The two weeks that have passed since LeBron James initially exercised his early termination option with the Miami Heat have been pure, unadulterated madness in all forms of media, social and otherwise.
Everyone’s sources had sources that were almost sure of things, but not really. People overreacted to plane schedules, supposed billboard purchases, and moving trucks. Every trade and signing that happened, was rumored to happen, or was simply hatched by some guy on Twitter was taken as a sign and examined to the most excruciating of degrees. We were all so afraid of missing out on the big news, that we sacrificed work productivity, sleep, human contact, and some semblance of a real life just to keep an eye on the latest developments in his decision.
Well, Decision 2.0 has mercifully come to a close and LeBron is officially a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Again.
As for this choice, he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t anyway. As one of the most scrutinized figures in the history of professional sports, LeBron could choose to dedicate every second of his spare time to saving puppies and helping underprivileged children and people would still find a way to lambaste him for it. Don’t believe me? Check out the comment sections here and here.
No matter which location he had ended up choosing between his final two suitors, Cleveland and Miami, his supporters would’ve continued to support and his detractors to detract. Still, the purveying narrative was that Cleveland represented a redemption story, while Miami was a chance to continue building on a dynasty (four Finals appearances in four years is a big deal, no matter how you slice it)
Picking Cleveland meant making good with the home state, but it came at the expense of looking prone to bolting when the going gets tough. Picking Miami meant trying to come through on his promise of multiple championships, but came at the expense of spurning where he came from for a second time. Both situations were win-lose.
The history books will now show that he chose Cleveland and that he did it on his own terms. Honestly, good for him.
You’ll find plenty of pieces out there today that will talk about all the drama and how it will ultimately affect the man’s legacy. We’re not exactly in that business (we’re called numberFire, after all), so we’re here to forget about emotion and crunch the digits instead.
Forget redemption stories, dynasties, and legacies and throw out the sandy beaches, burned jerseys, and strongly worded letters in comic sans. At the end of the day, which roster would've given LeBron the best chance for titles this year and beyond?
What Exactly Is LeBron’s Impact?
It’s a little hard to project what King James’ impact will be on the Cavs or would’ve been on the Heat next season, since there are still so many pieces to fall in place for both squads. For those that are so quick to say that the incumbent Heat roster is far superior to the Cavs current offering, however, we implore you to slow down a minute. Our algorithms tell an interesting story that may make you think otherwise.
First, take a look at each team’s record at the end of last season and their resulting position in the Eastern Conference:
|2013-14 Record||East Standings
Now, imagine a world where LeBron had magically been on the Cavs roster, exactly as it was, and not with the Heat. Here’s how our algorithms had their respective records play out and where the resulting win total would’ve positioned them in the East:
|2013-14 Simulated Record||East Standings
|Cleveland Cavaliers (w/LeBron)||53-29||2nd|
|Miami Heat (w/o LeBron)||39-43||8th|
Move LeBron from last year’s Heat roster to last year’s Cavs and Cleveland would’ve finished with only one fewer win than the Heat were able to manage with him. The Heat still would’ve made the playoffs in this scenario - Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are actually really good, despite what you may have chosen to believe after this year's Finals - but the Cavs would’ve vaulted up and taken exactly Miami’s spot in the standings.
You see, it's really LeBron above all else that made the Heat so dominant. He finished last season with a nERD score of 20.4, the second best in the entire NBA behind Kevin Durant’s MVP-winning 27.0. If you’re not familiar with our nERD metric, it is a measurement of a player’s contribution throughout the course of a season, based on his efficiency. It is denoted in a number that reflects the number of games over .500 a team would finish with said player as one of its starters. Take LeBron’s 20.4 wins contributed from the Heat and give them to the Cavs and Cleveland becomes a 50-win team and an instant contender.
