Is LeBron James making the right move by returning to Cleveland?

The city of Cleveland -- and NBA fans across the country -- are abuzz over the announcement that the city's prodigal son, basketball star LeBron James, is returning to the Cavaliers. (Gillian Brockell, Jhaan Elker and Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)

Our long, national nightmare is over: The Cleveland Cavaliers have landed the biggest prize of the NBA free agent class in LeBron James.

But is Cleveland’s upside and youth better than what James left behind in Miami, where the Big Three could have continued playing together had James returned? Let’s take a look.

Offensively, the Heat was the superior team. With James on the court last season, Miami generated 113.7 points per 100 possessions but just 104.7 when he was on the bench. However, that’s only slightly better than the Cavs, who managed 104.2 points per 100 possessions in 2013-14.

The Cavs’ biggest strength, point guard Kyrie Irving, is also the Heat’s biggest weakness. Miami’s point guards collectively generated a Player Efficiency Rating of 12.5, averaging 14.9 points and 7.1 assists per game. Cleveland’s point guards, on the other hand, had a PER of 18.6 with 25.8 points and 8.4 assist per game last season.

The knock on Irving is he shot just 35.6 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers last season, but 40.6 percent when he had the ball in his hands. However, he has the three-point range that can help open the floor for James, particularly off the pick-and-roll (35-for-81 last season, per Synergy Sports).


2013-14 shot chart for Kyrie Irving

The rest of the Cavaliers’ lineup presents some question marks, namely who is going to score in the paint? Tristan Thompson led the team with 7.7 points per game in the paint, 24th among forwards last season, while big men Anderson Varejao (4.7), Tyler Zeller (3.4) and Anthony Bennett (1.7) were mostly no-shows. James averaged 13.6 per game for the Heat, but Dwyane Wade (10.4) and Chris Bosh (6.3) also had a presence down low.

Defensively, having James on the court resulted in the opposition scoring two more points per 100 possessions (106.6) than when he was off (104.5), and it is clear by his adjusted defensive impact graph (below) he is not as much help on the perimeter as he used to be. Warm colors (red and orange) indicate that offensive players shoot better when a player is on the court. Blue colors indicate the opposite and, as you can see, there many spots on the floor where the opposition had the advantage with James on the court, especially from beyond the arc.


Source: austinclemens.com

However, looking at the Four Factors on defense, there isn’t much separating Miami from Cleveland.

In fact, according to Synergy Sports, the clubs were about equal in defending the pick-and-roll, players posting up and teams in transition. The biggest differences lie in the Cavs’ ability to defend against offensive rebounds, players cutting to the basket and shots off the screen, but those accounted for less than one-fifth of all opposing plays.

That’s why it’s not so much as LeBron James leaving as it is where he is going. Per Nate Silver of 538:

A team that played James 35 minutes a game and filled out the rest of the roster with replacement-level players would have a projected record of 33-49. And a team that had James plus 11 league-average players would have a record of 56-26.

Silver would go on to project the Cavs as a 52-win team with James, slightly higher than if the Big Three returned to Miami (51.6 wins on average).

All things considered, a 2013-14 Heat squad without James performed almost as well as the 2013-14 Cavs, and now that King James has returned home, you can expect Cleveland to pick up right where Miami left off.

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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Neil Greenberg · July 11