Jul 12, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
When he left, the Cavaliers were “LeBron and the LeBronettes” — it looked like a one man show. LeBron James was the best player in the game but he seemed to have plateaued, and the team around him was degenerating.
The LeBron James that returns to Cleveland is fully realized — the physical gifts were always there but his game is more efficient and mature. LeBron can beat you just about any way he chooses but now is smart enough to recognize the best way to do it.
It’s a LeBron who is personally more mature — you could see it in how he handled the announcement compared to four years ago.
It’s a LeBron who understands what it takes to climb to the mountaintop and can lead by example in a way he could not before — and in the interim the Cavaliers put together a talented and moldable roster that he can lead.
One can see the challenge but one can also see the fit.
Offensively, LeBron has always had a versatile game — he can play any position 1-4, he can post his defender up or take him out to the three point line and knock down shots over him, not to mention put the ball on the floor and blow by him. He’s a lightning quick point guard in a Karl Malone body. The tools have always been impressive. What is more impressive is how he has learned to use them.
LeBron has chosen efficiency. His final season in Cleveland LeBron took 32.2 percent of his shots from the long-midrange (10 feet out to the three point line) — the least efficient shot on the court. Last season in Miami that was down to 25.2 percent of his shots. In their place he got to the rim more often (39.9 percent of his shots last season were inside three feet) and he’s taking (and hitting) more threes.
That’s part of the reason he had a career best true shooting percentage of .649 last season, up from a still very good .604 his final season in Cleveland.
But the numbers only tell part of the story.
What has really changed is the mindset and maturity of LeBron’s game — he understands how to win now. He has Pat Riley, Dwyane Wade and Eric Spoelstra to thank for some of that, but he also has the Dallas Mavericks as well. Despite the myths his critics like to tell themselves, winning didn’t come easy to the Heat. After losing in the 2011 Finals they had to have an honest discussion of who they were as a team and what sacrifices as players they were willing to make.
LeBron did his soul searching. He called guys who understood losing on the big stage and how to learn from it, including the legendary Jerry West. He absorbed.
Dwyane Wade told LeBron to take over, make it his team, it was time. LeBron did and the Heat won back-to-back tittles.
Things changed a little this season in Miami as the team aged and the burden of carrying them fell heavily on LeBron. He struggled with consistency of effort, particularly on the defensive end last season. Mind you when he is focused he is as good a defender as there is in the league, but under all the weight he carried for the team last year that effort wasn’t there. He settled for more jumpers (especially against the tight rotations of the Spurs in the Finals). Miami fell short.
LeBron did some soul searching again and came to the conclusion he wanted to go home to Northeast Ohio.
This LeBron can carry a team further than the one that left, and at moments he will have to do that with a young squad that doesn’t know winning, let alone winning a title.
But this LeBron knows how to lift a team up with him, how to lead and teach, how to help others grow. That is what he brings back from Miami that he left without. He brings back a fully realized, mature game because he is a more mature person that needed to go away to learn those lessons.
Cleveland is about to benefit from all of it.
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