From the second Joe Johnson reached his buyout agreement with the Brooklyn Nets last month, LeBron James made it very clear that he wanted the seven-time All-Star to join up with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Evidently, James wanted Johnson on-board badly enough that he would've been willing to do something he's largely resisted for the last few years: make a full-time move from small forward to power forward.
According to Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, James "made it known to Cavaliers' management and Johnson that he would slide to power forward on a permanent basis to open up a starting spot" at small forward for Johnson, with whom James played on the version of Team USA that won bronze at the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan:
"All I care about is winning. That's all that matters to me," James confirmed to cleveland.com. "A piece like Joe, you know what it does to your team and if he was concerned about playing time or concerned about starting, then I'll sacrifice. I'll sacrifice to get a guy like that to help us try to win a championship." [...]
Would James have made such a considerable sacrifice in years prior?
"I don't know. I don't know. I can't answer that, but I know I'll do it now," he said to cleveland.com. "I mean, you're trying to make a push. We're in March. You get a guy like Joe Johnson, you get a guy that can change your team for the better. I wouldn't have a problem with [moving to the four].
"If he wanted to come in and start and we wanted to keep J.R. [Smith] in the starting lineup and if Double-T ( Tristan Thompson) or Mozzy ( Timofey Mozgov) had to come off the bench in order for Joe to start and slide Kev [Love] to the five, I would have done it."
Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reported after Johnson's buyout that the primary elements the 15-year veteran sought in a new team were a starting spot and significant playing time down the stretch. It seems James was willing to do whatever was necessary to ensure that Cleveland could offer those two things.
On one hand, it is admirable — if pretty surprising — that LeBron would have been willing to concede his starting small forward spot to make room for a player he believed could improve the Cavaliers' chances of winning the NBA championship. (And this year, he didn't even have to say he'd be willing to come off the bench if it'd help!) Despite showing during his years with the Miami Heat, and again last season in his return to Cleveland, that his combination of size, speed and playmaking skill are most devastatingly effective at the four spot, James has long been reluctant to slide up a spot full-time.
In Miami, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier often took on the defensive assignment of guarding opposing power forwards to spare James the physical pounding that comes along with playing the four on both ends all the time for a full season. James occasionally slid to power forward for the Cavs last season, but told reporters he generally preferred to stay down at three: "Each game presents different challenges, and I'm OK with it. It's not something I love to do as far as extensively, but I don't mind doing it at times to help our team, whatever our needs may be."
But while it's nice that James so values what he believes the 34-year-old swingman would have brought to the Cavs that he'd be willing to accept a change that he's resisted in the past, it's also at least a bit strange that, in so doing, he'd also be changing things quite a bit for several of his teammates, and perhaps without them getting a whole lot of input in that process.
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I mean, maybe playing center full-time isn't exactly what Kevin Love had in mind when he signed a five-year, $110 million deal last summer to stay in Cleveland. (From a defensive standpoint, this probably isn't what head coach Tyronn Lue and general manager David Griffin — whose names are notably absent from this discussion — have in mind, either.) Thompson and Mozgov have both had to make their peace with moves to the bench and more limited minutes at various junctures of this season, but maybe they wouldn't be too keen on seeing their slices of the playing-time pie in an already crowded frontcourt reduced even further. And, like, Channing Frye just got to Cleveland, is only averaging 12 minutes a game and has two DNP-CDs in the last four games; how much further out of the rotation do you want to push the guy you just traded Anderson Varejao, Jared Cunningham and a protected future first-round pick to get?
It's all a moot point anyway, of course. Johnson decided to sign with the Heat, saying that he and team president Pat Riley had already begun "working toward" a longer-term deal that would allow Johnson to finish his career in Miami. Thus far, Johnson's averaged 30 minutes a night in five straight starts since joining the Heat, chipping in 14 points on 60.4 percent shooting and 66.7 percent from 3-point range as part of a revamped Heat attack that's been one of the NBA's best over the past couple of weeks. A lot can change between now and July, but the early returns of Johnson's choice have been promising, and he seems to have found what he was looking for after leaving Brooklyn.
LeBron, as has been the case all season long, still seems to be searching for that. Maybe he really believed Joe Johnson was the cure for what ails the Cavs, difficult as it is to put your finger on. Maybe his recent public commitment to embracing the four spot, and to saying he'd be willing to move out of his comfort zone and make a significant personal sacrifice to make room for someone else who can help, is just another method of generating creative "tension" and constructive "conflict" within the Cavs (and most notably, it would seem, with Love) cooked up by the "beautiful mind" of the King.
Or maybe, after a year in which Cleveland hasn't seemed to grow and evolve as a title contender alongside the likes of the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, LeBron's really just willing to think, say or try anything. More from Haynes:
"Man, listen, I'll do anything to win. I'll kidnap my momma to win," James said to cleveland.com with a deadpan expression on his face.
Here's hoping it doesn't come to that.
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