We are months removed from a months-long NBA layoff, facing months more without basketball. Almost a year and a half will pass between free-agency periods. In the coming weeks, we will spend ample time imagining what now lies ahead for the league’s 30 teams. But we’ve earned our fun, so join us as we first reimagine some of this century’s pivotal moments in a series we’re going to call Alternate NBA Endings.
[Previously: What if Draymond Green never struck LeBron James in the groin? • What if Tim Duncan joined Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill in 2000 free agency? • What if the NBA never voided Chris Paul's trade to the Lakers?]
Entering 2010 free agency, the Miami Heat were not the favorite to sign LeBron James. There was some question as to whether the 25-year-old rising legend and Akron native would leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the Chicago Bulls loomed as the most likely alternative, with either Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh in tow.
The Bulls and Cavs secured the last of the six interviews James granted leading up to “The Decision.” He scheduled meetings with the New Jersey Nets and New York Knicks to open free agency. The Heat and Los Angeles Clippers were slated between. Everyone expressed confidence, but Pat Riley held the trump card.
“When it came to the point Miami was able to get three players, that changed the whole dynamic of the summer,” Wade told Chicago sportswriting legend Sam Smith in 2016, when he eventually signed with his hometown Bulls. “[...] We never thought it was possible. I was shocked when I heard it could happen.”
Stephen A. Smith first floated the possibility of James and Bosh joining Wade in Miami three days before the start of free agency. Marc Stein and Chris Broussard confirmed that report the next day, but the Bulls were not done yet. They tried swinging Luol Deng to the Toronto Raptors in a sign-and-trade deal for Bosh, but James and Wade had reported reservations about their fit with Derrick Rose, who showed little interest in recruiting any of them to Chicago, and James never returned Joakim Noah’s phone calls. Game over.
James was engaged in every pitch. The Nets, Knicks and Clippers were not so creative. The Cavaliers could not sign another star, let alone two, and James opted for South Beach over Lake Michigan. But what if any of those five other teams had successfully bent James’ ear? What if he chose anywhere but Miami?
Miami Heat’s alternate ending
Obviously, the Heat would have been in shambles had Wade left and James and Bosh never come. The next-best available free agents that season were Joe Johnson, Amar’e Stoudemire, Rudy Gay, David Lee and Carlos Boozer. Miami could have signed two of them and built a No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Or the Heat might have gone all in on a rebuild, tanking for Kyrie Irving and essentially construct the same Cleveland team that James joined in 2014, only without the allure of his return to Northeast Ohio. It is a grim outlook, but one Riley could have navigated, considering his post-James roadmap back to the 2020 Finals.
Either way, Erik Spoelstra is not a Hall of Fame coach by age 50.
Another possible scenario — and maybe even a likely one — was Riley finding his way back to the Los Angeles Lakers in the aftermath of his master plan falling to pieces. There, he would have been tasked with either delivering a sixth ring for Kobe Bryant or expediting the post-Kobe transition that was so disastrous until this past season. Either seems like an enticing challenge for a guy who felt a sentimental pull to L.A.
And what would that have meant for the Heat? Is Miami still linked to every big-name free agent the same way it has been over the past decade? Eddie Jones and Lamar Odom were the biggest signings of Riley’s Heat career prior to the 2010 coup, and their recruiting effort does not get better without his je ne sais quoi.
Cleveland Cavaliers’ alternate ending
Had James returned to Cleveland, he would have been doing so to a team that had $34 million committed to Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao and Daniel Gibson. James’ salary would have left the Cavaliers with no wiggle room under a $58 million salary cap to make significant improvements. There was not going to be a super-team in Cleveland. In retrospect, it is a wonder we ever thought James might stay.
There were a few interesting late-2000s/early-2010s names traded that offseason. Tyson Chandler was chief among them. The Dallas Mavericks acquired his expiring contract for a bag of balls and won the 2011 title with him as their defensive anchor. He could have helped. The Cavs acquired a past-his-prime Baron Davis at the 2011 trade deadline, but he also would not have been enough to get James over the top.
With James on the roster, could the Cavaliers have gotten in on either of the blockbuster deals from that deadline? Deron Williams was one. Carmelo Anthony was the other Imagine this: Anthony, not James, launches the player empowerment era by forcing his way to Cleveland, rather than New York. Could the Denver Nuggets have been coerced into accepting something rather than losing Anthony for nothing in free agency? What an alternate world. Of course, that presumes Anthony actually wanted to live in Cleveland.
