LeBron's fantasy value stays same

James still a top-five player with Cavs, but move has many ripple effects

Updated: July 11, 2014, 7:14 PM ET
By John Cregan | Special to ESPN.com

Imagine, if you will, a large, 29-year-old meteor that's been circling in orbit above the NBA's atmosphere since approximately June 15, 2014.

Well, the LeBron has landed. Cratered. Impacted in the location where he could register the maximum percolation on the NBA's seismograph.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron James may not be the No. 1 player in fantasy hoops anymore, but his return to Cleveland does have a huge impact overall.

And now, it's time for those of us in the land of fantasy hoops to sort through the numerical debris.

I'm not being hyperbolic when I tell you that LeBron: The Final Decision is the biggest single transaction that's occurred in my 10-plus years of writing on fantasy basketball.

Decision 1.0 was big. The Cleveland Cavaliers winning the 2003 lottery was huge. The Portland Trail Blazers passing on Kevin Durant for Greg Oden was an oversized, undulating long-range ripple.

But this trumps them all. In terms of fantasy impact, this is a planet killer. Let's count the shock waves.

Stage One

Cleveland Cavaliers
I'd expect it's better than an 80 percent chance Andrew Wiggins is traded as the centerpiece of a deal to bring Kevin Love to Cleveland. There's a 100 percent chance Cleveland signs someone like a Ray Allen or Mike Miller. Suffice it to say, the Cavs aren't done.

To make the salaries match in a Kevin Love-sized deal, a trade would need more than just Wiggins (Anderson Varejao et al). But for a beat, let's pretend a big deal doesn't happen, and the roster stays as is:

PG: Kyrie Irving
SG: Dion Waiters
SF: LeBron James
PF: Tristan Thompson
C: Anderson Varejao

Bench Players with Possible Fantasy Impact: Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett

No matter where LeBron landed, I wouldn't have projected him for 2014-15 as the "No. 1A or 1B" player in fantasy alongside Kevin Durant. If you look at the final Player Rater rankings from 2013-14, you'll see LeBron finished at No. 3, a Player Rater point behind Stephen Curry. Durant finished first by a wide, wide margin.

Why did LeBron decline? It wasn't about a drop-off in play. It was about LeBron tipping the scales in the battle between the two forces that are at the center of fantasy perfection: volume and efficiency.

As LeBron has matured and perfected his game, he's grown more efficient, but his volume-based numbers have dipped.

In 2013-14, LeBron posted a career-low 24.5 field goal attempts per game. Still a hefty amount of shots, but more than five fewer attempts per game than his FGA peak in 2005-06. LeBron's career high in assists? That was back in Cleveland in 2009-10 (7.9 APG).

Yes, his rebounding numbers have edged upward slightly, but all in all, LeBron's best volume-based season was that 2009-10 campaign. Even in terms of the ultimate efficiency metric -- PER -- LeBron's career high was 31.7 in 2008-09.

When you've reached the fantasy heights LeBron has touched, eventually there's nowhere to go but down, even if the decline is registered in small, razor-thin nicks.

So if LeBron had stayed in Miami -- with roughly the same supporting cast -- I believe he would have ended the 2014-15 season in the same fantasy position. Or a Twin Cities-planted Kevin Love could have passed him for the third spot.

In the wide-angle view, LeBron would have been relatively easy to peg as about a 16- to 17-point player on our Player Rater scale. Top five, but not challenging Durant for the top slot.

But now? LeBron steps into the unknown.

LeBron becomes the seasoned "old hand" on a roster that -- despite some draft misfires -- boasts young talent with elite upside.

This roster is set in wet cement, ossification is weeks away. Any part not named LeBron or Kyrie is in play. So the two main short-term fantasy questions become: What pace does new coach David Blatt play, and how does LeBron mesh with Kyrie Irving?

Blatt comes from the Princeton tradition and packs an impressive FIBA pedigree. I wouldn't expect a Rockets-esque uptick in possessions per game. His teams have traditionally played at a slower pace. Expect a motion offense with LeBron and Irving as the focal points. The Cavaliers should run at a high assists rate, but they'll be spread around.

Let's talk players we know are staying. Let's talk about LeBron and Irving.

My feeling is that you'll see a partnership that echoes LeBron's first season in Miami, when Dwyane Wade was still putting up peak-years production.

2010-11 LeBron James: 26.7 PTS, 7.0 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 1.2 3PT

Barring the addition of Kevin Love, I believe this is a reasonable baseline comparison for LeBron in 2014-15, with a slight adjustment for LeBron's advancing age.

While LeBron is at the tail end of his peak production, he anchors a young roster that will need him to do some heavy volume-based lifting to contend.

For LeBron in 2014-15, I'd expect something in this range: 25.5 PTS, 6.5 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.5 BLK, and 1.5 3PT per game. His field goal percentage should stay somewhere around 56 percent, while his true shooting percentage should hover in the insanely impressive 64 percent range.

He'll be a top-five fantasy player, but I'm not sure I would take him before Stephen Curry at No. 2 overall.

[+] EnlargeKyrie Irving
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIt will be interesting to see how Kyrie Irving's fantasy numbers will be with LeBron James.

While I think the 2010-11 LeBron/Wade dynamic offers a solid comp for 2014-15 LeBron/Irving, Wade and Irving bring different numerical skills to the statistical table. Not to mention that Irving is still several years away from his peak production, and that he's proved as brittle as recent-vintage Wade. Plus, in 2013-14, Irving actually regressed slightly from his sophomore campaign.

