Since his time in Miami, LeBron James has been a power forward with training wheels. Yes, he often payed that position on offense, but teams would pair him with someone who could help ease his path (Shane Battier in Miami, Richard Jefferson for the Cavs’ Title team, and Jae Crowder this season). With Jefferson and Crowder gone, Kevin Love hurt, and Jeff Green as the only hybrid-type forward left on the team, it might be time for LeBron James to ride this role without a steadying hand to help.
James’ transition to power forward is not a new concept. It has been assumed for years that he would eventually slide into the four spot and become the most dominant power forward since Karl Malone. His unique mix of size and speed makes him a match-up nightmare for opposing big men. His ability to run an offense in a hybrid point-forward role creates chaos for defenses. He can shoot from the outside, forcing defenses to guard him all the way out to the three-point line. He is dominant in the post, forcing teams to match size-for-size. He has the speed to blow by guys and get to the rim at ease. He has elite passing skills making double-teams feel like a double-edges sword. He’s really good. I’m not breaking new ground here.
The idea of pairing him with a stretchy forward who can hit shots and defend opposing big men makes sense. LeBron carries a massive burden on offense and you want to save him from banging with big men on the other end. It also lets James play a big of free safety and try to create turnovers rather than be responsible for guarding the paint. But as the NBA downshifts into smaller and smaller lineups, the burden associated with playing power forward is less and less. He would no longer be asked to bang with guys like David West and Zach Randolph, and instead be placed on guys like Jayson Tatum and Paul George.
To the point above, LeBron’s ability to play point-forward also creates mismatches. When playing guys like Jefferson and Crowder, it is a bit easier to hide defenders and find more favorable ways to match-up against the Cavs. With the new roster additions, the Cavs can put sharpshooters like George Hill, JR Smith, Kyle Korver, and Rodney Hood around LeBron, and a pick and roll partner like Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. With LeBron running the offense and the other big man setting screens, a defense has to decide to collapse on the paint to stop the drive/roll or stay with a deadly shooter waiting for the best passer in NBA history to hit them for an open three.
It’s an impossible choice. And one we all watched play out in Boston on Sunday.
With the trades the Cavaliers made, their best lineups will feature multiple wing players. We focus a lot on who will start between Smith and Hood, but the reality is that we should see a lot of time with two of them on the floor. With LeBron at power forward, Hood, Smith, Korver, and Jordan Clarkson can all play together around him. We might even get minutes where George Hill sits and we see three of them (including fan-favorite Cedi Osman, who has shot well in limited action).
To this point, James has spent only 75 minutes this season without a power forward partner like Jae Crowder, Kevin Love, or Jeff Green. On Sunday against Boston, it was 28 minutes. It appears head coach Ty Lue is going to ride LeBron as the power forward at least until Kevin Love returns, and this could have devastating impact for opposing defenses.