NBA Sunday: Better to Have Love and Lost?

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In a dapper black and white tuxedo, he stood before the assembled media, seemingly a tad bit uncomfortable. He cleared his throat and Andrew Wiggins spoke of his journey to this point—being named the 2015 NBA Rookie of the Year.

“My expectations here were a lot different than they would have been in Cleveland,” Wiggins responded when asked.

And as for what he would have been in Cleveland? It is something that LeBron James and his team’s front office are probably pondering at this very moment.

As James sits on the cusp of reaching his fifth straight NBA Finals, he has done so not because of the presence of Kevin Love, but despite his absence.

For the duration of the season, there have been questions surrounding Love and his uncertain future in Cleveland. And as the Cavaliers seem to have become a different, perhaps even better, team in his absence, the question becomes clear.

Is it better to have Love and lost than to have not ever had Love at all?

* * *

Sitting in the stands as David Stern announced LeBron James as the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, as he glided across the stage, it was clear to me—even under his all-white tuxedo—that James was a physical specimen that belonged in the National Basketball Association.

The questions that the basketball universe had about James was not so much whether he had the tools to succeed at this level, but whether he had the wherewithal, mental toughness and maturity. James wasn’t the first teenage prodigy to tease NBA executives with his busting potential, but he was the first that would enter the league with this amount of exposure, scrutiny and expectations. There was simply no telling whether he would crumble under the pressure or emerge from it a diamond.

InsideLeBronJamesAmazingly, it has been 12 years and James—now a two-time NBA champion—is probably one of the top 10 players of all-time. He can legitimately claim to be the greatest small forward to ever play the game and is certainly a transgenerational player whose contributions will be remembered long after his playing days are over.

The legitimate question that I have, however, is whether James and his Cavaliers have fallen victim to the decision that he himself made back in July 2010.

Back then, in taking his talents to South Beach, James steered the league onward into what I have since referred to as the “Post Decision Era” of NBA basketball.

In the years immediately preceding his decision to join Dwyane Wade in Miami, James had been surrounded with a rather mediocre cast of characters in Cleveland. Astonishingly, he took them to heights never before experienced by the franchise. As the Oklahoma City Thunder had seemingly done in 2012, James led his Cavaliers to an unexpected run to the NBA Finals in 2007. In just his fourth NBA season, the Cavaliers far exceeded expectations but could not exceed the San Antonio Spurs. A sweep in the 2007 NBA Finals left James disappointed, but the optimism was unquestionable—the Cavaliers would be back.

But quicker than you can say “prodigy,” everything changed.

The 2007 NBA Finals concluded on June 14, and exactly two weeks later, Danny Ainge acquired Ray Allen. In another month, Kevin Garnett would agree to a trade that landed him in Boston with the recently acquired Allen and franchise mainstay Paul Pierce.

In the ensuing season, the Celtics seemed to gel overnight. En route to winning 32 of their first 35 games, their winning ways were reminiscent of Michael Jordan’s 1996 team that went 72-10. Imagine, just one season prior, the Celtics won just 24 games.

Overnight, it seemed, they were suddenly running with history.

The immediacy of their ascent surprised a few around the NBA, but only those that failed to understand that Ainge had managed to concoct the perfect mixture. In Allen, he had one of the game’s greatest shooters who was equally as adept at playing off of the ball as he was playing on it and creating his own shots. In Garnett, he had a former MVP and one of the players who revolutionized the way an entire generation understands the meaning of “versatility” as it relates to the movement toward “position-less” basketball. And of course, in Pierce, he had a Hall of Fame talent and difference maker on both ends of the floor who wanted more to become a champion more than he wanted personal accolades and accomplishments.

With a proper mix of youth and talent, the Celtics meshed and dominated their way to the 2008 NBA Championship.

En route to ascending as champions, the Celtics left James as scorched earth. He watched as the triad became champions and eventually fell to them again in 2010, as they won their second Eastern Conference Championship in three years.

In the three years from 2007-10, the world around James had changed. Pau Gasol was dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers, Jason Kidd became a Dallas Maverick again and Shaquille O’Neal found a new home in Phoenix.

All around James, in the years immediately following the unifying of Allen, Garnett and Pierce, teams became engaged in what I have referred to as the NBA’s modern talent arms race. Here, it takes three All-Stars caliber performers and two above-average major competitors to win it all.

Over time, the Cavaliers had proven that they were unable to surround James with the requisite talent, so he took matters into his own hands.

In doing so, he helped to change the thought process of NBA front offices across the league. He revolutionized the thought of free agency as a primary means to building a champion and had a firsthand impact on some of the nuances of the 2011 NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement.

With one television special, James singlehandedly caused the dawn of a new era.

* * *

We are now five years into the NBA, P.D.E.

And in this Post Decision Era, patience is a thing of the past. Front offices, general managers and coaches are expected to make an impact, win and do so quickly. While teams such as the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have continued to build their teams and programs in organic ways, the success of both the Celtics and the James-led Miami HEAT has left fan bases and owners of less successful teams parched.

The subliminal want is to have immediate success and to reverse the fortunes of a floundering franchise overnight. It is that want that largely contributed to the Cavaliers trading Wiggins for Love.

Even today, on its face, the trade makes perfect sense. Despite the questions over Love’s mental toughness, his defensive ineptitude and his fairly consistent injuries, trading a 19-year-old prodigy for a 25-year-old perennial All-Star made all the sense in the world.  It was an apparent no brainer when one considered whether, without Love, the Cavaliers would have had enough to emerge as the victors of the Eastern Conference.

