'What' and 'If', two ordinary, unsuspecting and unspectacular words.
When put together however, they become something completely amazing. They make your head turn, they make you think of what could have been and what might not have happened. In the world of sports, they turn into words that make your stomach turn. Words that make you believe, wonder, get angry and be happy.
There are too many potential 'What ifs' to count in NBA history. I'm going to try and tackle a few of them, starting with one of the biggest. That of course is, as you can tell by the title, what if LeBron James never made 'The Decision'? If you have ever wondered what would have happened according to myself, keep reading, if you don't, keep reading anyway.
*This article and potential other 'What if?' articles follow on from my old blog, Crash The Boards, in which I conducted three what if scenarios. I was inspired to carry on writing these types of articles from RTNBA's brilliant 'What if' article about Derrick Rose's injury. Please go check that article out, by clicking here*
On July 8th, 2010 at 9:28 EDT, LeBron James, basketball hero of Cleveland, uttered these infamous words:
"In this fall...this is very tough...in this fall I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat."
This has since become one of the most talked about, controversial moments in NBA history. James left his hometown to go chasing rings in Miami, with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. This sparked public outrage, jersey burnings, billboard teardowns and general anarchy in the basketball world and especially, in Cleveland.
Since then, everything has been patched over, James returned in 2014, to a heroes welcome. All was forgiven and the song 'I'm coming home' was played ten thousand times.
But what if there was no need for the return? What if, James never left, stayed in Cleveland to stay with one team for his entire career. One team, just like all the great ones who ridiculed his decision. What would have happened? Here is what I think would've happened, in way too much depth:
Alright, so starting off, LeBron re-signs in Cleveland to state the obvious. He re-writes the awful words he uttered on July 8th and sends his hometown into jubilation. LeBron signs the deal that he made with Miami, four years, with an extra two as a player option. LeBron, wanting to win a championship, doesn't take the max (a.k.a. Joe Johnson money), delays his signing to allow the Cavs to keep hold of the $10 million in cap space that they had. So, know knowing that LeBron needs teammates to win, after the 2010 Eastern Conference Semi-Final debacle against Boston, Dan Gilbert goes out to sign a mid-tier free agent with the cap space he has. So, let's say he signs someone like David Lee, who ended up signing for $13 million per year. If they had traded Jamario Moon and/or Anthony Parker, the Cleveland LeBrons would easily have been able to swing this deal. That gives LeBron a starting lineup of:
Mo Williams, anyone to play two-guard, himself, David Lee and Anderson Varejao.
Due to LeBron staying in Cleveland, Miami obviously never get him and are stuck with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. If you remember correctly, both of whom signed with Pat Riley a day prior to 'The Decision'. But with no LeBron, there is no shot at a championship, meaning Wade and Bosh don't take less money, instead get paid and wait for their chance to get another superstar to play alongside their dynamic duo.
Apart from that, free agency stays largely the same.
The 2011 NBA season plays out a little differently than we remember, by that, I mean extremely differently. The West plays out as we remember, with San Antonio being knocked out in the first round, Dallas sweeping Kobe and then Dirk defeating Durant. But the East, is a whole new ball game. For starters, the top five seeds are as follows: 1. Chicago, 2. Boston, 3. Cleveland, 4. Miami, 5. Orlando. The reasons for this are simple. Chicago stay top, because they were insane that season and they had the MVP. Boston, leapfrog into second since LeBron is no longer on Miami and Cleveland don't have the supporting cast that the Heat did to stay ahead of the Celtics. Cleveland stay ahead of Miami, because of...LeBron. Meanwhile, Miami send Orlando down to fifth because with Wade and Bosh, that team is still loaded.
In the first round, Chicago, Boston and Cleveland win. Orlando ends up beating the Heat in five or six games. Mainly because Dwight Howard is just too much for the weak Miami frontcourt to handle. The second round matchups are then: Chicago vs Orlando and Boston vs Cleveland. The Bulls beat the Magic because with Noah, Gibson and Boozer, they have enough size and strength to deal with Dwight, who at this point is Stan Van Gundy's only real offensive option. Meanwhile, Garnett, Pierce and Allen knock over LeBron, for the second year straight in the second round. Mainly because LeBron just seemed to have a hoodoo against the Celtics. He never seemed to find away through them when he was on the Cavs and without a real supporting cast, is beaten again.
In the ECF, Derrick Rose faces off against Rajon Rondo in a battle for the ages. Rose skates past the ageing Celts in the first two games, before Doc Rivers' side starts to figure them out, taking the next two at home. But in the end, Rose, Noah and a pre-amnesty Boozer, make Boston look silly.
