LeBron James is back in town Friday night, making his first visit to Boston since saying goodbye to the Big Three era in Miami.
After being dominated by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals, James opted to return home to Cleveland in free agency this summer to team up with a pair of younger and arguably more talented superstar teammates in Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Love was traded to the Cavs in August after James’ arrival, but there’s no doubt the wheels were put in motion for his acquisition right when James decided to re-join the Cavs.
Expectations were sky high for an updated edition of a LeBron-led Big Three entering this season, but his new team has stumbled out of the gate, managing just a 3-3 record over the first weeks of the season. Two of those setbacks came against the New York Knicks and Utah Jazz, a pair of teams that seem destined to miss the postseason this year.
Needless to say, the chemistry between the newly formed super team has been slow to develop.
“They are still trying to figure out their identity,” Jared Sullinger speculated Thursday at practice. “Still trying to figure out how to score.”
The early struggles the Cavs are experiencing signal that this Cavs team is already falling short of the standard for a Big Three franchise in the modern NBA: the 2007-08 Boston Celtics.
It’s easy to forget just how well that Celtics team came together right off the bat following the acquisitions of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007. Doc Rivers coached the group to a scorching hot 8-0 start that featured six wins of ten points or more in the month of November alone.
By Christmas time, the Celtics were 20-2 and barely slowed down over the final four months of the season, running away with the top seed in the Eastern Conference and a 66-16 record.
A closer inspection of their roster makes it easy to see why those Celtics meshed so well. To start, with the Big Three, you had a trio of players all over the age of 30 that had tried and failed to carry their teams to championships over the past several seasons. With time running short on the prime of their careers, Pierce, Allen, and Garnett proved willing to sacrifice individual numbers for the team’s benefit.
“They all gave up seven-plus shots each,” Doc Rivers said back in 2012 while reflecting on his three stars. “They gave up minutes. I asked them to play defense and move the ball, and they all did it, and they're willing to do it for the better of the team. So I think that's what we should focus on, how much they gave up to try to win. That's what I'll remember most about them."
Not only were those three Celtics willing to do anything to win, but Danny Ainge also surrounded that group with an ideal supporting cast to balance out the team on both ends of the floor.
Rajon Rondo was kept out of the Garnett trade package to Minnesota in order to ensure the team had a talented distributor. Kendrick Perkins anchored a formidable defensive backline with Garnett. James Posey served as a valuable stretch four and wing defender. Eddie House was one of the deadliest outside shooters in the league at that stage of his career. Leon Powe and Glen Davis provided Rivers with some young depth and scoring punch at power forward. Even the late-season signing of P.J. Brown paid major dividends during the postseason.
Every player on that roster seemed to have a well-defined role, and Rivers sold the group on the idea of “ubuntu” since day one of that championship season. Compare that assortment of talent to the current makeup of the 2014-15 Cavs roster, and it’s tough to find many positive similarities besides the formation of another “Big Three” in Cleveland.
Let’s start at the top of the roster. Love is a phenomenal offensive threat and rebounder, but his defense continues to be a major weakness in his game. Irving also isn’t a proven player on that end of the floor, and unlike the 2007-08 Celtics, the Cavs have had to rely heavily on their scoring in order to win early this season, allowing over 100 points in five of their first six games. It’s early, but a formula like that generally doesn’t lead to championships.
Other questions loom over this Cleveland roster as well. Love’s impending free agency next summer will continue to fuel whispers over his future with the Cavs all year long. Irving is still trying to prove himself as a young player in this league, as are talented teammates like Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson. That kind of situation can pose a challenge, as Doc Rivers spoke to back in 2011, when comparing his 2008 Celtics to the 2011 Miami Heat featuring LeBron, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade.
“We had guys who were veterans,” Rivers said of his 2008 team. “They already had their day, you know what I mean? So from a coaching standpoint, at least with that group, it was easy to get them to buy in, to let go of some shots, to forfeit some minutes, and defending, being a team defense. When you have younger guys that’s not as easy. They think it’s going to last forever and the urgency is not there. We had a group that had a sense of urgency about them.”
That’s not to say those Celtics didn’t run into a few obstacles themselves. The eventual champions failed to win a road game until Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons, as both the Atlanta Hawks and LeBron-led Cavs pushed them to Game 7s over the first two rounds of the postseason.
That team fought through those challenges to become just the third franchise in NBA history to win a championship, a year after missing the postseason.
As LeBron attempts to accomplish a similar feat during his homecoming to Cleveland this season, the challenge appears particularly daunting in an improved Eastern Conference.
So while Celtics fans watch LeBron’s struggles continue with his new supporting cast, it’s important to appreciate just what those 2008 Celtics achieved, creating a first year standard for a newly-formed team that may never be reached again.