1. LeBron James-Chris Bosh
Much of the hand-wringing in Cleveland over recent seasons has concerned who should play power forward. Is James best suited to play alongside a traditional post player who will draw defenses in and free up James to initiate on the perimeter, or does he need the fashionable "stretch 4" to spread the floor?
The correct answer: Yes.
Bosh is the rare breed of power forward who embodies the inside-out versatility a James-led team should deploy. Lift Bosh to 18 feet, where he can drill face-up jumpers, and James can storm the rim. Feed Bosh inside, and he can drive one-on-one, kick to James out of the double team or step back and tickle the twine. Don't feed him at all, and Bosh is selfless enough to defer, an attribute whose importance can't be overstated when sizing up playmates for James.
2. LeBron James-Joe Johnson
There isn't a more deadly perimeter shooter on the free-agent market. Johnson took a pounding for the Hawks' crash landing in the conference semifinals, but he was more of a symptom than a cause of Atlanta's troubles.
Johnson shouldn't be the focal point of an isolation attack. Playing the 2 alongside James, he wouldn't have to be. Under Mike D'Antoni, Johnson was an active pick-and-roll player, a smart passer and, most important, a weak side menace. Situate Johnson on the opposing wing, and defenses will have limited options when James penetrates or posts up (a part of James' game he'd want to refine to best maximize Johnson).
Johnson's handle would give a James team a third virtual point guard, something that will prevent the standing around that has plagued the Cavs from time to time. Finally, Johnson's low-key persona would seem to be a sensible fit alongside the King.
3. LeBron James-Dirk Nowitzki
Any companion to James will naturally see his usage fall, and Nowitzki -- who will be 32 on opening night 2010-11 -- could benefit from the effect as he ages.
Imagine this sequence: LeBron James rebounds a long miss on the defensive glass, then races the ball up-court with the defense quickly backpedaling. As the transition defense converges on the ball, the best trailing big man in a generation spots up at the arc, where James delivers him the pass for a wide-open 3-pointer.
In the half-court, Nowitzki would be an ideal collaborator with James on a 3-4 pick-and-roll. And though they wouldn't be able to get away with it for 48 minutes a night, a LeBron-Dirk small-ball unit would be exhilarating, as the Mavs have had some of their best success in recent seasons when Nowitzki was holding down the 5.
4. LeBron James-Dwyane Wade
A James-Wade combination is fraught with all kinds of peril. Both players are aggressive alpha dogs who dominate the ball. Given Wade's limitations as a jump shooter, James might actually be the guy who has to sublimate some of his instincts. Want to be the coach who asks him?
Still, despite whatever issues might surface, there are plenty of reasons for these two supernovas to team up. The most persuasive might be on the defensive end, where a wing tandem of James and Wade would grind perimeter attacks to a screeching halt.
The offensive benefits are obvious and were on full display with Team USA. International opponents had their heads on swivels trying to account for both sides of the floor. With the ball in Wade's hands, James would not only tease help defenders, but also use his size and strength to crash the offensive glass off Wade's misses. With the ball in James' hands, Wade would buzz around the floor off curls where James would hit him on the move to the basket.
Count the baskets ... and the fouls drawn.
5. LeBron James-Blake Griffin
Looking for a big man with a high ceiling to pair with James? As difficult as it might be to project Griffin's trajectory, James should give the redshirt rookie a long look. Griffin is a young, super-athletic, hyper-competitive forward who would develop his game around James' talent. And as a guy often tagged as "a coach on the floor," James would unquestionably be the senior partner of the tandem.
Here's what we know about Griffin: He has the explosiveness and hands to be the most devastating roll man since Amare Stoudemire. But unlike Stoudemire, Griffin has a voracious appetite for the glass and had already emerged as the Clippers' traffic cop on defense before he went down with a knee injury.
Once Griffin refines his jumper (already in progress), the James-Griffin pick-and-roll could emerge as the most unstoppable force in basketball. Most important, Griffin's speed, size and athleticism would finally give James a true "running 4" -- but one who could body up in the half-court on both ends when the tempo necessitated.
6. LeBron James-Carlos Boozer
LeBron's former teammate Boozer is generally regarded as a consolation prize for the teams that miss out on Bosh and Stoudemire, but whoever lands James shouldn't overlook Boozer's assets in the post. Boozer is a master practitioner of the pick-and-roll, something he's demonstrated with Deron Williams in Utah. Boozer knows how to apply a screen and has sticky mitts that can handle bullet passes, a soft finishing touch, a strong passing game out of the double team and rebounding prowess.
Above all, Boozer is a heady player who -- even more than Bosh and Stoudemire -- understands how to work off the ball as an effective decoy for a ball-dominating scorer. Now if only Booz could more adequately defend.
7. LeBron James-Amare Stoudemire
Stoudemire-to-the-Cavs is the great counterfactual of the 2010 postseason. Watching James' teammates struggle to help him find good looks against Boston, it was hard not to imagine what a multi-dimensional offensive player like Stoudemire might have opened up for James.
Steve Nash and LeBron James might not be natural analogues, but playing alongside Stoudemire would render James as a transition point forward running the types of devastating early sets we witness with the Suns. Then again, Stoudemire seems to need a big, hulking 5 to do the dirty work on the defensive end and the boards, something that would hamper James' ability to ignite a faster-paced game.
8. LeBron James-David Lee
Break out pick-and-roll stats and Lee's numbers jump off the page. No big man rolled more proficiently and more frequently in 2009-10 than Lee did.
What makes Lee so efficient? Unlike Stoudemire, who moves with brute force off the action, Lee is a master of finding pockets of space off the screen where he can launch a quick shot with either paw -- the closer to the rim, the better. Lee can get out in transition and also saw his shooting accuracy leap this past season from midrange.
But he doesn't compromise defenses with his back to the basket, which limits the range of half-court sets you can run in an offense where Lee anchors the front line. And as much temptation as there would be to play James at the 4 with Lee at the 5 -- particularly under D'Antoni -- Lee's inability to defend the post or challenge shots would demand another big body in the mix.
9. LeBron James-Derrick Rose
Speed has been, far and away, James' most underutilized asset in Cleveland, and there isn't a better player on James' list of potential running mates to leverage that attribute than the Bulls' point guard -- a James-Rose team would zip up and down the floor.
But could they be more than an NBA variation AAU squad? Because James is such a capable passer, the ideal point guard on his squad should have the capacity to seamlessly trade roles with him in an instant. Right now, Rose needs the ball to be effective (though he isn't a great distributor) and doesn't perform the kind of off-the-ball tasks James' accomplice in the half-court rightfully should.
On the other hand, the 21-year-old Rose figures to improve virtually every piece of his game and, as they say on the diamond, you can't teach speed. His soft-spoken, camera shy nature would be another plus in the partnership.
10. LeBron James-Brook Lopez
Lopez has a bright future ahead of him as a traditional pivot man is a league with few of them. He will make a strong case to be on the Eastern Conference All-Star squad season in and season out. Among his strong suits are being a good screener and knowing how to get a clean shot in the basket area.
As James peruses the menu of big men, here's the pressing question: Should the second-best player on a James-led team be an orthodox center with limited range and athleticism, or should James cast his lot with someone who can stretch defenses, win every race to the rim and challenge defenses with a more varied skill set?