What If LeBron Never Left Cleveland?

Matt Haupert@@matthaupFeatured ColumnistJune 24, 2014

What If LeBron Never Left Cleveland?

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    When LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach in 2010, the NBA changed forever.

    The Heat instantly became the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, and James instantly became the arch-enemy of nearly every basketball fan in the world.

    Four years later, LeBron has two more MVP awards, two Finals victories and four Finals appearances. Pundits still debate, however, whether LeBron's decision and the Heat's superteam "worked:" Should Miami have been expected to win more than two titles in four years? Did The Decision taint James' legacy forever?

    It's fun to imagine how things might have played out differently had LeBron announced he was staying in Cleveland around this time four years ago.

    Would he have ever won a title with the Cavaliers?

    Would he still have become an antagonistic figure in the NBA?

    Would he have developed into the same player he has become in Miami?

    Today, as we begin our wait for LeBron's new decision about whether to stay in Miami or head elsewhere, let's imagine how it all might have played out if LeBron's decision had been different the first time around.

    What if LeBron had never left Cleveland?

    I'm not going to tell you for certain what would have happened. I'm just going to share with you one possible course of events that could have happened had James tipped the dominoes in a different direction.

    Turn back the clocks to July 8, 2010. Twenty-five-year-old Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James is about to make an announcement that could drastically change the landscape of the NBA...

The Decision

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    Larry Busacca/Getty Images

    On national television, LeBron James announces he’s staying in Cleveland and pledges to bring a championship to his hometown before leaving.

    In addition, he announces he will not only be donating to the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Connecticut, but also to the Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland. Kids come join LeBron on stage wearing No. 23 Cavs jerseys. The entire television special becomes a big pep rally for the city of Cleveland, making the city look cooler than it has ever looked before.

    The whole ordeal is viewed as a uniquely humanitarian move, one that emphasized James’ loyalty and humility. Overall, The Decision is very well received by fans and media.

Free Agency

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    Randy Belice/Getty Images

    With Chris Bosh already teaming up with Dwyane Wade in Miami, the Cavaliers try to lure Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver to Cleveland, but both still end up choosing to join Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in Chicago, leaving Cleveland with an unimproved roster. Shaquille O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas decide to stay one more year with the hopes of bringing the Cavaliers their first NBA title.

    Despite this, LeBron takes a pay cut on his new contract with the Cavs, hoping that by clearing up some cap space, they will have an easier time attracting elite players to complement the LeBron Show.

Danny Green Stays

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    With urging from LeBron James, the Cavaliers decided to hold on to 2009 second-round pick Danny Green, who James believes can develop into a solid role player, and with whom he has developed chemistry on and off the court during the summer. Green benefits from James' guidance and begins to show slow but steady signs of improvement in his all-around game.

2010-11 Season

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Without many other options in the Cavs' aging rotation, LeBron leads the league in scoring and turns in another dominant season. Mo Williams plays inconsistently and Antawn Jamison battles injuries, but James single-handedly carries the Cavs to the third seed in the East behind the stacked Bulls and Celtics, primarily using a starting lineup of James-Williams-O’Neal-Parker-Jamison.

    Anderson Varejao proves to be a key contributor off the bench. Green shows flashes of brilliance, but plays very limited minutes and is not a major contributor.


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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    James' huge year brings him a third consecutive MVP trophy. Critics call it his most complete season yet, and credit his hard work throughout the season and the offseason. James starts showing signs of becoming a more versatile, dominant player.

2011 Playoffs

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    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

    The Cavaliers soar through the first two rounds of the playoffs but run into trouble against the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, led by star point guard Derrick Rose and a sensational supporting cast that features Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. Despite a superstar performance from LeBron, the Bulls' multi-faceted attack proves too much for the one-man Cavaliers.

    Another premature exit for Cleveland leaves the basketball universe wondering when LeBron will finally get his Scottie Pippen. Consensus is that O'Neal is too old to contribute substantially, and Mo Williams won't be enough to help LeBron get the Cavs over the hump.