2010-11 Dwyane Wade: 25.5 PTS, 4.6 AST, 1.5 STL, 1.1 BLK, 0.8 3PT
2013-14 Kyrie Irving: 20.8 PTS, 6.1 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.3 BLK, 1.7 3PT

Irving is 22 years old. He's got two to three stages left in his fantasy growth. So how do we balance Irving's expected bounce back, maturation and statistical growth against the touches and offensive flow that should be steered in LeBron's direction?

Irving will improve in terms of volume and efficiency. He should post his best field goal percentage since his rookie season (.469). I love his 3-point potential, factoring in the attention LeBron will command.

But despite all of the positive indicators, Irving's fantasy ceiling is undoubtedly limited by LeBron's presence. In the end, something around 22.5 PTS, 5.0 AST, 1.5 STL, 3.7 REB, 0.4 BLK, and 2.0 3PT feels right. And that doesn't factor in the 10-plus games we're used to him missing.

Predicting the rest of the Cavaliers' lineup becomes the fantasy equivalent of drawing police sketches of what's at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

Dion Waiters' fantasy fate? There were rumors he was on his way out of town. Now does he stay and mature with LeBron? Or is he dealt to bring back Love, or maybe someone such as Klay Thompson?

We know Anderson Varejao meshes well with LeBron. We know that, when healthy, he is an effective No. 2 fantasy center. But we also know Varejao is slated to make $9.7 million in 2014-15, is supremely injury-prone, and is a prime candidate to be shipped in a megadeal.

[+] EnlargeKevin Love
Tom Dahlin/NBAE/Getty ImagesIf Kevin Love ends up with the Cavs, that might actually hurt the fantasy value of the stars on the roster.

Tristan Thompson's value is (obviously) tied to a prospective Kevin Love deal. He could move to Minnesota, but if he stays (with Love on the Cavs' roster), he'd come off the bench and become a fantasy afterthought.

I've liked Thompson as a sleeper since he entered the league. The key to his fantasy impact lies in his ability to block shots; his BPG has regressed every season since his rookie campaign.

A double-double is nice to have in the 10th or 11th round, but Thompson is going to have to turn up the defensive numbers to become a top-80 player. Maybe he gets a better chance in Minnesota. Or maybe Cleveland doesn't trade for Love, and Thompson becomes a high-grade Udonis Haslem.

Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett are trade chips (Wiggins is USDA prime, Bennett more like a ground chuck). It's a safe assumption one or both will be moved as the Cavs' roster completes its reconstruction. If Wiggins stays, his fantasy potential is hurt short-term, helped long-term (thanks to the LeBron effect).

If Kevin Love comes to Cleveland? His fantasy stock goes down, probably from top five to top 12. Someone's touches are going to take a bigger hit, and they won't be LeBron's.

In Minnesota, Love could flirt with 15-16 Player Rater points per game. In Cleveland? He becomes a combination of 2010 Chris Bosh and 2013 Dirk Nowitzki. Something like 21.5 PTS, 11.5 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.6 BLK, 2.2 3PTS.

Remember, no elite player's fantasy numbers have ever improved after being moved to a superteam. Not even LeBron's.

Stage Two

Miami Heat

[+] EnlargeChris Bosh
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesChris Bosh stays in Miami and probably helps his overall fantasy value in the process.

With Jeremy Lin getting traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, it looked as though Chris Bosh was going to join the Houston Rockets. Instead, Pat Riley threw the full five-year, $118 million max contract at Bosh ... and landed him.

(Today is AWESOME.)

So Dwyane Wade is sure to follow. Riley's not giving up on the Big Three concept just yet, even if the third member ends up being Trevor Booker.

Here's a quick crack at a prospective starting five:
PG: Shabazz Napier
SG: Dwyane Wade
SF: Danny Granger
PF: Chris Bosh/Josh McRoberts
C: TBD

Pending Wade's contract, Miami still has some room to play with. Here's a name: Greg Monroe. Not sure how that could happen, but that'd be a nice fit, with Monroe serving as a bridge toward the future.

Here's another: Pau Gasol. (Gosh, this is fun.) It's too bad Channing Frye is gone, he would have been perfect in a post-LeBron environment.

By the way, let's hope LeBron was serious about Shabazz Napier being his favorite point guard in the 2014 draft, because the Heat are going to need playmaking help in a hurry.

Danny Granger's fantasy potential has been declared DOA several times over the past couple of seasons. I'm not saying Granger recaptures part of his past production in Miami. But the dynamic is ripe for a player like Granger/Shawn Marion/Trevor Ariza to register a fantasy impact.

Stage Three

Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers absorb Jeremy Lin's contract as they benefit from the Bosh-to-Houston deal that Pat Riley spiked. And they re-sign Nick Young, who will lose fantasy value playing alongside a reasonable healthy Kobe.

So if the Lakers stretch Steve Nash, their lineup could resemble:

PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Nick Young/TBD
PF: Julius Randle
C: TBD

Pau Gasol counts for another big piece of flotsam in this tsunami of player movement. If he leaves Los Angeles, he could possibly take less money to hunt for another ring. Or play with his brother. Or both. And the Lakers still don't have a coach. Still, the Lakers could produce a nice fantasy sleeper or three in 2014-15.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves are in a prime position to restock their roster via dealing Kevin Love. Cleveland landing LeBron gives Minnesota more leverage on the market. Two weeks ago, Golden State was anointed the front-runner for Love. As of this writing, all the talk is about Cleveland.

One assumes Minnesota will try to shed Kevin Martin's contract as part of any deal. I'm not going to attempt to project a starting five here. Just remember that Minnesota has some Philadelphia 2013-14 potential. No expectations, possibly no depth, some upside and a decent pace.

John Cregan

Fantasy Basketball
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.

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