In the Finals, with no LeBron to choke the series away, the Bulls destroy the Mavs who were just happy to be there. So, no championship for Dirk, Mark Cuban, Jason Kidd, JET or Shawn Marion. A sad story, but Chicago earn their seventh championship banner and their only one outside of the Michael Jordan era.
Due to GM LeBron being in charge of the Cavs, they never trade his longtime point guard and one of his favorite ever teammates, Mo Williams, for Baron Davis and the Clippers' first round pick. That pick turned into Kyrie Irving, a franchise altering building block that helped the Cavs to lure LeBron back to Cleveland in 2014. He teams up with Blake Griffin and excitement is on the cards in Clipper land. This means that there is simply no need to trade for Chris Paul, who landed there a couple of weeks before the lockout shortened season.
Paul, without his trade to the Clippers, still ends up in LA, with the Lakers. Obviously, the original trade that allowed CP3 to leave New Orleans got vetoed by David Stern in an extremely controversial manner. In this parallel universe, David Stern doesn't veto the trade because there aren't better trade offers on the table. The trade ends up as it was originally planned out:
Lakers Receive: Chris Paul (Hornets)
Hornets Receive: Lamar Odom (Lakers), Kevin Martin (Rockets), Luis Scola (Rockets), Goran Dragic (Rockets)
Rockets Receive: Pau Gasol (Lakers)
The rest of the NBA draft plays out pretty much the same, except no Tristan Thompson for Cleveland, he probably goes to somewhere like Washington at six, or Charlotte at seven.
In free agency, Chicago see no reason to enhance their championship tested roster, so they no longer grab Rip Hamilton. He winds up on their rivals, the Cleveland Cavaliers, to enhance LeBron's chances at a title. The only other team that really does anything is Miami, who as I mentioned would have had to wait for a chance to go after their third star. Dallas decide to not re-sign Tyson Chandler, as they did in real life and he walks all the way to South Beach. Strengthening the frontcourt that got destroyed by Dwight Howard during the playoffs.
During the season it is clear that Chicago is once again the best team in the league. The decline of the big three in Boston, means that David Lee, LeBron and Rip Hamilton grab the second seed. Miami jump ahead of Boston too, with the addition of Chandler. All four teams advance to the second round, even Chicago, who with the confidence that they have already won the championship, don't push Rose too hard, take him out of the game that had already been won against Philadelphia and Hallelujah! He is no longer injured.
Chicago beats out Boston again, while LeBron bests the team that he never signed with. So its Bulls vs LeBron, a playoff tradition that hasn't really been invented yet. LeBron guards Rose and has himself a monster playoff series. By having LeBron draped over him, Rose cannot provide the spark the Bulls need and drop the series.
Out West, things get complicated with CP3 and Kobe on the same team. The two mesh extremely well, becoming the league's best backcourt and leading the Lakers to the third seed, as they still can't manage to get past OKC and San Antonio during the regular season. San Antonio breeze through to the conference finals, where they finished in the real life 2012.
OKC can't guard both Paul and Bryant at the same time and Kendrick Perkins can't keep up with Andrew Bynum. This gives the Lakers the series and finally removes the tag of 'Chris Paul can't get past the second round'. The rejuvenated Lakers fall to the Spurs, as they lack the athleticism that the Thunder used in that series.
The Finals end up with a rematch of 2007: Duncan and his dynasty vs LeBron and his Cavs. Kawhi is yet to break out, so the Spurs don't have anyone to guard LBJ. LeBron claims his first crown and is on top of the basketball world, just like he was during the real 2012 season.
This is where things get crazy...
In the summer of 2012, Dwight Howard was unhappy and was linked with a number of different teams in a trade away from Orlando. He wound up on the Los Angeles Lakers.
This scenario is no different. Mitch Kupchak realizes that after his collapse to the Spurs, he needs one last piece. Howard is their guy from day one and the exact same trade that happened in 2012 is recreated in this universe. Howard creates a big three to scare even Pat Riley. CP3, D12 and Kobe Bryant on the same team? How is that even possible? Not only does he land in LA, he actually likes his stay this time. With his close friend Chris Paul, the Lakers are all buddies and run through the NBA, on their way to a low 60 win season and the top seed in the Western Conference.
Due to the Chris Paul trade a season earlier, the Hornets aren't bad enough to bottom out and get Anthony Davis during the 2012 NBA draft. Instead, they are stuck in NBA purgatory and have only their name change a season later to be optimistic for. The top 2012 draft pick goes to Sacramento instead. Why? Because, New Orleans won the lottery with the fourth best odds. If they aren't bad enough, the fifth worst team that season would have likely got their ping pong balls. That team was the Sacramento Kings. Even the Sacramento Kings can't screw this one up, they put their number one pick, Davis, next to DeMarcus Cousins and immediately have the best frontcourt in the league.
