We're talking about the world's best player at one forward spot, with arguably the best rebounding/deep-shooting big man ever to play the game at the other forward position. What can't they do, especially when factoring in a great shooter/scorer at point guard in Kyrie Irving? But the question for coach David Blatt is not "what style best suits our talent?" but rather "what style best suits this roster while also matching up better against our top competitors?"
There are many variables to consider, and the reality is that teams can and do adjust their styles as the season evolves, something Blatt proved to be a master of in Europe. In theory, though, unless the Cavs can suddenly add a lot more size to this roster (size that can play), there really is a pretty basic formula if they want to have a great chance at a ring : Run (fast), shoot (often), and pass, pass, pass.
This is not a new way to play the game, as we only have to look at how the San Antonio Spurs dismantled the Miami Heat to see how effective this style can be. The great irony in the NBA is that the Spurs' brand is about defense and toughness -- thanks to their titles in the 2000s that resulted from playing this way -- but in reality their offense has more closely resembled the "7-Seconds-or-Less" version from the great Steve Nash teams in Phoenix, the most exciting offenses we have seen in more than a decade. The Spurs did not play quite as fast as the Suns did overall, but that was mostly due to not being as devoted to quick shots in transition as consistently as Phoenix was.
Both teams thrived, though, by constantly applying offensive pressure, putting the ball in the hands of the player who was in position to be a threat. This gave defenders very little time to think, adjust or anticipate. It also gave them little time to rest. On a team featuring James, Love, Irving and Anderson Varejao in the starting unit, this style can be incredibly successful.
We don't yet know who will be starting at shooting guard for the Cavaliers, though it makes sense that they will want someone who can shoot the 3. With that in place, the Cavs' offense will feature four players who can make 3s at a high percentage -- in and of itself making them a formidable offense even with just a "good" small forward.
The bigger keys are the passing skills of James (perhaps the best passing small forward of all time), the very good passing skills of Love ( especially half court) and the almost elite-level passing skill that Varejao has, with him possibly being the third-best passing center in the NBA behind Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol. The Cavs could start a group with three great passers (at a minimum), four great shooters and at least three great scorers (Irving, Love, James), all with the best playmaker in the game to create shots when needed. The only way to slow them down is if they choose to do that on their own. Problems could come if they run isolation actions, stationary dribbles and slow-developing post-ups where every defender knows what is coming; in short, the Cavs will still be a good offense if they play this way, but they won't be nearly as elite.
Instead, a splendid blend of some kind of initial action (i.e., pinch-post handoff, ball-screen action, pin down, etc.) will lead to ball movement until there is a big crease to attack via dribble or pass. This will constantly have a defense on its heels -- especially if the shooters take open 3s every chance they get, forcing opponents to extend their defense out, thereby leaving openings closer to the basket.
Passing up open shots (when the man with the ball is a good-to-great shooter) slows the offense down and gives the defense chances to recover. The Cavaliers can have the league's best offense if they give everyone the green light (minus Varejao) to take open shots from behind the line.
James' talent and mindset to get the best shot available for anyone plays perfectly in this kind of offense. To be sure, Blatt will be giving up some control by playing this way, but having the game's best (and maybe smartest) primary ball handler on the court makes up for it. James' overall basketball IQ factors in huge here, as he was smart when he entered the league but has now played in four straight Finals. His feel for when to push, when to shoot, whom to create for, and what can work best against any defense on the fly makes him like a coach on the court. As long as all of the players buy into quickly moving the ball from weapon to weapon -- while looking for quick attacks into open gaps or open shots from their top shooters -- both James and Blatt should have an easy time on that end of the court.
The Love effect
Love's contribution in the half-court game cannot be understated. He can be a strong post-up scorer. He is deadly at pick-and-pop action. Using him as a pinch-post weapon as a scorer or passer will be very effective as well, as will spacing him out to drag the opponent's best shot-blocker (when matched up with him) away from the rim. Last season in Minnesota, Love and Kevin Martin ran an effective two-man game on the perimeter, where Martin would pass to Love behind the line and then run toward him. If the defender followed Martin, he'd take the handoff and attack; if the perimeter defender took a deeper path toward the rim, Martin would slip in front of Love's man and screen him, giving Love the open look from 3-point range. That same action, with James instead of Martin, will be even more effective -- maybe even the best two-man action in the game.
Another featured set will see Love in the pinch post with James in the same side corner, with the rest of the Cavs on the other side. When Love gets the catch, he'll turn and look at James immediately. If the defender stays low on James, James can race forward and take the handoff from Love; if that defender rushes up the floor to defend, then James will make a quick backdoor cut. And if the defender plays James "straight up," then he can slice-cut over the defender and take the quick pass from Love as he moves into the paint. This is a devastating sequence of actions to defend.
Of course, James always can just slip into the post for some quick high-low action, the kind of short spacing from post-to-post that prevents defenses from being able to get help inside fast enough (especially if two of those three players not involved in the action are 3-point threats). We all know how James will help Love and Irving get their points, but Love will help them as well, far more than people realize.
It's the full-court game where Love can have the most impact. His outlet passes are legendary, and deservedly so. Corey Brewer is every bit as fast as James, and he led the league in transition points last season, mostly thanks to those passes from Love. James, though, is a better finisher at the rim than Brewer, and better at drawing fouls.
Love's incredible rebounding talent also suggests that Varejao, along with James, can often release early and race down the court. Nikola Pekovic was a devastating offensive rebounder last season due not just to his incredible strength, but also his willingness to run and seal, waiting for a teammate to take a quick shot (Minnesota played at the fourth-fastest pace and tied for sixth in offensive rebound rate). Varejao can have an increased role in this manner, with his four starting teammates helping to keep the paint clear in the half court and with his ability to run in their fast-break game. Yes, James will expend some energy running more, but he will save even more by absorbing less of a pounding and by having to do less in the offense because other guys are getting quick buckets. He can also choose to let Irving race out with the others when Love rebounds, thus playing the point if the long outlet is not there and getting into some delayed or "drag screen" action with the trailing Love (much like Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire did to great effect).
The Cavs will need to add some athletes to play alongside Mike Miller and James Jones, but if they do, this team will be capable of playing a style very similar to that of the current Spurs and Nash-era Suns. More possessions in a game often heavily favors the more talented team, if that squad is coached right. Blatt is an elite coach, so there should be no problem.
Having great shooters combined with great passers, the world's best player (and possibly its best athlete), and one of the top rebounders the game has ever seen gives the Cavs a multitude of offensive options. The key will be just how fast they choose to play. The Spurs looked like surgeons during much of the 2014 NBA playoffs. And they are champions now. The Suns had the "sexiest" team in pro sports during a large stretch of the 2000s, routinely winning 50-plus games and doing so in fun fashion.
This Cleveland team could very well have more offensive talent than either of those squads and could end up being just as effective or better -- only if it doesn't give defenders a chance to breathe.