Chicago Bulls’ alternate ending
The Bulls had Rose and Noah on their rookie contracts. There are still conflicting reports about which two of James, Wade and Bosh were initially interested in Chicago. It was James and Wade, Wade and Bosh or Bosh and James. The Bulls could have corralled all three with a workable sign-and-trade of Deng for Bosh, but the Heat beat them to the punch with their pitch. With Rose and Noah, that is a freaking monster lineup.
James and Wade were right to have reservations about their fit with Rose, who went on to capture MVP honors in 2011, but there is no scenario where that team does not win multiple titles. Rose and Noah took a game from James, Wade and Bosh in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals as it were. Now, mash those two teams together, and who is competing with that, however hard it may be to figure out the ball dynamics?
Rose’s future would have been most impacted by this alternate universe. That group would not have lasted four years together, and Rose likely would have been the odd man out if chemistry issues forced a trade. He would not have had the MVP to his name, but the shared duties might have eased the tension on his knees, and there would have at least been a chance for an entirely different career arc — in Chicago or elsewhere.
New York Knicks’ alternate ending
Oh, man. The Knicks had enough cap space to sign two max free agents in 2010 and reportedly pitched the idea of three stars taking pay cuts to play together in New York, where they would theoretically make up much of the difference in marketing money. Before Joe Johnson returned to Atlanta, he was thought to be the other big name the Knicks wanted to sell James on, and they ultimately signed Amar’e Stoudemire.
At the time, pairing James with either or both of those stars seemed like a worthwhile venture, and it may have been, especially if Stoudemire had stayed healthy. The Knicks still would have had the pieces they used to acquire Anthony at the 2011 deadline, and that becomes a super-team with a championship ceiling.
With hindsight, the James, Wade and Bosh combo was the best possible triumvirate of all the available players in 2010. They did take pay cuts to join forces in Miami, albeit smaller ones than the Knicks would have required, but those three could have owned New York. Their stardom reaches another stratosphere, and the franchise is transformed from the NBA’s doormat to its darling — at least in the eyes of Knicks fans.
New Jersey Nets’ alternate ending
The Nets did not initially have space for two max deals, let alone three, and their pitch to James centered around part-owner Jay-Z, their future in Brooklyn and trust in the front office to build a winner around a superstar. James reportedly informed them that room for another star would need to be made, and the Nets could have made that happen fairly easily. Bosh was purportedly New Jersey’s preferred partner for James.
They would have been joining a team with Devin Harris, Brook Lopez and a rookie Derrick Favors on the roster. The Nets shipped Harris and Favors to the Utah Jazz for Deron Williams at the 2011 trade deadline, but there is no doubt that package would have been sent to Denver for Anthony if James were on the team.
Unveiling a roster of James, Anthony and Lopez (or whoever they could have dealt him for) would have been a monumental entrance into the Brooklyn market. Who knows if they ever win a ring together against the 2011 Mavericks, in the lockout-shortened 2012 campaign or opposite those wonderful San Antonio Spurs teams. We forget that Anthony was the second-best player in the world in 2013, and James would have helped take his game to another level. If they win together, Anthony is remembered as Wade is today.
Los Angeles Clippers’ alternate ending
These were not the Clippers we know today. They were not even the Lob City Clippers yet. These were still Donald Sterling’s Clippers, and the owner did not even bother to show up for the team’s free-agency pitch. That made them the longest of long shots, but then-general manager Neil Olshey entered with confidence in pitching James on the city of L.A. and a lineup of Davis, Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin and Chris Kaman.
Sterling aside, Olshey had a point, especially now that we know what DeAndre Jordan became and how they turned Gordon, Kaman and other assets into Chris Paul. Essentially, the Clips could have been Lob City with James — a bona fide perennial contender that would have reshaped the entire past decade.
Had they still pushed Sterling out, Steve Ballmer would have paid everyone for as long as they were willing to stay together. They would have been a roadblock to every Western Conference power since, including Kawhi Leonard’s rise in San Antonio, the young Thunder and the Golden State Warriors dynasty. Does LeBron ever return to Cleveland if he finds L.A. in 2010? Only James could have challenged the Lakers for the city’s basketball attention, and would he have ever switched sides after making the Clippers his own?
Who are we kidding? They still would have been the Clippers, finding spectacular ways to fail.
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