Last summer, Golden State hit Andre Iguodala for what looked like a wide-open, uncontested layup. LeBron James, however, had other ideas as he chased down the action. The King pinned Iguodala’s layup attempt against the glass for the signature moment of his career. After The Block, the ball swung over to Kyrie Irving, who stepped back behind the arc to knock down The Shot and break the 89-89 fourth quarter stalemate. King James made good on his promise and delivered a title to the city of Cleveland after 52 long years.
This past offseason, James admitted that he’s chasing the ghost of Michael Jordan. At these levels of greatness, only championship rings matter. Still, many iconic images feature Jordan leaning on right-hand man Scottie Pippen during the flu game. He used to drive the lane and kick the ball back out to John Paxson or bark orders to Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr to step up.
These two generational talents, in their own ways, went well beyond the “makes his teammates better” cliche. The five following teammates are the best to ever play with The King; they all believed, fed off, and bought into LeBron’s mantra of making the right play through every possession.
5. Kevin Love
Two summers ago, the writing was on the wall; James declared that he was coming home, but refused to even acknowledge No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins in his magnum opus. A few weeks later, the Cavaliers packaged Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, and Thaddeus Young together in exchange for Kevin Love.
Chris Bosh immediately reached out to Love and suggested that subjugating his own game to play third wheel would be more than meets the eye. Love was good for 26 points, 13 boards, and four assists a night in Minnesota. One year after the trade, however, K. Love’s per game production collapsed to 16 points and 10 rebounds.
At times, Love appeared lost, before receiving orders to stand in the corner. The low point came when a passive aggressive James took to Twitter to rip Love to fit in. That postseason, Love suffered from a torn labrum while grappling with Kelly Olynyk beneath the basket. He was done for the rest of the playoffs.
The Cavs advanced to the 2015 Finals. Skeptics openly wondering whether Love and his $22 million base salary were even necessary. Still, Irving suggested that a healthy Cleveland roster could take the GSW. With time, Love has grown increasingly comfortable wearing a Cavaliers uniform. To accommodate Love, Coach Lue will call plays designed to feed the ball to the big man early and often on the low block.
Last summer, K. Love switched out to Stephen Curry late in Game 7 and shuffled his feet. He contested the resulting three-point attempt that clanged off the back iron. Moments later, after The Stop, James jumped into Love’s arms to celebrate shocking the world and winning the 2016 finals.
4. Ray Allen
In 2007, Danny Ainge acquired veterans Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, pairing them with Paul Pierce. In one year, the Celtics went from 24-58 and dead last in the Atlantic division to outlasting the Los Angeles Lakers in six games to take the 2008 NBA Finals. These Big Three Boston Celtics bullied a young James and owned him in the playoffs. In 2008, Jesus Shuttlesworth clamped down on James and limited him to 35% shooting. Thanks to him, the Celtics ground out an ugly seven-game series.
Two years later, Boston beat the Cavs in six games, prior to a Finals rematch against the Lakers. For Game 5, a disinterested James mailed it in, went three-for-14, and took a 32-point beat down at home. The following game, a frustrated LBJ ripped off his Cavs jersey in the Garden tunnel. The Boston Big Three laid the groundwork for The Decision. After taking his game to Miami as public enemy No. 1, James guaranteed “not three, not four, and not five” championships.
Like Michael Jordan and the Bad Boy Pistons before him, James apparently failed to make his teammates better. He continued to rack up meaningless regular-season statistics as a prima donna. LeBron, of course, got his revenge. He bounced the aging Celtics out of the playoffs two separate times through a run of four straight trips to the finals in Miami. In 2012, Allen signed with the Miami Heat enemy, after being run out of town by the cantankerous Rajon Rondo.
At 37, Allen was well-known for his OCD-like work ethic. He often challenged LeBron to get up extra shots and conditioning after already grueling practices. At one point, graybeard Allen showed the team a drill. He’d collapse in the paint, bounce back up, retreat to the corner behind the arc, set his feet, and rain down a three-point bomb. To Allen, this was standard procedure for scoring the ball off an offensive rebound down the stretch.
In Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, Bosh crashed the boards, got the possession, and kicked the ball to Allen with five seconds left on the clock. Allen drained the three to close out a furious rally against the Spurs and send the game into overtime. Allen and his corner three saved the season and set the table for James to claim his second championship ring. If not for Allen, only Jerry West would have been left to sympathize with James as a scoring machine who dragged nine separate Lakers teams to the Finals, only to win once.
3. Chris Bosh
Bosh will remain the maligned, underrated, and under-appreciated third wheel of the rock star era in Miami. For many, Bosh was merely a throw-in throughout the series of feverish transactions that brought James to play with Dwyane Wade in Miami as 1A and 1B alpha dogs. In Toronto, Bosh put up 20 points and nine rebounds per game through seven seasons in his own right. His solid, but unspectacular play would often get lost amidst Wade and James’ high-wire athleticism.
