CLEVELAND — It is the ultimate unanswerable NBA question.
And it's not the one you think.
While so many are guessing—with hopelessly incomplete information—about whether LeBron James will opt out of his Miami Heat contract after this season, or perhaps the next one, and whether he will stay or go when he does, there's another barstool argument that has been overlooked.
If James had never left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010, would he have become what he is today?
That question is sufficient to stump even his most informed associates.
One, when asked this week, paused and bit his lip.
"I can't answer that," the associate said.
"God," he said, laughing. "I mean, who would he have played with? Would he have played with Kyrie (Irving)?"
An Irving/James collaboration would have been possible, but not probable. Irving was acquired not with the lottery pick that the Cavaliers "earned" for plummeting after James' departure, but with the pick they acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers, along with Baron Davis' expiring contract, for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon. Odds are, Cleveland wouldn't have made that sort of rebuilding deal if James had still been around.
Instead, James was in Miami and heading to three straight NBA Finals, two of them finishing in Heat championships. Along the way, he became a different, more offensively versatile and efficient version of his already dynamic and dominant self.
For comparison's sake, let's look at his last three seasons with the Cavaliers, which covered 232 games, and his first three-plus seasons with the Heat, for whom he will play his 232nd game Wednesday:
|Last 3 in Cleveland||232||49.2||33.1||20.6||29.4||7.6||7.7|
|First 3+ in Miami||231||53.9||37.2||18.3||26.8||7.7||6.9|
And he's at a 60.9 field-goal percentage so far this season, averaging 26.0 points while taking a career-low 15.4 shots per contest.
So, again, would James have done this in Cleveland?
"You can’t answer that question fairly, because there are too many factors that go into it," said former NBA coach and current TNT analyst Mike Fratello, who has worked for both the Cavaliers and Heat organizations. "What would the cast of characters have been by now?"
Even before James announced "The Decision," the Cavaliers had made a change, replacing Mike Brown with Byron Scott. Certainly, other changes would have impacted James in some way, as Miami's changes since the first "Big Three" season—deepening the roster with accomplished veterans and outside shooters—have.
"He's had these three years to evolve, as they've shifted pieces around, and Erik (Spoelstra) put in a style that fit the players that he had," Fratello said.
"The one thing that is constant is his work ethic, and his desire to be the best and be great, and win championships. The cast that surrounds him helps to dictate what he winds up being or doing. If he doesn’t have someone who can produce in a big situation, he’s going to do it himself. Otherwise, you can make the pass, and trust somebody else."
We passed on asking James the question, not just because it's hard to accurately examine oneself, but because it's one that he can't honestly answer with anything other than a carefully crafted cliche. It's not just hypothetical, but potentially controversial.
If he says "yes," it comes off as arrogant, as if Spoelstra and the Heat staff had little to do with his development. If he says "no," it becomes an indictment of his former coaches and teammates with the Cavaliers, including Brown, who is again coaching them.
James has spoken regularly in general terms about how he values shots more now than he did in his formative NBA years, but he tends to attribute that to his general maturity. But James' current teammates, who have seen his progression over the course of many weeks, months, successes and setbacks, are far more free to offer unrestrained opinions.
And even some of them—when approached by Bleacher Report—were flummoxed about exactly how to answer it.
"You know what, I don't know," Dwyane Wade said. "I don't think about it much. Obviously, he was on track, a Hall of Fame player before he came to Miami. So I don't know."
"I don't know," Chris Bosh agreed. "It depends on how many times he would have gotten to the Finals. There's just so many contingencies."
That was echoed around the locker room. And it's true. But as James' teammates took time to reflect further, on what has happened to James on and off the court, each did offer some interesting insight.
"I think at the time, it didn't seem like a great thing, but I think one of the best things that happened to his career was he went through a stage where people didn't like him," Wade said. "And now he's loved. Because people got an opportunity to really look at him and see who he really is. Once you don't like somebody, now, especially on this team, the microscope was so big on him, people really [saw] the person he was, [that], 'Oh, he's not that bad.' I don't know what his legacy would have been. Obviously, it was going to be great. He has shown that from Day 1 in the NBA. But I think it's a little special, a little sooner, since he came here."
Shane Battier, interviewed independently of Wade, took that point and pushed it further.
"I think he'd be a different iteration of a person," Battier said. "So by extension, I think he's a different person because he went through what he went through when he left Cleveland, and the way that everything happened. And I think, by extension, he's a different player."