Given just how shaky the Eastern Conference had gotten by season’s end, who’s to say that the Cavs wouldn’t have had a shot at making the Finals with LeBron? Considering no one really knew for sure who would win it all going into the Finals (hindsight analysts can look back at all the previews and subsequently shush), would they have really been such a long shot for the title? Were his Heat teammates really that great, anyway? Notwithstanding Bosh and a rapidly declining Wade, would you have even taken last year’s Heat supporting cast over ‘Bron’s 2007 Cavalier teammates?.
I’m not so sure.
But enough about the past, which of LeBron’s two options had the brightest future before he chose to sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers?
Cavs and Heat Rosters by nERD and Win Shares
There are still plenty of remaining free agent options and trade scenarios left for both teams to fill out their respective rosters, but let’s take a quick look at the projected rotation players that were left on each squad when LeBron made his decision, and how they stacked up in nERD and win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48).
First, the Cavs:
Admittedly, it’s not a very exciting core just yet. Kyrie Irving stands out as the team’s only All-Star, but he’s still got a lot of work to do (particularly in terms of efficiency and defense) and there’s not much on the roster beyond him that instills much confidence.
Varejao is growing older and is constantly on the injured list (last season was the first in four that he played over 31 games). Last year’s first overall pick, Anthony Bennett, had one of the worst rookie seasons of any top pick ever due to nagging injuries and bad conditioning. Recent lottery picks Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson have been good, but certainly not great. This year’s first overall selection, Andrew Wiggins, has sky-high potential, but how that will pan out remains a mystery (if he even remains on the team - more on that in a minute).
It’ll be an uphill battle with this roster, but that’s a challenge that LeBron admits he’s ready to take on.
Now, let’s take a look at what the Heat would’ve been working with:
If LeBron had signed with the Heat, there’s little doubt that Bosh, Wade, and Ray Allen would’ve followed suit. Of all of LeBron’s possible teammates on both sides of this decision, Chris Bosh was arguably the best player and best fit for the King. The combination of LeBron and Dwyane Wade has been giving defenses fits for four years, but there were definite chinks forming in that armor by year’s end.
Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger weren’t earth-shattering acquisitions, although McRoberts in particular was an underrated pickup, based on his passing and floor-stretching abilities. The Heat made a play to get LeBron’s favorite point guard in this year’s draft in Shabazz Napier, but I guess that was for naught. Ray Allen is still solid at almost 39 years of age, but, well, he’s almost 39 years of age.
Which brings us to the crux of this numbers study. The average age of the Cavaliers core is 23.7, compared to 30.5 for the Heat (not including Wiggins and Napier). The Heat definitely have the edge in nERD and win shares per 48 minutes, but those numbers are declining and Cleveland’s core is bound to go up.
It’s clearly stated in his letter that he’s ready to mentor and just a glance at the ages in the tables above should show you that he picked the right place to do that. Reloading an aging roster like the Heat’s can be hard and the Cavaliers - for all their missteps over the years - have youth and upside going for them. That - along with the opportunity to go home and right wrongs - ultimately won them the best basketball player in the world.
Inevitably, a large portion of the population will love LeBron for this move and another will hate him. He’s a polarizing figure and there’s no way around that.
Take away all the emotional biases, however, and you can’t fault him for taking his talents back to Ohio for another run. Cleveland has a very young core, chocked full of upside in budding stars like Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins.
Right now, Cleveland’s roster doesn’t quite stack up to Miami’s offering, but it very well could before long. What if Bennett turns out to be what the Cavs saw in him in the first place? We’ve all been entirely too tough on the 21-year-old. What if Wiggins actually is the next LeBron? Even if he’s not, what if they can move him for another star? What if it’s Kevin Love, as rumored?
If the Cavs are able to add Love to LeBron and Kyrie, our algorithms have them projected to go 62-20 next year. If they somehow manage to keep Wiggins, you can probably add another 1-2 wins to that estimate as well.
Seriously, which of these Big Threes would you rather roll with while still in your prime?
There will be plenty of people who fault LeBron for this move. Regardless, he put winning one title for his home over multiple for himself.
Besides, the numbers ain’t mad at him.