LeBron James and his difficult-to-assess super teams

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LeBron James’ infamous “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” decry is now used to mock LeBron’s arrogance.

In 2010, it was hardly viewed a joke.

It was seen as a warning.

When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces in South Beach, some people thought the trio had ruined the NBA. The Heat would win every championship without resistance, critics complained. The league was no longer fair, turned on its head by a kid from Akron who didn’t want to work for a title that other all-time greats rightfully earned.

You can at least see why the critics worried. Just a few years prior, the Celtics went 24-48, traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce and went 66-16 and won the championship. It seemed assembling a big three of stars could immediately vault a team to a title, and the Heat’s big three resembled Boston’s. It was just younger and better.

But it wasn’t easy for Miami, and anyone who thought it would be proved foolish. The Heat started 9-8 and lost in the NBA Finals that first year.

With LeBron, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving joining forces in Cleveland this year, expectations have been tempered. Sure, LeBron doesn’t have much credibility when he says the Bulls are better than the Cavaliers right now. But in his Sports Illustrated letter, he spoke about a lengthy process ahead, and that has been taken seriously.

In 2010, predictions for Miami’s win total typically landed in the high 60s, with guesses into the 70s not uncommon. This year, typical predictions for Cleveland’s win total land in the high 50s or low 60s.

Why is there such a difference? Are Love and Irving not as good as Wade and Bosh were? Perhaps, but I think another reason supersedes that.

The narrative has changed.

In 2010, it was all about LeBron creating a super team with Wade and Bosh. It was about their arrogance, their talent, their refusal to wait their turn.

This is different. It’s about LeBron going home.

But when assessing a team’s actual on-court production, the narrative matters very little. In either case, LeBron is playing with two star teammates and a solid supporting cast. How people perceive the situations doesn’t affect the reality of a team’s chances once the ball is tossed up.

Thankfully, there are ways to cut through the narratives.

One of the most pessimistic views on the Heat in 2010 came from Kevin Pelton’s SCHOENE system, a statistical projection that pegged the Heat for 58 wins. Their actual total? 58 wins.

This year, SCHOENE projects the Cavaliers will win 68 games. That would rank as tied for the fourth-best mark of all-time, behind only the 1995-97 Bulls(72-10), 1996-97 Bulls (69-13) and 1971-72 Lakers (69-13).

Of course, SCHOENE is far from infallible. But in this case – when stars from different teams align – it has worked pretty well, and I think there’s a reason eye tests got it wrong on the 2010 Heat. There just isn’t much precedent for assessing this situation.

If before each season we ranked teams based on the combined win shares of their three players who posted the most the previous year, nearly all the annual league leaders would include three players returning to the same team. A handful would have have one newcomer. And only two – LeBron’s 2010-11 Heat and 2014-15 Cavaliers – would have two newcomers. (None would feature three newcomers.)

Here are those teams, distinguishing between:

  • Returning players (gold)
  • Newcomers on a team with only one in the top three (navy)
  • Newcomers on a team with two in the top three (wine)

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If you’re wondering why the 2008 Celtics don’t appear, Pierce and Allen were coming off down seasons. That’s a key reason Boston didn’t set off a preseason panic akin to Miami in 2010.

But we saw how easy the Garnett-Pierce-Allen Celtics made it look, and then we overcorrected for the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Heat. Now, we’re overcorrecting again in the opposite direction for the Cavaliers.

There are just so few examples of teams suddenly adding two stars to form such an elite big three. Really, there are only two, and both involve LeBron coming on board.

You could argue the first didn’t immediately work, with Miami falling short of its championship expectation. But I’d say it worked exactly as well as the numbers suggested, with the Heat winning their predicted 58 games.

If the Cavaliers meet expectations – realistic expectations, not the watered-down projections overly influenced by the Heat’s failed title bid in 2011 – it will be a special season in Cleveland.