LeBron James' mission statement when he returned home to the Cavaliers was simple: bring a championship back to Cleveland. Alongside James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving came together to form the Cavs' Big Three. But after just two seasons together, is it already championship or bust for the trio?
The Cavaliers will begin their 2016 playoffs against the Detroit Pistons on Sunday at Quicken Loans Arena. And right from the get-go, all the pressure will immediately be on the Eastern Conference top seeds, and more specifically, James. At this stage of his career, the 31-year-old only has a limited window remaining to perform at the absolute elite level that he is now.
How long is that window exactly? Two years? Four years? It's impossible to know. Which is why the pressure now leaps up, rather than creeps up, with each passing trophyless Cavs season. James may have already enjoyed a successful career to date, but he still remains hungry to add more to his legacy and further elevate his standing in the history books.
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Oh, and then there's that promise of bringing a championship home to Cleveland. A promise which gets tougher to deliver on with each passing year. There is no doubting the championship credentials of James given his success with the Miami Heat. The four-time league MVP went to the NBA Finals in four consecutive seasons and picked up two rings during his four-year stay in Miami. But that was alongside Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.
What now with Love and Irving as his accomplices?
The Cavs have the highest payroll in the NBA at $108 million and James, Love and Irving take up over 60 percent of it. A king's ransom is paid out to the team's Big Three and a Larry O'Brien trophy is expected in return at some point. The return to date, however, has not been up to par - although injuries to Love and Irving did hinder the team's playoff push last year. Nonetheless, another year passed James by.
However, when everybody is at full health, do the trio really make for a good fit? Do they look like potential title winners? The evidence so far suggests perhaps not. James obviously likes to dominate the ball and drive to the basket often, Irving likes to do likewise as the team's point guard, and then there's the 6'10'' Love who was the number one offensive option, primarily playing deep in the paint, when he was at his best in Minnesota. There are clear stylistic issues to overcome.
Love averaged 26.1 points per game in his final season with the Timberwolves but has averaged just 16 and 16.4 points per game during his two campaigns in Cleveland. Most telling is the number of times Love actually got to the free throw line prior to joining the Cavs. Averaging more than eight free throws a game over his final three seasons in Minnesota, Love now averages just a shade over four free throws a game in Cleveland.
Which just highlights how the power forward's opportunities to attack and probe in the paint, where he did most of his best work, have gone by the wayside. Additionally, Love has also averaged single digit rebounds for the first time since his rookie year during his two seasons with the Cavs. Still, Bosh's stats underwent a similar dip when he joined up with James and Wade back in 2010. It's about finding other ways to contribute.
Which is something Bosh spoke about when Love first joined the Cavs back in 2014, predicting he would find it difficult adapting to life as part of a Big Three in Cleveland. ''It's going to be very difficult for him,'' Bosh said after the Love acquisition had been confirmed, per Bleacher Report.
''Even if I was in his corner and I was able to tell him what to expect and what to do, it still doesn't make any difference. You still have to go through things, you still have to figure out things on your own. It's extremely difficult and extremely frustrating. He's going to have to deal with that.''
Bosh elaborated on the transition from being the number one option on a team to suddenly scratching around trying to find a place to fit in and contribute.
''Yeah, it's a lot more difficult taking a step back, because you're used to doing something a certain way and getting looks a certain way. And then it's like, well, no, for the benefit of the team, you have to get it here.
''You just get your entree and that's it. It's like, wait a minute, I need my appetizer and my desert and my drink, what are you doing? And my bread basket. What is going on? I'm hungry! It's a lot different. But if you can get through it, good things can happen. But it never gets easy. Even up until my last year of doing it, it never gets easier.''
Bosh would know, too, coming from a similar situation with the Toronto Raptors where he was the power forward and number one option, much like Love was with the Timberwolves. Bosh eventually found his niche alongside James and Wade on the defensive end, often playing at centre, in addition to expanding his three-point shooting in order to find his spot in the offence with touches in the paint limited.
In theory, Love already had the three-point shooting in the tool kit when he arrived in Cleveland, but the defence lagged by comparison. In fact, it still does today. So with unreliable defence and limited touches in the paint, Love is pretty much a spot-up three-point shooter alongside James. I suppose that's what $19.6 million gets you in this Cavs team.
Then there's Irving. The 24-year-old has found his spot in the team easier than Love has, often taking over games when James is resting on the sidelines, but it still hasn't exactly been smooth sailing for the point guard. Currently in his fifth NBA season, Irving still plays with all the enthusiasm and eagerness he came into the league with.
He isn't in that desperate, win-at-all-costs phase of his career yet like James is. If James were Irving right now, he'd still be dancing during timeouts and choreographing pre-game rituals. In fact, rumours of Irving wanting a move away from Cleveland have circulated at times this season, as well as reports of a lack of chemistry between Irving, James and Love.
Back when James took his talents to South Beach, he was 25 years old, whilst Wade was 28 and Bosh was 26. They gelled as a unit on and off the court. The Heat was Wade's team at the time, but in the name of winning, he smartly decided to defer to James like the mature, experienced player that he was.
Upon returning to the Cavs, James was 29 years old and found himself trying to connect with a 22-year-old Irving and a 25-year-old Love. Irving and James, in particular, are at completely different stages of their career, and indeed life in general. The connection between all three is perhaps not as organic as the one James forged with his peers back in Miami. Three players all of a similar age and experience. The chemistry was natural.
As the Cavs prepare for this year's playoffs, though, there has been nothing particularly natural about the way they clinched the number one seed in the East. It's been more like something of an ongoing struggle. David Blatt was fired as the team's head coach in January with a record of 30-11. Tyronn Lue then swiftly stepped into the breach and subsequently put together a record of 27-14. Based on that, Lue will be hoping his proving ground is in the playoffs.
Even the defence is not up to the standard that James once policed in Miami. The one thing that Wade and Bosh did, regardless, when they played alongside James, was play determined, organised, reliable defence. That was the minimum. The Big Three dominated the ball offensively. But when it came to defence, the trio set the tone for everybody else to follow suit. No excuses.
So far, that is not the minimum the Cavs get from Love and Irving. Both are suspect and inconsistent on the defensive end and without James the Cavs are 4-15 over the last two seasons. A Big Three, you say? It's more like a One-Plus-Two.
And if the Cavs are still awaiting their first NBA title come the end of the postseason, perhaps the Big Three in Cleveland could be divided up for good.