In Chicago, the Bulls had acquired Pau Gasol and in Washington, D.C., the Wizards seemed to be coming into their own. Even in Miami, the HEAT replaced the departed James with Danny Granger and Luol Deng and would be implementing them into a team that had championship DNA.

Could James have competed with that with Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Wiggins? Would Wiggins be stifled by being forced to play off of the ball and, perhaps, behind James?

In past times, we may have certainly gotten the opportunity to find out. But in the Post Decision Era, the expectation for James and his Cavaliers was to win and win now. Love seemed to be the more logical choice between the two.

To this point, though, what we have collectively underestimated and failed to realize was how far James has come, as a player, since 2007. It is said that hindsight is 20/20, but the simple fact is that in believing that James needed Love for his Cavaliers to be successful, we underestimated his greatness.

What we failed to realize was how the pain of losing in the 2011 NBA Finals changed James, both as a man and a competitor. After losing to Dirk Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks, James emerged from his cave humbled and hungry and since then, we have all served as witnesses to the ascension of an almost flawless player.

In the four seasons since losing in the 2011 NBA Finals, James has become a more efficient scorer, converting about 54 percent of his shots from the field. He has converted about 75 percent of his free throws and has become a dangerous three-point shooter, connecting on about 38 percent of his attempts. These are all marked improvements from the last time James led the Cavaliers to the Finals. In that 2007 season, he shot 48 percent, 71 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

Since then, most notably, James has become a much better off-the-ball player who is both able to appropriately time cuts and find holes in opposing defenses. This, as well as his ability to score with his back to the basket from the low post area are skills that he developed out of necessity. To flourish with Wade, he had no choice.

In announcing his return to Cleveland during the summer of 2014, James commented that his Miami flight was tantamount to going away to college.

If so, he returned home having graduated, summa cum laude.

A better player, James was returning to Cleveland to play with Irving—a player far better than any of the other running mates he played with prior to his departure.

With Thompson, Dion Waiters and Wiggins, James would have had a trio of inexperienced players whose ceilings were far from known. But collectively, those five could have potentially played into the same talent stratosphere as James and any of the other four best players he played with in Cleveland during his prior tenure.

Still, generally, when presented with an unknown quantity versus a known contributor, front offices will usually shy away from the unknown.

In Cleveland, it just may end up proving to be a decision that was the incorrect one.

* * *

As Wiggins hoisted his Rookie of the Year trophy and admitted that things in Cleveland would have been different, he did so just two days after Kevin Love suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

Since then, James has elevated his level of play, decimating the Chicago Bulls and dominating the Atlanta Hawks. One could easily question whether the Cavaliers needed Love—who struggled to fit in both on the court and in the locker room—in the first place.

JrSmithInside_Only1Since Love’s injury, the Cavaliers will enter play on May 24 having gone 7-2 in these playoffs. Without Love, Thompson’s minutes and usage have both skyrocketed, partially indicated by the four double-doubles he has accrued since then. They have held their opposition to below 90 points four times since then—something they were unable to do with Love in their first three games against the Celtics.

The Cavaliers have noticeably pushed the pace in Love’s absence and have become somewhat reminiscent of the Cavaliers team that James left back in 2010. The major difference is that both James and those that surround him—a group which now includes J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov—are better.

Playing with Irving at less than 100 percent, James is still as capable an on-the-ball floor general as ever.

With what we have seen over the past few months and certainly the past few weeks, one can fairly wonder whether the Cavaliers truly need Love and whether or not the franchise would have been better off keeping Wiggins.

In theory, Love is an overall good compliment to James, possessing both the ability to stretch the floor and operate from the low post to give the Cavaliers offense some variety. But all season long, things have seemed lukewarm between Love and his teammates, at best. Now, flourishing in his absence will only cause eyebrows to raise.

The hope was that the experience of being a part of a winning culture and experiencing success in the playoffs—somewhere Love had not been before this season—would whet his appetite for more. Re-signing in Cleveland, it was thought, would have been a certainty so long as the team succeeded. Instead, he is watching most of it on television, like many of us.

For the most part, the “What if?” is a futile exercise, but it is certainly worth pondering at this point and will become a full blown conversation if Kevin Love does indeed opt out of his contract and leave Cleveland—a scenario that many believe is quite possible.

It is worth noting that Love’s injury adds an interesting wrinkle to his potential free agency. Earlier this season, he intimated that he would not opt out of his current contract, and by forgoing his free agency until next summer, he could stand to benefit to the tune of $67 million.

Opting out at this point would seem a curious decision, but with both the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks armed with cap space and a need for talent, there are enticing situations available this year that are not promised next year.

If Love does indeed decide to walk, it will be because winning was not the most important thing to him. It will prove that Love is out to prove himself worthy of the “superstar” moniker by being not only on a winning team, but being the reason why his team is a winning team. James Harden and Reggie Jackson both wanted that, and before them, so did Kobe Bryant. There is nothing wrong with it.

But if the Cavaliers end up having surrendered Wiggins and his unlimited potential for a regular season worth of Love, the franchise will have suffered an incalculable setback. Fortunately, for them, the second incarnation of James is that much better than the first. With Irving and Thompson having proven themselves worthy allies and Smith, Mozgov and Sumpert being plus-contributors, the Cavaliers can fairly ponder whether they made the right decision in dealing for Love.

And if he does indeed walk, even if the Cavaliers do end up fulfilling their championship potential without him, the franchise will watch Wiggins develop into a superstar and aimlessly wonder.

Is it truly better to have Love and lost than to not have had Love at all?

In short order, with a decision that could have $67 million in ramifications, we will soon find out.