If you’re among those who believe we’re witnessing a basketball revolution, you should be very interested in the LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’re not shooting threes like their lives depend on it, and they’re not using lineups that minimize size in favor of speed and skill. They’re not part of the new orthodoxy of the unorthodox. They’re a stay against the revolution.
When I say “revolution,” I’m thinking back to the summer of 2014, when LeBron James returned to Cleveland and Kevin Love arrived soon after, a raw, untested Cavalier roster suddenly became a veteran team, one with bona fide championship aspirations. David Blatt, their coach, was expected not to screw up, but in the end, he was fired in spite of his team’s 30–11 record. James made it publicly known that he wasn’t responsible. Many have suspected that he was.
But what if the real story here isn’t the conflict between player and coach? When James signed again with Cleveland, he published a letter that named many of his soon-to-be teammates. Cleveland’s Andrew Wiggins, the first overall pick of that year’s draft, was not among them. Wiggins ended up being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a package that brought Kevin Love to Cleveland. With that trade, the complexion of the team’s aspirations changed. They now had three all-star players in James, Love, and Kyrie Irving. They’re often called Cleveland’s Big Three—even by their new coach, Tyronn Lue. It’s a term you don’t hear much these days.
A player of James’s caliber doesn’t make a decision in free agency without advanced knowledge of his team’s plans to improve their roster. So you can glean two important things from Cleveland’s Love signing. First, that James valued the idea of a roster anchored by a Big Three. And second, that he valued the idea of an elite “stretch four”—a power forward who’s a good enough shooter from the perimeter to force the opposition to defend out to twenty feet and beyond, stretching the defense.
LeBron had just spent four years in Miami playing as part of a different Big Three, with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. They made it to four consecutive NBA finals, winning the second and third. The term “Big Three” was thrown around a lot in those years, but Miami had lifted the blueprint from the Boston Celtics, who in the summer of 2007 had signed and traded their way to a triumvirate of their own: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, who won their team the 2007–2008 NBA Championship. It was a hard victory: in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, they’d barely elbowed their way past Cleveland, winning by five points on their home floor in the deciding game. Absorbing an unreal amount of defensive attention and physical punishment, a twenty-three-year-old LeBron James averaged 26.7 points per game. The game plan for the Cavs at that point had only two components: LeBron and hope. When James lost to the Celtics again in 2010, still with little help from an inferior roster, he walked off the court and tossed away his Cavs jersey en route to the locker room.
Those losses brought him to form his own Big Three, with Bosh and Wade, for the Heat. In 2010, at a poorly conceived, smoke-machine-assisted celebration of their new union, an ebullient LeBron famously needed two hands to count the number of championships he predicted his Big Three would bring to the Heat. In Bosh, James found as close a copy of Kevin Garnett as he could have hoped for; even if LeBron and Wade were the thunder and lightning, it was Bosh’s physical gifts and his refined basketball mind that moved Miami’s barometer. Teams then were increasingly dependent on the three-point shot, and Bosh delivered: the idea of a stretch four now supposed that the power forward had his kind of range. In short, James found in Bosh a player who could replicate the devastation he’d endured himself in his recent past.
A setback in their first year—when they were played off the court by a more balanced Dallas Mavericks team with far less star power—rightfully brought questions about the viability of the Big Three model. But they broke through the following season against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who insisted on pitting Kendrick Perkins, their massive starting center, against the Heat’s newfound agility. Perkins is a renowned player, but over the years, slowly, quietly, the game had been changing around him, and by 2010 the philosophies that had made him such a critical piece for a championship were practically arcane. The Heat were playing small and fast at a time when their method hadn’t yet swept the league off its feet; furthermore, its benefits for Miami may have been somewhat obscured by the blinding star power of their Big Three. This team had been forged to purge the ghosts of the Celtics—it was an act of personal history with rippling effects on the game as a whole, proving that playing “small ball” was not just sustainable but powerful. James was on the forefront of a revolution.
The Heat, strangely, did not embrace its message. The following year, sure, they won again using the same formula, but in 2014 they met with defeat from the Spurs, who had also embraced small ball. Those Spurs had tweaked the formula: they used Boris Diaw as the power forward. Diaw is no stretch four; he’s not a very good outside shooter at all. Instead of stretching the defense with long-range shooting, he’d receive passes at spots far out on the floor and then drive to the basket like a guard. This tactic ruined Miami’s lauded pick-and-roll defense, which couldn’t account for the all of the movement. The Heat lost four of five games, and that summer, LeBron returned to Cleveland, marking the end of the Big Three and perhaps of Big Threes as we know them.
LeBron had seen the Celtics Big Three come and go; he’d seen his own come and go; he’d seen the pick-and-roll defense come and go. He had been witness. This is why I find it so curious that LeBron signed off on the Cavaliers’ choice to bring in Kevin Love, thus forming another Big Three. To make matters worse, Love is nowhere near the defender Bosh is—and the Cavs roster now has four centers and power forwards (Mozgov, Thompson, Varejao, and Love) who can do a pretty good Kendrick Perkins impersonation.
Keep all this in mind when you think of the plight of LeBron James. Given what he’s seen over the years as the game changed before his eyes, he easily could have become the playmaking four to end all playmaking fours; an ultra-supreme version of what Diaw and Green are now. But he doesn’t envision himself as a Diaw or a Green, and he’s earned the right not to. Just this week, he made it clear to the press in a corrective tone that he’s a small forward and not a power forward—that the power forward position is for when, eventually, he slows down. It’s as though the past two finals haven’t happened for him. So off he goes into battle, with his limitless ability and his slow-footed stretch four, as the players around him increasingly shrink and speed up.
We should assume that he’s more than aware of this—that this is the choice he’s made. He is the king, after all, and kings don’t lead revolutions. They rule wary of them.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the Daily’s basketball columnist. His second book of poems, Heaven, was published earlier this year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship.