As brilliant as LeBron James is on the basketball court, he’s proving to be almost as talented a recruiter. The Cavaliers' trade for Kevin Love gives Cleveland a new “Big 3” that rivals what the Miami Heat put together back in 2010 with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Make no mistake about it, this was all James doing. Yes, he wanted to do right by his hometown fans in Akron and Northeast Ohio by returning for a second stint with the Cavs, but there were also definite basketball reasons for his decision. James saw the decline in Wade’s play over the last couple years because of an arthritic knee condition, and realized his title window on South Beach was starting to close. Getting blown out by the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals certainly played a part as well.
James saw new opportunity in Cleveland, with an All-Star point guard in Kyrie Irving and a pair of talented young players in Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. But he also knew Love was coming. Look back at his Sports Illustrated essay and you’ll notice he mentioned just about every player on the Cavs roster except for Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, the two players he knew would be going to Minnesota in the trade for Love.
Cleveland didn’t break any rules in the extended process of completing the deal for Love — at least none the league will be able to prove — and you could even make the argument the Timberwolves came out with a decent package for the three-time All-Star, considering Love had made it clear he would leave Minnesota as a free agent next July if he wasn’t traded. But the reality is, LeBron had a pretty good idea Love was coming before he announced his decision to return home. Would he have signed with Cleveland without knowing the trade for Love was in place? Hard to say for sure. And, it was almost laughable when Love said at his introductory news conference that he hadn’t discussed a contract extension. The new Cleveland "Big 3" is locked in for the long haul.
Star players joining forces has become the rage in today’s NBA. The Boston Celtics won a championship when Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett joined Paul Pierce back in 2007, and Miami won two titles with James, Wade and Bosh leading the way. The Los Angeles Lakers also won a pair of championships after trading for All-Star big man Pau Gasol to team up with Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum. San Antonio has its own "Big 3" with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but those players were all acquired through the draft. The Bulls tried to create their own "Big 3" in the failed attempt to sign free agent scoring machine Carmelo Anthony to join Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
Which leads me to wonder, can you imagine Michael Jordan begging Patrick Ewing or Charles Barkley to join him and Scottie Pippen with those championship Bulls teams? Jordan was the ultimate competitor and took great delight in vanquishing the league’s top players, some of whom were his friends during the offseason. The same goes for Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who eventually built a friendship off the court, but wanted to crush each other when their teams played for championships in the 80s.
The league is a lot different than it was in the 80s and 90s. Who can forget those physical Bulls-Pistons playoff battles with cheap-shot artists Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn, or Isiah Thomas slinking off the court after getting swept by the Bulls in 1991? How about Pat Riley going from Showtime in Los Angeles to Bully-Ball with his 90s Knicks that featured Ewing, Charles Oakley, and Xavier McDaniel? Kevin McHale knocking Kurt Rambis out of the air on a breakaway lay-up attempt in the Finals.
The point is, instead of classic battles between the league’s top players and teams, today’s NBA stars are looking for the easiest path to team success and personal glory. When history looks back at James he’ll undoubtedly be viewed as one of the top 5 players the NBA has ever seen, but don’t forget, his record in the Finals right now is 2-3, while Jordan went a perfect 6-0, with six Finals MVP awards.
Getting ring chasers Love, Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, James Jones and most likely Allen to jump on board will help LeBron in his quest to add to his championship total, but is it really good for the competitive balance of the league?
That’s a question Commissioner Adam Silver and the league’s owners will have to consider as they plan for the future of the NBA.