In nature, they’re called “symbionts,” organisms that help each other not just survive but thrive. In the NBA, they’re called Ray Allen and LeBron James.
There is a sense, perhaps somewhat deserved, that Allen’s newfound interest in signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers is a little too convenient. It can’t be played off as coincidental, that’s for sure, not after multiple reports that Allen would follow his former Miami Heat teammate wherever he went in free agency.
Latch on with the best player in the NBA, hang around the league for another year or two, possibly capture another championship in the process. What could be wrong with that?
Nothing, actually. Especially since Allen following James to Cleveland would be beneficial to James, as well as Allen.
For all James’ greatness, he is still at the mercy of the players around him, to a degree. The dressing-down Miami received in the NBA Finals was proof of that. James raises his teammates’ play far more than they raise his, to be sure, but they still affect his game.
When James and Allen were on the floor together last season, the Heat produced 112.7 points per 100 possessions, according to the NBA’s stats database. That’s slightly better than the combination of James and Chris Bosh (112.4) and almost four points better than the combination of James and Dwyane Wade (109.0).
What does four points per 100 possessions mean in the big scheme of things? Consider that the Dallas Mavericks, who pushed the San Antonio Spurs to seven games in their first-round playoff series, carried a net rating just 1.6 points better than the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves.
Of course, whatever offensive benefit Allen provided James, the Heat had to work hard to avoid giving those points right back at the defensive end. The Cavs would have to do the same. Allen has been a poor defender for years, and at 39 years old he only gets worse by the hour. The mascot for a Kyrie Irving-Allen backcourt pairing could be a sieve.
James doesn’t “need” Allen the way Allen needs James, but that doesn’t mean their partnership is one-sided. Forget Allen’s big shot that saved James and the Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals if you wish. Well before that, Allen made James’ job easier by spreading the floor, opening up driving lanes and, most of all, passing lanes for James. Allen’s mere presence was enough to give James the millimeter of space he needed to dominate. Spreading the floor around James was so vital that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra essentially turned All-Star Bosh into a spot-up shooter to create even more floor balance.
Allen signing with the Cavs won’t punch their ticket to the Finals the way he probably hopes it will. As currently constructed, the Cavs still have lots of maturing to do, and if they opt to make further moves, they would need to bring in players who could compensate for Allen’s defensive deficiencies. Make no mistake, though. Allen would not simply be riding James’ coattails — more like he’d be hemming up those coattails to give James a better fit in his new home.