    The media and fans sympathize with LeBron. The world is rooting for him, hoping he eventually catches a break.

2011 NBA Finals

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    Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

    Joakim Noah and a strong Bulls defense overwhelm Dirk Nowitzki and the one-dimensional Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals. The series proves to be a mismatch in favor of the Bulls, who win it all in six.

    This sends a message to the league: The Mavericks' winning formula—building a team of solid veterans around a single superstar, Dirk Nowitzki—is no longer enough to get it done in the NBA. The Bulls won the title because they packaged multiple stars into one lineup and figured out how to use them together.

    Motivated by the early exit, LeBron spends the offseason working hard to expand his game and become an even more dominant player. He specifically focuses on improving his post play, working extensively with Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon.

2011 NBA Draft

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    The Clippers, owners of the first-overall pick in the draft, try to shop the selection but can't find a good offer. The Cavaliers opt not to trade for the top pick, as they are in win-now mode and not in position to give up multiple key role players.

    The Clippers decide to hold on to the pick and select Duke point guard Kyrie Irving, hoping he can form a dynamic duo with emerging star Blake Griffin.

    The Cavaliers nab Jimmy Butler at the end of the first round, hoping to bring some much-needed depth to the team.

Cavs Land Paul

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Chris Paul announces he has no intention to return to the New Orleans Hornets after his contract is up after the season, so the Hornets decide to shop Paul for some long-term value. The Clippers, of course, are not interested in acquiring Paul, as they are happy with Irving at point guard.

    The Cavaliers become prime suitors for the Hornets star. The organization does not trust Mo Williams anymore at PG, and James and Paul are close friends. Hoping to team up with King James to win a title, Paul is excited about heading to Cleveland.

    The Cavs and Hornets complete a trade that sends Mo Williams and multiple first- and second-round draft picks to New Orleans in exchange for Paul.

'Melo to Heat

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    With Wade and Bosh on the brink of making the Heat a dominant force in the East, they lure Carmelo Anthony, who is traded in a blockbuster deal that puts him in Miami to form a “big three” with Bosh and Wade

    Anthony, looking for a way out of Denver and into a bigger market with a better team, expresses extreme interest in joining Wade and Bosh in Miami to form a "big three" and challenge the newly restocked Cavaliers and the reigning champion Bulls in the Eastern Conference.

    The Nuggets and Heat agree on a trade, and 'Melo heads to South Beach, hoping to be the missing piece that puts Miami over the top.

2011-12 NBA Season

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Paul and James prove to be an unstoppable combination. James’ stats explode with Paul passing him the ball and taking away some of the attention on offense. James becomes more efficient, and his shooting percentage skyrockets. Paul's presence allows James to be more selective with his shots and play more in the post, helping elevate the three-time MVP to one of the best seasons in NBA history.

    LeBron wins his fourth MVP and the Cavs take the top seed in the East using a lineup featuring James-Paul-Varejao-Parker-Jamison, with Green and Butler playing key roles off the bench. The Cavs face a test in the Eastern Conference Finals against Miami’s big three, but Cleveland proves to be much deeper and far superior defensively.

The King Gets a Ring

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    The Cavs face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals. James and Paul outlast Kevin Durant and the Thunder and win the series in seven games. James wins Finals MVP. Fans celebrate the fact LeBron won a title at a younger age than Michael Jordan, and claim he'll surpass the former Bulls great when all is said and done.

    Skip Bayless, a huge LeBron fan ever since his selfless display on The Decision, declares him the greatest of all time.

    Cleveland becomes the center of the basketball universe, and LeBron cements his status as the most universally loved athlete in America.

Harden Stays in OKC

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    After falling painfully short of winning a title a year earlier and seeing how the Cavaliers and Bulls were able to win titles by packaging as many superstars as possible, the Thunder make it a priority to re-sign James Harden. The core of Durant-Westbrook-Harden looks like it will be a dominant force in the Western Conference for years.

