The Bigger Three: Did LeBron James Make the Right Choice by Leaving Miami?
There is no doubt in my mind that Heat fans around the world are still annoyed about LeBron James’ departure last year. It ended a four-year dynasty in which the Heat made four straight finals appearances, and ultimately raised two championship banners in the American Airlines Arena. In terms of professional sports, two championships in two consecutive years and four straight finals appearances would be considered an enormous success. Unfortunately, this is not what the Heat expected when they signed “The King” back in 2010. Remember what happened after the Big Three signed in Miami and the team and city held that huge celebration? James confidently proclaimed that the Heat would win “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships, and I completely understand that it’s impossible to win over seven championships in four seasons, but who knows what could’ve been in Miami had LeBron chosen to stay.
People are going to be asking themselves for at least the next decade whether or not James made the right decision to leave Miami. To be honest, unless Cleveland wins four championships over the next eight years or something along those lines, I don’t think there will ever be a way to tell. Miami made four straight finals appearances, but who says it couldn’t have been eight if LeBron James stayed. Obviously both Wade and Bosh are out of their primes, but who says they couldn’t have stayed productive well into their late 30’s. Both tend to rely on their advanced skill set rather than pure athleticism, which undoubtedly declines with age.
There is no denying that James’ new Big Three partners are much younger than his previous teammates. Wade is about to turn 34, while Bosh is going to be 32 before the end of the season. On the other hand, Kevin Love is just entering his prime at 27 and Kyrie Irving is only 23.
Who Has the Better Big Three?
To start, we must look at the records. Clearly, Miami’s Big Three played together much longer than Cleveland’s, but records still indicate success. Miami went 224-88, which is a 0.718 winning percentage during the four seasons James was present. This doesn’t even include the playoffs, where Miami went 59-28. They also only lost two total playoff series, both being in the Finals against two Texas powerhouses, San Antonio and Dallas. Cleveland’s playoff record during their Big Three Era should not be held against James, Irving, and Love, because Love got hurt in the first round and missed the rest of the playoffs and Irving got hurt in the Finals and didn’t get to make even the slightest impact against the Warriors. Even though the sample size is small for Cleveland, Miami definitely takes this category.
The next thing we must focus on is the efficiency of each Big Three member while playing with LeBron James. Looking at this from a statistical standpoint, both Wade/Irving and Bosh/Love have put up extremely similar numbers. There are obviously parts of each player’s game in which they perform better than the other, but it’s very tough to argue who’s better strictly based off individual stats.
Because of this statistical dilemma, I focused on a more advanced statistic known as PER. PER stands for Player Efficiency Rating. According to ESPN, Player Efficiency Rating is the overall rating of a player’s per-minute statistical production. When I was originally looking at the PER of each player since 2010, I was shocked to see that Wade’s production barely took a hit after James came to town. There is no denying that his stats decreased steadily during the 4-year span James called Miami home, but his per-minute production stayed right where it was. In the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons, Wade had the third highest PER in the league. This is absurd, considering The King held the top spot each of these seasons. On the other hand, Irving has never cracked the top 20 while being teammates with James. Bosh and Love continue to post just about the same exact PER, so it’s tough to compare the two.
When focusing on the combined PER of the Big Three during each season, there’s no doubt Miami takes the cake. Starting from the 2010-2011 season, Miami’s Big Three posted a PER of 72.43, 76.11, 75.79, and 70.57, respectively. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s Big Three posted a PER of 66.47 last season, and own a PER of 67.40 so far this season. Obviously Irving has had a tough time staying healthy over the course of his career, but PER doesn’t take injuries into account since it’s solely based on per-minute production. I’m not saying that Cleveland’s Big Three won’t ever be more efficient, I’m just saying that as of now Miami clearly had better production out of their stars.
What I haven’t discussed yet is how LeBron James’ production factors into all of this. James is like a machine; you never have to question his production because he always completes the task as efficiently and effectively as possible. When you check the box score and see that he put up 30 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists, you don’t even think twice because at this point it’s so natural. Shockingly, James’ production has started to slowly decline. When he was on the Heat, he averaged 26.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game. He also shot 54.3% from the field and 36.9% from the three-point line. Since he has rejoined the Cavaliers, he is averaging 25.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 6.9 apg, while also shooting 49.2% from the field and 33.2% from the three. As you can see, every category besides assists has dropped since leaving the Heat.
His PER has dropped slightly as well. In his first three seasons with the Heat, he led the league in PER and cracked 30.0 in two of these. The only time James didn’t lead the league was in 2013-2014, which was also his last season in Miami. He finished second that year, only slightly behind MVP Kevin Durant. Last season on the Cavs, he finished 8th in the league, and this year he is currently in 4th. Even though he is still the face of the NBA, and one of the most dominant athletes of all-time, it is evident that he isn’t the most productively efficient player in the league anymore.
Maybe Bosh and Wade just made James better than Kyrie and Love do, or maybe father time is catching up to The King. Maybe Cleveland has a better supporting cast than Miami ever had, or maybe LeBron James’ decline in production is impacting how Love and Irving play. Honestly, who really knows? All I know is which Big Three has been better to date, and that would be the group assembled in South Beach.
It’s clear that Miami’s Big Three holds the edge over Cleveland’s, for now. Personally, I believe that James, Irving, and Love have the ability to form one of the most potent Big Three’s of all-time, and yes I do mean all-time. Obviously it’s going to take years to reach this potential, but the good thing for the Cavs is that they have all the time they need. Love recently agreed to a 5-year contract extension, and I don’t think James or Irving are going anywhere anytime soon. There is no denying that Cleveland has much more potential over the next decade because of their youth. Unfortunately for the Heat, a legitimate decade-long dynasty could have been build had LeBron James chose to stay. Even when James’ career is over, people will still wonder whether or not he made the right choice. At this point, no one knows.