Almost by necessity, Bosh evolved into a stretch four in Miami. He just couldn’t remain stationed on the low block, muddying up the offense. Bosh would often set up at the elbow; he was all but automatic on mid-range jump shots off the pick-and-pop with James.
Over time, Bosh extended his range out beyond the arc and was a serviceable shooter from three. Bosh, most importantly, anchored the back line of the defense in Miami. As a versatile defender, Bosh could defend all three front court positions. He’d hedge out on picks in space and recover back into the paint to contest shots.
On most nights, Bosh was good for one steal and one block in Miami, which sparked a devastating transition attack between Wade and James. In the playoffs, however, Bosh’s output declined, as opposing teams packed the paint and slowed down the action. For Miami, Bosh put up 15 points and seven rebounds per game through four consecutive postseasons resulting in trips to the NBA finals.
Interestingly, Bosh’s most important play in a Heat uniform came on an offensive rebound. Down by three in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, a frantic James curled off a Bosh screen and clanged an attempt off the back of the rim. Next, an alert Bosh hauled in the long rebound and hit Allen behind the line to tie the game up and send it to overtime.
Bosh bailed out James, after San Antonio had already broken out the cases of champagne and championship hats. The long-running Spurs Dynasty, however, had to wait for another year.
2. Dwyane Wade
One of the all-time coups in the history of sports: Wade convincing his friend, peer, and confidante James to leave Cleveland and join forces with him in Miami. Beyond the buddy-buddy talks, the series of transactions resulting in The Decision further solidified Pat Riley’s reputation as a shrewd dealmaker. It also resulted in four trips to the NBA Finals. Riley, however, ultimately became a victim of his own success. Power had clearly begun shifting from the executive suite and into the locker room.
Players now control their own destinies. Admittedly, the Big Three era in Miami got off to a rocky start, as the new 2010 Super Team went 9-8 of the gate. At the time, James and Wade appeared to take turns running the offense and going one-on-one through chaotic half-court sets. This Miami club advanced to the NBA finals. But the far less talented Dirk Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks thoroughly outplayed them.
The Heat did not turn the corner until Flash swallowed his pride and deferred to King James in Miami-Dade, or Wade County. At their best, Wade and James would play lockdown defense on the perimeter for timely deflections, steals, and weak side blocks. From there, defense would quickly transition into offense, with these two running mates slashing to the basket for highlight reel dunks. The Heat won back-to-back titles, in 2012 and 2013, before D. Wade’s body began to break down.
For the 2013–14 regular season, a brittle Wade missed 29 starts, out with assorted injuries. Still, James and the Heat ground out a 54-28 record. They rolled through a weak East and advanced to their fourth straight NBA Finals. The Spurs, however, got their revenge and dominated the Heat four games to one, by siccing Kawhi Leonard out on LBJ and daring his supporting cast to make plays.
By then, Wade was a shell of his former self, and dropped in a mere 15PPG for the series. Several weeks later, it would be James who would send shockwaves through the sporting world, yet again, by announcing that he was returning back home to Cleveland. Two years later, in 2016, Wade also suited for his hometown Chicago Bulls, after an acrimonious split with Riley. All good things must come to an end.
1. Kyrie Irving
It is easy to forget that Irving is only 24 years old. In 2011, Cleveland took Irving with the first overall pick in the draft, after the young talent only played 11 games at Duke before busting up his toe. It feels like eons ago, when NBA scouts tore apart Irving for showing up to the combine severely overweight, despite the fact that his recent injury limited his ability to run and train. Irving, of course, immediately emerged as one of the more explosive point guards in professional basketball.
As a rookie, Kyrie dropped in 19 points and five assists per game, before taking on the name Uncle Drew. Uncle Drew came to be known for his slick ball handling, quick first step, and authoritative drives to the hoop. After putting his man on a string and forcing the defense to commit, Kyrie can pull the ball back, and drain a mid-range jump shot. Still, questions remained as the whether Kyrie was a real gamer or a score-first point guard who racked up points on bad teams.
For Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals, Irving outplayed league MVP Curry for 22 points, seven rebounds, and six assists, before he fractured his kneecap in the fourth quarter and missed the rest of the finals. The Cavaliers ultimately lost this series in six games, while a confident Irving proclaimed that his team would have won, if at full strength.
Kyrie got his wish the following summer, in 2016, when he torched the Golden State Warriors to average 27 points, four rebounds, four assists, and two steals through the seven-game series. Down three games to one, Irving and James went on the road to drop 41 points apiece and save the season through a 112-97 Game 5 blowout.
For Game 7, Kyrie wrote the book on clutch, in sizing up Curry, giving him a hard jab step, and stepping back behind the arc to break the 89-all score and take the title. Because of James and Irving, The Block and The Shot finally replaced the heartache of The Fumble and The Drive high atop Cleveland sports lore. Father Time is undefeated. Years from now, it will be a spry Irving filling up the stat sheet and carrying the team, while James picks his spots in the offense as a rugged veteran.