more eloquent and self-aware in expressing this decision, the balance of power has changed in the NBA. For the first time since 2009-2010, the Cavs will be good again and, depending on who joins LeBron, they could be great, just like that.

Conversely, the Miami Heat are going to be starting over. With LeBron leaving, Chris Bosh is reportedly on his way to Houston, leaving a 32-year-old Dwyane Wade to pick up the pieces. Wade opted out of his contract, too, so he could always move on, but the opportunity to get paid is going to rest with the Heat, who currently have two players under contract for next season. Lots of work to do and it won't be easy. South Beach might be a great lure, but pulling together a roster, virtually from scratch, will be a challenge.

When the best player in the sport willingly makes a move to another team, it can send shockwaves through the sports world. This one will have ripple effects, to be felt throughout the summer, as the new NBA landscape is dictated by LeBron's decision to go home.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

LeBron James (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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