I’m no mind-reader, and I won’t pretend to be one. But in my opinion, the biggest factor in LeBron’s 2010 decision will be deciding which franchise will give him the best chance to win as many championships as possible over the course of the next three to five years.
The Cavs currently have a much better team than any of LeBron’s potential suitors in the summer of 2010. However, what the Cavaliers lack is a true superstar or potential superstar under the age of 30 who could be LeBron’s running mate for the next few seasons. The lowly Nets have a potential star in second-year center Brook Lopez, as well as the chance of snagging John Wall or Evan Turner in the upcoming draft. The Knicks could potentially pair LeBron with a player like Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, or another of the marquee 2010 free agents. Even the dark-horse Clippers have quietly assembled a core of Chris Kaman, Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin, and a top-10 pick in the upcoming draft. The last few championships have been won by dynamic duos or trios; see Bryant and Gasol, Boston’s big three, Duncan/Parker/Ginobili in San Antonio, Wade and Shaq and Bryant and O’Neal at the beginning of the decade.
The Cavs don’t have any players other than LeBron who could be considered a true superstar. What Danny Ferry has assembled is a team of excellent role players and second-tier stars who play with LeBron extremely well. As the last two regular seasons have shown, LeBron doesn’t need another superstar to dominate the league over the course of 82 games.
As it stands right now, the Cavs’ “core” — players under 30 who play major roles on the team — consists of Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao, Delonte West, and JJ Hickson. All of them are good, all of them play well next to LeBron, and with the exception of West, all of them have long-term deals with the Cavaliers.
However, questions surround all of those players. One of the most painful things about the Cavs’ loss to the Orlando Magic in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals was that Williams and Varejao, their two best young players, both failed to come up big when it mattered most. Williams is a dead-eye shooter who is great at making the open shots LeBron creates and creating opportunities for LeBron in turn, but he was completely ineffective for long stretches against the Magic. He wasn’t hitting his shots, and he struggled to get where he wanted off the dribble. On paper, Williams is the perfect player to put next to LeBron on offense, but he has to make shots in big games.
Varejao’s struggles were more subtle than Williams’, but may have done even more damage to the Cavs’ championship hopes. Varejao was the backbone of the Cavalier defense all season, but against the Magic, he was regularly abused by Dwight Howard down low and struggled to keep Rashard Lewis from hitting shot after shot from the outside. One of Varejao’s biggest defensive mistakes came at the worst possible time, when he bit on a Lewis jab-step to free him up for a go-ahead three with seconds to go in Game 1.
The additions of veterans Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison will help Varejao out, but LeBron will likely be paying close attention to how Varejao fares in the postseason this year, considering the Cavs have him locked up through the 2014/15 season. Varejao has been the Cavs’ most consistent supporting player all season; like Williams, he must now get it done when it matters most.
Delonte West was a revelation at the 2-guard position last year, and his versatility and ability to play both guard spots make him a role player the Cavs will want to have around for a long time. West is a hard-nosed player with nothing resembling quit in him, and was a consistent contributor in each of the Cavs’ last two playoff runs.
Unfortunately, West had some serious off-court issues in the offseason and lost his starting spot to Anthony Parker, and has never found the consistency he had last season. Also, he still has a trial date at some point in the future. Another strong effort in the playoffs could make West an untouchable in the eyes of the Cavs and the clear long-term solution at the two. If he’s as inconsistent in the postseason as he was in the regular season, he could be seen as nothing more than an above-average rotation player.
JJ Hickson may be the most talented and least proven of the Cavs’ young players. The 21-year old Hickson has had a breakout sophomore campaign, and is likely be the most athletic frontcourt player LeBron has ever played with. He’s had big games against top competition, he finishes with authority, and he can be an absolute force running the floor, cutting without the ball, and working the pick-and-roll with LeBron. However, he’s never been in a postseason rotation, and he’s had some terrible stretches this year. His hands and defense are still question marks, as is his overall package of skills at the offensive end.
The Cavs think so highly of Hickson’s potential that they had no interest in giving him up in a potential Antawn Jamison trade. If Hickson can show why in the playoffs, he could become a very compelling reason for LeBron to stick around.
If those four players play like they’re capable of playing in the playoffs this season, LeBron could be compelled to stay with the Cavs because of the young core they have been able to assemble around him. If they disappoint and the Cavs lose while being forced to rely on veterans like Shaq, Anthony Parker, Antawn Jamison, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, LeBron may come to believe that the Cavaliers are a team who failed to get it done twice and are going in the wrong direction. If the worst were to happen, LeBron may be willing to leave and take a chance on the more unproven secondary players that New Jersey, New York, or even the Clippers could place alongside of him.