Unlike "The Decision," LeBron James' returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers as a free agent Friday doesn't immediately create a star-studded big three. However, one more transaction -- the Cavaliers dealing for Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love -- would bring together a trio of players, including Cleveland incumbent Kyrie Irving, that would have the potential to surpass the threesome that helped the Miami Heat reach the NBA Finals four times and win two championships.
Love trade a no-brainer
Even before James' announcement, reports suggested the Cavaliers and Timberwolves were discussing a Love trade, and ESPN's Marc Stein reported Friday that Love would commit to staying with the Cavs. That James' letter did not mention No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins will only fuel speculation that Cleveland is preparing to send a package centered around Wiggins to Minnesota.
If the Timberwolves are amenable, a Love trade is an easy choice for the Cavaliers.
While surrendering the top pick would be nearly unprecedented in modern NBA history -- once secured in the lottery, the No. 1 selection hasn't been traded since the Orlando Magic sent Chris Webber to the Golden State Warriors on draft night in 1993 -- Love's trade value is also unique.
In May, I argued that Love might be the most valuable player to change hands since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was traded from Milwaukee to the L.A. Lakers in 1975. Not only is Love a top-five talent in the league, at 25, he's just entering his prime. Provided he's willing to re-sign with Cleveland, Love is more valuable than the average No. 1 pick. And while scouts project Wiggins as an elite talent, his performance at Kansas raised questions about his potential.
None of the other players or picks the Cavaliers might have to surrender in a Love trade would be huge losses for Cleveland. Anthony Bennett, the 2013 No. 1 pick, still must prove he's worthy of his rookie contract after submitting the worst first season by a top pick in terms of wins above replacement player (WARP) since the ABA-NBA merger. The Cavaliers' own picks are likely to fall late in the first round, though Cleveland does own the Heat's protected 2015 first-round pick, which suddenly became more valuable with James' departure.
Should the Cavaliers acquire Love, he'd be arguably the best player with whom James has ever teamed. While Love's résumé might not compare to Dwyane Wade's playoff success before teaming up with James, his performance is similar to Wade's in 2010. Last season, Love produced 20.3 WARP, good for third in the league behind James and Kevin Durant. In 2009-10, Wade posted 20.0 WARP as the leader of a one-star Miami team.
Crucially, unlike Wade, Love is likely to maintain that level of play for several years to come.
Wade's production has dropped each season since James joined him on the Heat. And while some of that has to do with the diminishing returns of pairing multiple stars, it has more to do with Wade's deteriorating physical condition. Love isn't the same kind of long-term risk.
Irving's future bright
Even before bringing back James, Cleveland had a budding superstar in Irving, the 2011 No. 1 overall pick who officially signed a five-year maximum extension just Thursday. Irving's three years with the Cavaliers haven't been entirely happy. He has reportedly squabbled at times with teammate Dion Waiters, and his poor defense has made Irving less valuable than his box score stats would indicate. (ESPN's real plus-minus rates Irving as a below-average contributor and one of the league's worst defensive players.)
Taking a step back, however, Irving's potential is immense. Two of the three most similar players to him at the same age per my SCHOENE projection system, Allen Iverson and Derrick Rose, went on to win MVP awards. (Gilbert Arenas is the other player in between them.) Or consider that Irving, the MVP of last year's All-Star Game, has been chosen an All-Star twice before age 22. Per Basketball-Reference.com, that puts him in a group including James, as well as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal and Isiah Thomas.
Irving isn't yet as good as Chris Bosh, his opposite number in Miami's pecking order. But his advanced statistics are similar to Bosh's through the same age, and there's a history of point guards blossoming a bit later than their peers at other positions. Irving has been a much better scorer than Rose was up until his breakthrough 2010-11 campaign won him MVP at age 22 (albeit in his third season), and John Wall of the Washington Wizards -- the No. 1 pick the year before Irving -- just made a leap forward in his fourth season at 23.
No Cleveland player will be affected more by James' arrival than Irving, who will have to spend more time off the ball and will have no choice but to improve his defensive effort now that the Cavaliers expect to contend for championships, not just playoff appearances. If Irving rises to that challenge, it's not inconceivable that he could join James and Love among the league's top 10 players. Remember, we're less than a year removed from ESPN's #NBArank panel placing Irving eighth in the league, a jump that proved premature. (Love was 11th and James, naturally, first on the list.)
Besides the minor detail of actually completing a Love trade, there's a reason this analysis has focused on the potential of a Cleveland big three rather than the reality. So far, Irving has demonstrated his potential much more than he has actually proved valuable on the court. Love has yet to play for a winning team, and while that reflects more on Minnesota's rosters than his performance, his habits also would have to improve on a championship contender.
The tradeoff for those question marks is the chance of a more sustainable trio of stars.
As James hits his 30s, Irving and Love will be growing into their primes, which would allow the Cavaliers to manage James' minutes better and keep him fresh for the postseason. Unlike four years ago, nobody involved is going to start counting off possible championships in Cleveland. But if the Cavaliers could acquire Love and Irving develops as expected, this big three could end up with as much hardware or more than the Heat's version.