Cavs Add Howard

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    Wally Santana/Associated Press

    Frustrated with ownership in Orlando, Dwight Howard demands a trade and specifically expresses interest in joining what is now the most desirable team in the NBA: The defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. James and Paul pitch Cleveland to Howard hoping the big man will join them to form what could be an unstoppable "Big Three."

    Cleveland completes the trade in a multi-team deal that brings Howard to the Cavs, who give up Anderson Varejao and Jimmy Butler in the process.

    At a pep rally for the new star trio, James, who already has one ring on his finger, tells fans by the time he retires, they will win "not two, not three, not four, not five..."

    The media and fans love the confidence LeBron displays at the pep rally, knowing from The Decision how much his city means to him, and understanding his promise is not an act of cockiness, but a display of pride for his hometown.

    Already loved by all, this pep rally convinces the world LeBron has what it takes to one day surpass Michael Jordan.


2012-13 NBA Season

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Relied on more for defense and rebounds than scoring, Howard enjoys an extremely successful season, leading the league in rebounds and blocked shots and opening up the floor for James and Paul to continue putting on a show. The Cavs become one of the top defensive teams in the league behind Paul, James, and Howard—the league’s newest “Big Three”—and snag the top seed in the Eastern Conference with ease. 'Melo, Bosh and Wade carry the Heat to the second seed, while the Bulls take the third spot.

2013 Postseason

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    The Cavaliers coast to another Finals appearance, barely being challenged by the Heat, who put up a good fight but prove not to be nearly defensively sound enough to stop the offensive juggernaut from Cleveland.

2013 NBA Finals

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    The Cavs meet the Thunder in the Finals once again, after Oklahoma City defeated a Spurs team that probably would have put up a better fight with the addition of a big perimeter attack like the Cavs’ Danny Green.

    Meanwhile, Green enjoys a breakout series in the Finals, and the multi-dimensional attack of James-Paul-Howard-Green proves to be completely unstoppable. The Cavaliers sweep the series in four dominant games. LeBron's legacy continues to build.

2013-14 NBA Season

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Big Three continue their dominance in the Eastern Conference, and Oklahoma City continues its dominance in the Western Conference.

    Danny Green emerges as a star for Cleveland.

    Paul, James and Howard are all named to the All-NBA First Team and NBA All-Defensive First Team and all three start in the All-Star Game, a testament to the incredible way Howard, James and Paul have been able to bring out the best in each other.

    James leads the league in scoring and wins a sixth consecutive MVP, Paul leads the league in assists, Howard leads the league in rebounds and blocks. The Cavs take the top seed in the conference, once again followed by the Heat.


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    Lori Shepler/Associated Press

    In what has apparently become an NBA tradition, the Finals feature a LeBron-led Cleveland squad against Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder. Once again, the Spurs came close to breaking through, but seemed to be missing a piece and couldn't compete with the increasingly dominant combination of Durant, Westbrook and Harden.

    For the third straight year, James outshines his competitors and the Cavaliers prove to be too deep and too talented, winning the series and bringing Cleveland a three-peat.

LeBron's Legacy

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    LeBron and his wife buy a multi-million dollar mansion in Cleveland, saying the city will always be home and he has no plans to leave or to stop winning championships for his city.

    The media declares Cleveland the “basketball capital of the world” and the city is selected by voters as one of the top cities in the country to be a sports fan. Thanks to the three titles, the franchise is thriving, the Cleveland economy is booming and James reigns as King.

    It is universally accepted by NBA fans that LeBron James is already at least a top-three NBA player of all time and is on pace to easily reach the pinnacle by the end of his career.

    His haters are few and far between, as most praise his loyalty to his city, his willingness to put winning before money, his focus on charity, his admirable off-court behavior and his ability to turn Danny Green, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul into even brighter stars while continuing to improve and expand his own game every year.

    LeBron is voted Sportsman of the Year and is said to be the "by far the most important athlete of the 21st century.

    Think I'm a genius? An idiot? Let me know on Twitter.