Tuesday, July 1, 2014

How LeBron can position himself to win more championships

It's not clear where LeBron James is going to end up for the 2014-15 NBA season, although most signs point to him resigning in Miami for a max deal that will set him up for big earnings on his next contract after the NBA signs a new TV deal and the salary cap is adjusted to reflect the inevitable cash infusion that follows.

Since LeBron James has played in the last four NBA Finals, vowed to win enough rings to require more than one hand to accommodate, and is at a stage in his career where he's drawing comparisons to people like Michael Jordan, it's worth considering what set-up will allow him to continue to accumulate rings.

Building around LeBron James is almost the easiest task a GM could undertake. James can guard anyone on the floor save for pounding low-post players that can exhaust him and limit his effectiveness on the offensive end. He's a phenomenal defensive weapon, especially in the 4th quarter, for erasing an opposing team's best perimeter creator on offense.

On offense, he's developed his game to the extent that you can't sag off him without risking a deluge of jump shots, he can blow by most defenders and finish at the rim, and he's continuing his inevitable evolution into an eventual point-power forward who can facilitate offense from the block as easily as he's done on the perimeter.

Barring major injury, it's likely that LeBron James will be a highly effective player well into his 30's due to his tremendous power, passing, and overall skill that will allow him to thrive in the post even when he can no longer blow by opponents with the dribble.

Lineup flexibility afforded by James' endless skills is huge. The Heat need only surround him with shooters and some players who can protect him from exhausting defensive assignments on the block. They aren't grounded by traditional positional designations because of James' versatility as a defender, ball-handler, and facilitator.

The only kind of player that is easier to build around is a two-way center. A center who can score and pass out of the post on offense and protect the rim on defense is actually easier to build a team around than LeBron James. They are easy to design systems around and they tend to enjoy long careers since they don't rely as much on athleticism. See Duncan, Kareem, Garnett, Parish, Wilt, Russell, Shaq, etc.

You can witness this in Miami's defensive strategy during their four-year Finals run.

Because the Heat lacked a classic rim protector but had an abundance of athleticism thanks to the presence of their big 3, Spoelstra designed a defense that is built around scrambling, trapping, and aggressive play on the perimeter. He leveraged their traits as a team into an elite defensive unit despite not having a classic big man to make things easy on the back end. They aggressively attacked an offenses' first and second options and forced ball movement to players who were less threatening.

Well, this strategy has finally seen it's end. It's been brought down by a combination of beautiful offense by the Spurs that was capable of lighting up the scoreboard by moving the ball to 4th and even 5th options and it was brought down by the decline of Dwyane Wade.

Wade is no longer an elite player and he's too old and broken down to uphold his end of the deal in Spoelstra's defensive strategy. At 29 and 30 years old, James and Bosh aren't going to be able to maintain this strategy for much longer either. Since the Heat are more or less tied down to Bosh and Wade because of their contracts, they have limited options in rebuilding around James. Of course, he leveraged Bosh and Wade into giving up their player options to make big piles of money in 2014 but we can assume that they are going to replace those options with long-term deals that will keep Miami's cap tied to Bosh and Wade.

Since James has become a de-facto GM (and perhaps the most powerful man in the NBA), he has three options for building a championship team around himself:

1) He can run it back with the Heat and new role players

Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, Udonis Haslem, Michael Beasley, Greg Oden, it's not inconceivable that the Heat could rebuild their bench with players that have something more in the tank than this crew.

Shawn Marion has been mentioned as a possible fit and he could allow Miami to continue their small ball strategies while protecting James from guarding players like David West and instead give that onerous assignment to Marion. They'd also re-elevate their defense to elite levels since Marion is a phenomenal defensive player. At least in the short term, this would be a very effective band-aid.

If the Heat found enough quality players on the discount rack they could even phase Dwyane Wade into a 6th man role in which he still plays 30 minutes a game but he comes off the bench and leads the 2nd unit while James is finally allowed to take breathers in playoff games and doesn't burn himself out and shorten his career.

The problem with this scenario is that the Heat are still married to their exhaustively aggressive defensive strategy if they want to field an elite defense unless they find a rim protector in the scrap heap of the NBA free agent pool. This isn't particularly likely. Rim protectors are precious commodities that are usually highly valued and there aren't a ton of them on the open market. Who could Miami bring aboard that would allow them to move Bosh to power forward and still have an elite defense?

They took a great risk in testing whether Oden could fill that role. He can't, time to move on to a new plan.

2) He can join an explosive offensive team like Golden State or the LA Clippers

Most scenarios in which this happens aren't very likely and will usually involve the Clippers giving away DeAndre Jordan or the Warriors either giving up Bogut or relying on his health. In either event, it's not likely that James would be playing on a great defensive team since Bogut's health is so unreliable and Blake Griffin is hardly a defensive leviathan. Additionally, I'd be curious to see how a team with Griffin, CP3, and James is able to play effectively half-court offense with only 1 ball on the floor.

In any event, James could form an elite offensive team in many different places around the country but they'd be in the same boat as the Miami Heat; forced either to adapt a frantic defensive pace to make up for the lack of a rim protector on the back end or just outscore people. That's not going to win championships, especially if he's in the West.

For the record, offensively I think the best next step for James is to play in a Triangle offense that will make his transition into a post player who dominates into his 30's a much more straightforward task. The Triangle offense accomplished this aim for both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant after they lost some of their explosiveness, it can do the same for James, perhaps even more so.

3) He can team up with a big man

While Chris Bosh has been the consummate teammate in Miami, adapting his game to fly around the perimeter on defense and give up the post-scoring that made him famous in exchange for 18 footers and corner-3's, he was always one of the iffy parts of the Big 3 formula. Signing Bosh to the max along with two other pricey players made it next to impossible for Miami to support the big 3 with a rim protector as it's simply too costly.

The other iffy part was where Wade was included for huge money despite being an injury-prone perimeter player who overly relies on his athleticism and was approaching the make or break age of 32 in a hurry. We saw how that worked out. It was great for the first four years, now it's falling apart.

LeBron James can't maintain the heavy minute toll of the regular season and playoffs forever, even though he's built like a tank. In addition to transitioning into playing more on the block on offense rather than relying on the dribble, James would greatly benefit from playing in a defensive system that shifted the main burden onto a rim protector on the back end.

The best long-term scenarios for James would be one where his defensive prowess is unleashed playing in front of a good, defensive big man while he's able to take breaks on offense while another player carries the load offensively.

Playing in Chicago with Rose and Noah, in Houston with Harden and Howard, or in Atlanta with Millsap and Horford would represent some of his best options for easing back his burden and creating the opportunity to play for championships throughout his career.

If the Knicks had a better big man than Samuel Dalembert then playing in New York under Phil Jackson's tutelage would be an intriguing option as well.

LeBron James is finally reaching the point in his career where he needs to make further adjustments to his teammates and his game in order to achieve longevity of excellence. He's clearly a very intelligent player as he's stayed in excellent position to do so by evolving his skill set and maintaining contract flexibility. The big question is whether he'll recognize how playing with a big man on defense is the only missing ingredient to filling the rest of his fingers with rings.

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