When LeBron James decided to take his talents back to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the franchise received more than the best player on the planet. It also picked up a master mentor to help form its inexperienced but talented roster into a formidable force.
James, with the help of Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, penned an essay to explain his decision. When a four-time MVP—with greatest-of-all-time aspirations and the resume to get him into the discussion—is on the move, the basketball world needs more than a transaction log to process the news.
An Ohio native who spent his first seven NBA seasons in Cleveland, James said he was ready to come home. That news was more than enough to invigorate a fanbase that had to sit through a four-year playoff drought following his infamous exit in 2010.
Yet there was more in the essay than just a desire to return.
James touched on another topic that should be equally exciting for Cavaliers fans—his eagerness to play a role in the development of Cleveland's core:
I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters.
The roster looks nothing like the one he left behind four years ago. Center Anderson Varejao, whom James called "one of my favorite teammates," is the only remaining piece of the team that won 61 games before bowing out in the Eastern Conference semis during the 2009-10 season.
Over the past four summers, the Cavs have struck draft-lottery gold three different times. They've invested No. 1 picks in point guard Kyrie Irving (already a two-time All-Star), forward Anthony Bennett and swingman Andrew Wiggins. Guard Dion Waiters and forward Tristan Thompson were both snatched up at the No. 4 spot.
Even before the return of their Prodigal Son, the Cavaliers had been improving their talent base.
There's plenty of work still to be done—Cleveland won 33 games last season and held bottom-half rankings in both offensive (23rd) and defensive (17th) efficiency, via NBA.com—but James recognizes that fact.
"We're not ready right now. No way," he wrote. "Of course, I want to win next year, but I'm realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010."
Vegas oddsmakers apparently disagree with James' assessment, but he's right. This is going to take some time.
Of course, no one's better suited to lead this journey than James. From a basketball standpoint, he's the best the NBA has to offer when it comes to elevating the players around him.
"LeBron’s like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady," Grantland's Andrew Sharp wrote. "He makes good players look great, he makes decent players look good, and everything gets easier for the players around him."
Irving is an incendiary offensive weapon, but the overwhelming defensive attention he's received has sapped his efficiency. He converted 46.9 percent of his field goals and 39.9 percent of his triples as a rookie. Last season, those numbers dipped to 43.0 and 35.8, respectively.
Now, he'll be the second name mentioned on an opponent's scouting report. He should find more real estate than he's ever had before. Even when James works off the ball, he won't slip off a defense's radar.
This will trickle down to the rest of the team. As each player moves a peg down the offensive pecking order, he should find cleaner looks and better scoring chances.
Like the entire story of James' return, though, this is bigger than basketball.
The man coming back to Cleveland has changed since the last time he called it home. He's gone through life experiences, all of which he can pass on to his new teammates.
Take Wiggins, for example.
The 19-year-old from Ontario, Canada, has been touted as the best prospect since LeBron. Wiggins has had cameras tracking his every move, from the jaw-dropping mixtapes released during his high school days to his own version of The Decision, when he chose Lawrence, Kansas, as his collegiate home.
Few people can relate to Wiggins' experience. James' actually trumps it.
Since then, he's been scrutinized, criticized and deified. He's shouldered impossible-to-reach expectations and reached them—maybe even surpassed them.
Any pressure that Wiggins feels now, James has felt before. He can show Wiggins not only how to manage it, but to thrive underneath it.
"It's a great feeling, knowing that the best player in the game today is coming to your team," Wiggins told reporters after his Summer League debut Friday in Las Vegas. "It's going to be a great learning experience for everyone."
There's so much the new phenom can take from the old one, assuming the former isn't moved for a win-now piece to assist the latter:
The aftereffects of James' shock wave could see the franchise move in a few different directions.
Regardless which direction that is, it will be one that involves both James and Irving.
Despite having booked those All-Star trips before, Irving has plenty to pick up from James.
Both entered the league with holes in their games. For Irving, it was defense. For James, it was a jump shot.
Prior to the start of the 2010-11 campaign, James had converted only 32.9 percent of his threes for his career. In the three years since, he's buried 38.5 percent of his long-range attempts.
He has constantly added new elements to his game: a lethal array of low-post moves, an understanding of when and where to pick his spots. He has ended the past several seasons as the league's best player and still used every summer to make himself better than before.
That's the challenge for Irving moving forward.
His talent is undeniable, but has he grown since entering the league? His player efficiency rating says no, as it's fallen from 21.4 to 20.1, via Basketball-Reference.com. And remember, that figure draws heavily from a player's offensive production.
The game will get easier just by having James around, but he can help the young Cavs learn how to better themselves.
There are on-court directions to give (fine-tuning Thompson's post game, directing Waiters' attacks of the basket, finding Bennett's comfort zone) and ones he'll offer away from the floor (Wiggins succeeding under the spotlight, Irving understanding how to lead a franchise). For new Cavs coach David Blatt, he could not have found a better asset to help with his NBA transition.
The lesson plan is long, but James is the ideal person to teach it. With his skill, smarts and savvy, he can lead this roster to places it never thought it could go.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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