On to the big shake up of 2012: the James Harden trade. I've proclaimed it the worst trade ever and I won't back down from that. So in this universe, the Thunder have a chance to write their wrongs. That's right, Sam Presti, I'm giving you a second chance. Oh and by the way, I'm not just being nice here, Houston, by trading away Kevin Martin don't have the assets to make the right deal for Harden. So where does Harden wind up? Well, with the Dwight, CP3, Kobe Lakers looking better than just about every team in the league, they empty their pockets and pay the guy! Finally, Oklahoma City made the right decision. This makes sense for another reason by the way. One of the reasons that Oklahoma City traded him was because of his disappointing 2012 finals. Remember, in this fantasy, he never made the finals!
There are some other moves, like Steve Nash staying in Phoenix (no need to go to LA because of CP3) and Ray Allen going to Chicago, not Miami, because Chicago need a little more scoring on the perimeter. But nothing compares to the three moves above.
As mentioned above, the Lakers win 60 something games and the top seed in the West. Oklahoma City finish close behind them, with their good buddy James Harden still at their side. San Antonio slots in behind them, followed by the Denver Nuggets and their band of players, none of whom are superstars. Memphis takes fifth and Golden State seal sixth. Biggest surprises though are the Los Angeles Clippers as the seventh seed, with Irving, Eric Gordon and Blake, the Clippers manage to lock themselves up a postseason spot. The eighth seed is the Sacramento Kings who are bolstered by their frontcourt and at least look semi-frightening to playoff teams.
The Lakers sweep the Kings, OKC destroy the Clips, San Antonio edge out Golden State (just as they did in the second round) and the Nuggets out-run the Grizzlies, in a series where Zach Randolph passes out due to exhaustion.
On to round two! The Lakers take care of business against the Nuggets, while Durant's Thunder beat out San Antonio like they always seem to do. So it's a battle of the big threes! Durant, Harden and Westbrook, taking on Paul, Bryant and Howard. The series comes down to two facts: Harden can't guard Kobe and the CP3/D12 pick and roll is too much for the OKC defense to handle. So it's the Lakers who advance to the Finals.
Oh by the way, Westbrook, never gets hurt because Patrick Beverley isn't there to trip him up!
Out East, the Pacers and Knicks still emerge as viable contenders for the Eastern Conference throne. However, both are ousted by the rampant Cavs and Bulls. Another classic showdown is on the cards, a sequel to the epic playoff series the season prior. Cleveland are on the cusp of winning the series, up by three points with 6 seconds left on the clock during game six. But the Cavs take Anderson Varejao out of the game to prevent a three. Rose misses the original attempt, but Joakim Noah snatches the rebound, passes it out to Ray Allen who saves their season with one of the most clutch shots in NBA history. Deja vu anyone? The Bulls go on to win the series and meet the Lakers in the finals.
Chicago are no match for the Lakers' superstars. Chris Paul dominates Derrick Rose as he is one of the few guys in the league that can defend him. Without the spark plug of Rose, the Bulls fall to the mighty Lakers, who claim their seventeenth championship banner. Sending Celtics' fans like myself into tears.
Both Chris Paul and Howard re-sign in LA following their championship and want to create a perennial contender.
Oklahoma City focus on development and make no real moves towards strengthening their roster. The Spurs stay the same, as they always do, but the biggest change is to the Denver Nuggets. If you recall, the Nuggets' core split up following the 2013 playoffs, but since they make the second round in this scenario, George Karl keeps his job and Andre Iguodala stays. Looking for a replacement for Iguodala, who never signed with them, the Dubs target Tyreke Evans and get him, because he never wants to go to New Orleans without Anthony Davis there.
In the East, Chiacgo don't have any cap room, but Cleveland do. They go out and sign Paul Millsap on his minuscule wage demands. They find a taker for David Lee's contract, because at this point, he really isn't worth it. He in some sort of a deal for sought after backup point guard, Eric Bledsoe, who has been Kyrie Irving's understudy for a while now. LeBron now is teamed up with Mini LeBron and have the best supporting cast of his career thus far.
Philly never blows up the team and heads into the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes because they can't find anyone to take on Jrue Holiday, while giving them two first round picks. Nerlens Noel finds himself in Portland as he slips even further without the Pelicans there to swoop in for him. The Anthony Bennett "WOAH!" never happens, robbing basketball of one of the greatest moments ever.
Nothing else all too surprising happens during the offseason, so let's head into the actual season.
OKC run through everyone on their way to the number one seed. Harden, Westbrook and Durant have at last hit their peak and all make a case at the MVP which none of them win. LeBron wins (I haven't been keeping count) his fourth or fifth, putting him in the G.O.A.T discussion.
