LeBron James made his intentions clear Friday. He will return to the Cleveland Cavaliers with the hopes of winning the franchise’s first NBA title and the city’s first professional title, in any sport, in half a century.
But will -- or how quickly can -- James deliver?
With a rookie head coach and a talented but very young roster, it’s fair to say James faces a steep, uphill battle to complete his mission.
Nevertheless, the Cavs were given the best odds to win next year’s NBA title at 4-1, with the defending champion San Antonio Spurs just behind at 5-1. Vegas is clearly banking on the idea that the four-time MVP who turned around the Cavs' losing culture in his first run with the team can do it again.
In the four subsequent years since James left, the Cavs have posted four straight losing seasons and haven’t made the playoffs. The downtrodden years have allowed Cleveland to secure three of the last four No. 1 picks (Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins), so the team has plenty of promising talent, but little-to-no playoff experience outside of James and veteran forward Anderson Varejao.
James will have to quickly devise a playoff crash course for a green roster with an average age of 23.5, alongside a coach who proved himself in Europe but has never set foot on an NBA court as a player or team leader.
The Cavs signed David Blatt, 55, to a three-year, $11 million contract last month, believing his nuanced offensive schemes could bolster Irving’s development as one of the best floor leaders in the league and improve an offense that ranked 22nd in the league last year with an average of 98.2 points per game.
Born in the United States and of Israeli descent, Blatt was a star at Princeton University before playing professionally for 12 years in Israel. Blatt quickly made the transition to coaching and over the last 20 years made his name by winning league championships in Israel, Russia, Italy and Spain before earning the Euroleague title and Coach of the Year honors with Maccabi Tel Aviv this year.
All those years of experience have afforded Blatt the confidence to believe his transition to the NBA will go smoothly, especially with James by his side.
"Obviously, I'm going to work with a great, great player," Blatt said Friday after a Cavs summer league game in Vegas, "and one of the great players of all time. But he's a basketball player and I'm a basketball coach and we're going to work together beautifully.”
James has also worked with inexperienced coaches before. Mike Brown was an assistant in the NBA for eight years before he took over in Cleveland in 2005 and he and James went to the playoffs every year and were never eliminated before the Eastern Conference semifinals.
In Miami, Erik Spoelstra was already at the helm for two seasons, but the Heat couldn’t make it past the first round. When James arrived Spoelstra’s job became much easier and the Heat made four straight Finals appearances.
Blatt's and James’s jobs will also be much easier in the much weaker Eastern Conference. In three of the last four years a team with a sub-.500 record has held down the final playoff spot in the conference. If the league eliminated the conferences and went by league-wide best records then only two teams from the East would have made the postseason, the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers.
The East won’t exactly be pushovers for James and Cavs, though. Toronto emerged as one of the best defensive clubs in the league last year, Washington’s backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal could pose a problem and Indiana still has the star tandem of forward Paul George and center Roy Hibbert to fret over.
Still, James’s return immediately places the Cavs on the short list of title contenders. James lifted so-so rosters in Cleveland during his first seven years as far as the finals, but this go around he has a much more talented roster to work with and a coach that’s not afraid to take chances or experiment on offense.
Cleveland should plan on contending for at least the next half decade, and could fit a championship parade in there somewhere.