"He's much more scrutinized [since] he left, with his game," Battier said. "He got a pass on a lot of things when he was in Cleveland. But when the floodgates and the anti-LeBron period started after he left, with The Decision, every part of his game was really scrutinized."
Battier believes that could have contributed to James working a "little harder" on his game, and he "shored up some of his deficiencies." James, for his part, has pointed to another pivotal point in his transformation: his subpar performance in the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks.
Maybe he faces the Mavericks with the Cavaliers and the same thing occurs, forcing him to re-evaluate his mental, emotional and physical approach. Maybe not. We'll never know.
What we do know, because the statistics say so, is that he never shot close to his current level with the Cavaliers.
"Sky high," Wade said. "My best guess, that wouldn't have happened. When you're on a team like that, he can take 20, 25, 30 shots, and it's no biggie."
Wade had that experience with Heat teams that predated James' arrival. Now he's had to develop other parts of his game, like making cuts to the basket, to play with other stars.
James has had to adjust and expand, too, and while that hasn't always been easy or pretty, it appears to have paid off.
"Here, with a different team, you take those kind of shots, that's like special, special nights," Wade said. "Here, he understands that, 'OK, I'm going to get less shot attempts,' so you zone in more on your possessions and on your shots. You don't take throwaway shots as much. It makes you cognizant of each possession. Instead of then, like I had, you come down, you jack a couple, it may go in, it may not, but I can shoot 20 shots so I can get my rhythm."
Bosh averaged 16.5 shots in his final two seasons with the Toronto Raptors. This season, he's averaging 9.9—but he's shooting a career-best 54.3 percent after 53.5 percent last season.
"I don't think any of the three of us would be as efficient. And that's what makes us more deadly, I think," Bosh said. "Because we know we have weapons, and we only have so many shots, so you better make them count. In Cleveland, [James] could have averaged 25 to 30 shots per game all the time, and scored 25 to 30. If he shoots 30 shots now, he's probably more likely to have 40 to 50 points.
Playing with each other, it made us really realize how efficient we need to be, and what we need from each other, and how to play off each other. We still would have been stuck in that mind frame."
Of course, Bosh means the mind frame of carrying less gifted squads.
"Maybe we would have progressed into that next level of talented players, but we still would not have been as efficient," Bosh said. "Just me, hovering around 49, 50 percent, yeah, 24 points, 10 rebounds, whatever, out in the first round, second round. It's not what I wanted, after a while. You think you want those stats, then you get them, and it's like, 'Dammit, I only want the stats when we win.' But nobody tells you that."
James is still getting scoring stats. He had 35 points on just 14 shots against the Phoenix Suns on Monday. But as Rashard Lewis—whose Orlando Magic beat the one-man band Cavaliers in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals—noted, while James would have been "scoring out of his mind" for the Cavaliers, "probably winning a couple of scoring titles," his trust level has increased with the Heat.
"I mean, he still passed the ball," Lewis said, recalling that 2009 series. "He almost averaged a triple-double on us. But he took a lot more shots. Here, he relies on his teammates to help him out, because he has Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh. He had more of a score-first mentality. Here, it's more let the game come to him, more than anything."
Battier said that efficiency is emphasized more in Miami than in his own previous stops. But it's not just a coaching philosophy. There's peer pressure, too.
"Especially with the personnel that we have, and they surrounded [James] with, it would be difficult for him to be inefficient, and take a lot of the bad shots that he took in Cleveland, because it looks terrible," Battier said.
"And our system is actually pretty specific in terms of the types of quality shots that we get, and the positions that we put LeBron, Dwyane and Chris in. And so we're given the best opportunity to take really efficient shots—and I don't think that's the case, if he was necessarily somewhere else. You see it all the time with high-volume scorers. So I think it's a combination of environment and personnel that allows him to sort of unlock that efficiency key."
"And adversity," Battier said. "I think that's fair."
Is it unfair to Cleveland to suggest James' progression would not have occurred there?
Perhaps. But if, as Bosh suggests, a key factor in James' progression has been the presence of better teammates, it's reasonable to wonder something else.
"If free agents would want to go to Cleveland," Bosh said. "No offense to Cleveland. It's a little bit easier to get guys to sacrifice and come (to Miami). That's the tough part. The organization here surrounded him with world-class talent...the best basketball players in the world, and they fit a role. You take that environment away, and you have Cleveland—guys aren't thinking about warm weather and winning, they're just thinking about winning. I don't know. It's tough to take a pay cut and be cold."
Even tougher than answering an unanswerable question.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report