The Lakers aren't quite as good in 2014, but take the second seed. This is pretty much the only change from last season's playoffs. Compared to real life, Phoenix never make a run, Portland never break out (too many good Western Conference teams) and Dallas aren't quite good enough to make the eighth seed.
OKC make the conference finals, because simply, they're awesome. While the Spurs get knocked out again, the superstar talent of the Lakers make it impossible for them to get past the second round. So it's OKC against LA again, but this time with homecourt and the regression of Kobe Bryant, manage to get beat LA and make their way through to the NBA finals.
In the East, New York drop out, just as they did. Indiana don't take out the number one seed, Cleveland, with Bledsoe and Millsap, do. Chicago fall into the second seed, Indiana slots into third, while Miami move up to fourth due to the Knicks falling out.
Cleveland destroy Miami's decaying roster filled with veterans and just as it looks like there is going to be a trilogy of Bulls/Cavs series, Paul George and his Pacers upset Derrick Rose and advance to face LeBron. In a heated series, filled with tension and fights, LeBron clinches another finals appearance with a victory over the Pacers.
So LeBron goes up against Durant, two years behind schedule. OKC has homecourt and have the advantage straight away. But just as in the real 2012, OKC just doesn't have anyone that can defend LBJ. James take home his second crown, in just three finals attempts.
One last crazy offseason just for fun.
Angry at his team for being incompetent, Carmelo Anthony leaves New York to team up with Wade, Bosh and Chandler in South Beach.
LeBron re-signs in Cleveland and they also give Eric Bledsoe a shiny new contract.
Pau Gasol never goes to Chicago, he stays in Houston trying to recruit free agents for Daryl Morey's no man's land team. They use the Gasol money to add both Luol Deng (re-signing) and Paul Pierce for some veteran leadership.
The up and coming Sacramento Kings think they have a chance at a playoff run and go out to sign veterans, Kyle Lowry and Trevor Ariza to make a very good playoff team.
The Lakers don't have any cap space and can't bring anyone in, the Clippers do have money, but put all of their chips in the Carmelo basket, which fails.
During the draft, since Cleveland won the lottery with the ninth best odds, using science I have deducted that one of Minnesota (hey, would you look at that), Phoenix or New Orleans wind up with the number one pick. I'll keep the rest of the draft relatively similar and since this piece is far too long anyway, I won't waste your time.
Kevin Love still wants out of Minnesota. Chicago, full well knowing that Miami and Cleveland, offer them a godfather offer of Jimmy Butler, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and picks. The Lakers also want to make a move for him, but don't have the assets to do so. So, I'll give Love to Chicago and up the total of super teams to eight: the Eastern trio, along with OKC, the Lakers, the Spurs, the Sacramento Kings who have a combined 50 points and 25 rebounds per night from their bigs to rely on and the Golden State Warriors, who still breakout because Steve Kerr is still their coach.
It becomes clear early on that the NBA is a bloodbath this season. Chicago, Miami and Cleveland all flirt with 60 wins, but I'll only give that total to Derrick Rose and Kevin Love in Chi-town. Miami slot in at second with 58 or 59, with Cleveland in third down at 56 or 57 wins. I don't think it needs to be explained why those three teams advance to the second round, so I'll get straight to the point. Chicago go through to the conference finals and Cleveland upset Miami! Honestly, who guards LeBron James on that Miami team? Wade? Anthony? Bosh? No one can and LeBron averages 40 in that series.
In their third meeting in four seasons, the Bulls, much like the Heat, don't have anyone to take LeBron. No Jimmy Butler means no finals for Chicago and forces Gar Forman to go back to the drawing board.
On the opposite side of the country, OKC take the first seed again, GS take number two, the Spurs at number three, Kobe's declining Lakers at four and Sacramento take the fifth seed to round out the contenders. The top three have easy series victories and the Kings cause a massive upset in the first round by unseating the Lakers in six games. This is simply due to Cousins and Davis at this point, are the two best bigs in the league. Kobe and Dwight are at the tale end of their primes and as I explained in the offseason portion of 2014, the Kings have good depth around their two stars.
Sac-town also beat the Thunder, who still have Kendrick Perkins starting at center! Cousins and Davis have their way inside, on their way to another six game series win. Golden State's homecourt advantage plays into their favor, sending Tim Duncan home in the second round for the third straight time. This forces Duncan, Ginobili and Pop to re-think everything. They decide that there is no chance they will ever reach the summit again and retire!
In Golden State, Bogut and Draymond Green take care of Cousins and Davis to go through to the finals.
So, we end up with a LeBron vs Curry matchup, right on schedule. LeBron's support doesn't get injured, but they are still no match for the Warriors who win the title just as they did in real life.
Thanks for sitting through my fantasy! Make sure you follow me on Twitter, for news, updates and opinions: @BradWinter12
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