For many of the NBA's all-time greats, two words come up constantly when discussing their respective legacies: what if?
What if Michael Jordan hadn't tried his hand at baseball? What if Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson hadn't had Bill Russell standing in their way every spring? What if Shaquille O'Neal had taken better care of his body? What if Julius Erving hadn't started his pro career in the American Basketball Association?
LeBron James' name will surely belong among those when he hangs up his Nikes for good. His career, too, is already rife with those dreaded "what ifs?"
What if the Cleveland Cavaliers hadn't won the lottery in 2003? What if they'd surrounded him with better talent during his first stint? What if he never went to Miami?
And, now, what if he'd stayed on South Beach, rather than return to northeast Ohio?
We can take a stab at what the present would be like for the Cavs and the Miami Heat, ahead of their Friday faceoff at Quicken Loans Arena. Chances are, the home team would still be scrapping its way out of the Eastern Conference cellar, with no James to attract top-tier talent and no Kevin Love to follow his lead. In this alternate universe, the Heat may well be coming off their fifth-straight trip to the NBA Finals.
Whether things would've turned out better for Miami than they did for Cleveland against the Golden State Warriors is another matter. Though the Heat had little trouble traipsing their way through the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2014, they'd shown signs of fracturing well before the San Antonio Spurs smacked them around in the Finals.
"It's a long and grueling season for all of us, not just us because we're the champs," James said after a double-overtime loss to the Brooklyn Nets in January 2014, per CBS Sports' Ken Berger. "We've played a lot of basketball in our four years together. It's taken a lot of wear and tear on all our bodies. It's mentally fatiguing. And you just try to find the motivation the best way you can as an individual and as a collective group."
Would finding that motivation have been any easier for the Heat last season had James still been around?
If anything, a fifth go-round in Miami might've been even more exhausting than ever for the four-time MVP. With Wade missing 20 games and Bosh sidelined by blood clots in his lungs after the All-Star break, James' cup would've runneth over with responsibility.
The Heat would've still had the requisite assets to trade for Goran Dragic midseason, but would Pat Riley have felt the pinch to pull the trigger on a deal that, with the first-round picks sent out in 2017 and 2021, could cripple the franchise going forward? More importantly, without a younger star like Dragic around to share the playmaking load, might James have bolted back to Cleveland anyway?
As he wrote, with an assist from Lee Jenkins, for Sports Illustrated in announcing his decision to rejoin the Cavs in July 2014, "I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when."
But James' choice wasn't merely a matter of basketball fatigue and hometown heroism. Per Ethan Skolnick, then with Bleacher Report, James wanted to build his own championship team, rather than be the key cog on someone else's:
He needed to [teach his new teammates how to win] because anything less would resonate as an admission of reliance upon the embedded structure the Heat had provided, the structure he had admired but which he had increasingly found stifling, feeling like a middle manager in Pat Riley's established corporation. After the weary Heat finished a frustrating season with a Finals flop against San Antonio, and prior to opting into 2014 free agency, James had informed associates of his openness to leaving the NBA's "IBM" behind, to embrace his entrepreneurial instincts, to take a shot at serving as the figurative CEO of a startup. Or, in the case of the Cavaliers, a re-startup.
Clearly, James' stint with the Heat had run its course. But that doesn't mean his Ohio homecoming was a smooth one. In 2014-15, the Cavs stumbled out of the gate—to 1-3, then 5-7 and eventually 19-20—while a weary James dragged along a mismatched roster.
There were team meetings, tense moments—with head coach David Blatt on the sidelines, Kyrie Irving behind closed doors and Kevin Love on social media—and poor play on both ends of the floor as the Cavs struggled to reorient their identity around the game's pre-eminent player.
By mid-January, though, Cleveland was off and running. When James came back from a two-week New Year's sabbatical, he found himself surrounded by a revamped supporting cast. With the King's blessing, general manager David Griffin swapped a slew of assets for Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
Once those pieces congealed into a cohesive whole, the Cavs could hardly be stopped. They won 32 of the last 35 games in which James, Irving and Love played.
James' personal performance suffered significantly in Year 1 of his second stint in Cleveland. He missed 13 games—the most in a single season of his career—and saw his statistical production slip in those he did play, at least in comparison to his four years in Miami:
|LeBron James' Averages, by Stint|
But if James is to be judged on his team's success, it's tough to argue that things turned out worse for him in Cleveland than they would've in Miami. The Cavs won 53 games, a year after the Heat came out ahead 54 times during the 2013-14 campaign.
Come playoff time, Cleveland crept within two wins of a title, despite losing Irving and Love to injury. Miami, though weary, had no such glaring setbacks in 2014, yet managed just one win in the Finals as the San Antonio Spurs strung together an historic shellacking.
The Heat have done well to patch together a solid roster, headlined by a star-studded starting five, just over 15 months after James took his talents back to the Buckeye State. Riley plugged the gaping hole at small forward with Luol Deng, found Hassan Whiteside on the scrap heap during the 2014-15 season and inked Dragic to a five-year deal in July.
But even his group can't compare to the prime position in which Bron-Bron's current crew finds itself.
Cleveland has the goods to contend for the foreseeable future. The Cavs have four core players aged 27 or younger (i.e. Love, Irving, Shumpert and Tristan Thompson) whose contracts guarantee they'll be under Cleveland's control through the 2017-18 campaign. Next summer, the team will have an opportunity to lock James and Mozgov into long-term deals as the salary cap skyrockets toward $90 million.
The Heat, on the other hand, will have to go back to the drawing board soon. Four out of their five starters will be 30 or older by the time the 2016-17 season tips off. Whiteside, the lone youngster, will be a free agent in July, as will Wade and Deng. As Grantland's Zach Lowe detailed, keeping the core intact while turning the roster into a title-worthy one could be as tricky a task as Riles has ever taken on:
One star changes everything, and Riley gets stars. Next summer, Miami could open up nearly $40 million in cap room, and as much as $45 million if it moves McRoberts for extra cap space. That’s a ton, but if Whiteside has even a solid season, it’s not enough to bring back both Whiteside and Wade while signing an outside star; the Heat will not have full Bird rights on Whiteside, meaning they will have to dip into cap space to re-sign him.
The Heat, then, will have to roll the dice on the open market more than eight months from now just to put themselves within spitting distance of the Larry O'Brien Trophy. The Cavs, meanwhile, are already the favorites to win it all this year, according to Odds Shark.
So when James welcomes his old friends back to the Q, he can smile confidently, with the "what if" he left unanswered in south Florida rendered irrelevant by the actual circumstances he's fashioned for himself in northeast Ohio.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.