It’s the worst kept secret in the NBA that one of the main reasons LeBron returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers was a promise that he would have a large role in personnel decisions. On top of that, LeBron would be able to install his friends and business associates in high places in the organization, all but ensuring that he would be involved in discussions that Heat president Patrick Riley had very much left him out of (think of it less as a free agent signing and more of a corporate takeover.) With the Cavaliers about to face off against the Atlanta Hawks in the conference finals, now is a good time to evaluate how LeBron has fared as a general manager. Tomorrow, we’ll look at LeBron the coach, and on Thursday, LeBron the star player.
LeBron’s time as general manager began immediately after he re-signed with the Cavaliers in July. By leveraging his own gravitational pull against Minnesota’s need to unload their unhappy star, Kevin Love, LeBron was able to trade for the outstanding power forward, unloading #1 draft picks Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett in the process. Wiggins was the draw for Minnesota, as Bennett had already proven how terrible a misfire it was by GM-in-name-only David Griffin to draft him ahead of Victor Oladipo in 2013. Wiggins went on to win Rookie of The Year, while Bennett continued to flounder. So was trading for Love worth losing out on a future star? In short, an emphatic yes.
The mystery of Kevin Love has yet to be solved. For the entire season, Love failed to find a place alongside a intermittently dominant LeBron and a better-than-expected Kyrie Irving. He had become the Bosh to Irving’s Wade and LeBron’sLeBron, but was less of a clutch performer and contributor than Bosh. His stats fell in every category and at the end of the season he was sitting out the fourth quarter. By April, there was some serious talk about Love leaving before next season. But even a mediocre Kevin Love was still an important part of a 53-win team, and that became abundantly clear even before his arm was ripped apart in the first round of the playoffs. While Love might not have been the star he was in Minnesota, he was still an important part of the team itself, which is really what a general manager must create — a cohesive team that is better than the sum of its parts. Wiggins might be a future superstar, but it’s unlikely he would have made the Cavs better this year (things were a little crowded at shooting guard anyway). The team LeBron made over the summer was meant to win now (even if he said otherwise), and that’s why the Love trade does and still makes total sense.
As we've established, heading into the season, the Cavaliers had a roster more than capable of winning the NBA championship. But fate intervened and LeBron had to make a series of deals that at the time looked panicky, but now show tremendous vision. After the Cavs lost Anderson Varejao to a torn Achilles in late December, the team became mired in the doldrums of underachievement. Kevin Love still hadn’t found a role on the team, LeBron looked tired after almost a decade of 100-game seasons, and the bench was incredibly thin. LeBron took two weeks off at the beginning of the year to let his body recuperate, and used that time to focus on his role as general manager. LeBron boldly shipped off an unhappy Dion Waters (a young player on a good contract) and in return received Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from the Knicks (a young player on an expiring contract and an erratic player on a bad contract). LeBron followed that up by trading two first round picks to the Nuggets for Timofey Mozgov, who has filled in brilliantly for the injured Varejao. At the time, the two trades might have reeked of desperation. Now, they seem exceptional. The picks LeBron traded really mean nothing, mostly because the Cavs’ picks will not be very good this year, and, again, this team is meant to win right now. Iman Shumpert has blossomed into a very good player away from the dream-killing lights of Madison Square Garden, while J.R. Smith has proven a valuable contributor who seems incredibly motivated to win a championship. Smith, who many would deem too risky an acquisition for a squad looking to win games, does seem to play well when he’s in a setting where a championship is actually the goal, and not just playing out the line (he'd rather party if that's the case).
When LeBron returned to the floor on January 13th, he was playing with a newly stocked team and a rejuvenated body. Since that game, the Cavs have gone 42-12 (including the playoffs) — an awe-inspiring mark to say the least. Not only that, but the Cavs have had to deal with a rash of injuries during that time. They lost Love in the first round of the playoffs, and Kyrie Irving has been battling through a strained right foot and left knee troubles (mostly due to his overuse during the season… more on that in our coaching assessment). Still, LeBron has put together a roster deep enough to outlast the best team in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls, and are now facing a Hawks team they should easily handle.
LeBron the GM has put the Cavaliers on the verge of the NBA Finals. Whether they win or not will be a complete toss-up. As the Finals have demonstrated the past few years, the best team doesn’t always end up winning. It’s more of a roll of the dice against two evenly-matched opponents. Either way, LeBron the GM has put the Cavs in a position to win a championship, and that’s all a general manager can do.
Final Grade as General Manager: A-
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