In honor of the 10th anniversary of The Decision, CBS Sports is reexamining LeBron James‘ 2010 decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat by wondering what might have happened had James signed elsewhere. In today’s edition, James decides to stick it out in Cleveland and re-sign with the Cavaliers.
Had LeBron James remained in Cleveland in 2010, it would not have been a basketball decision. The only explanation for passing up chances to play with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or any other superstar of the day would have been emotional. Having lived his entire life in Akron, nobody would have blamed LeBron for lacking the heart to break Ohio’s heart.
“I’m taking my talents back home and staying with the Cleveland Cavaliers.”
How does the next decade of NBA history change?
In this scenario, there is no decorated partner set to join LeBron in Cleveland. His best teammate remains Mo Williams. That would have proven problematic given the upgrades made across the rest of the Eastern Conference. Even without James, the Miami Heat would still have signed the formidable duo of Wade and Bosh. Riley may not be able to land the third star he truly wanted, but finds an interesting consolation prize by swapping Michael Beasley and a first-round pick for Al Jefferson, an interior presence to compliment Bosh’s shooting. With the last of his cap space, Riley snags Mike Miller as his small forward, and Udonis Haslem takes the full Mid-Level Exception from the Denver Nuggets when it becomes clear that Miami’s priorities lie elsewhere.
The rest of 2010’s star-studded class plays out by the numbers. Carlos Boozer and a cavalcade of useful role players land in Chicago. Amar’e Stoudemire takes on the task of reviving the New York Knicks, and as was the case, in reality, is joined by Carmelo Anthony in the middle of the season. A notable mid-season trade that doesn’t happen with LeBron in Cleveland? The Williams for Baron Davis swap that netted the Cavaliers an unprotected first-round pick from the Los Angeles Clippers. That was the pick that turned into Kyrie Irving. Williams is too important to their immediate championship pursuit, so they rebuff the Clippers on that front. Few other teams would have been willing to take on Davis’ onerous contract, but one sneaky trade partner fits the bill: Daryl Morey. He was purely in asset creation mode at that point with his Rockets middling, and he could have used the expiring contract of Yao Ming, who would soon retire, to make the numbers work.
Keeping Williams proves fruitless for Cleveland, though. Even with LeBron, the Cavaliers prove no match for Chicago in the second round. The Bulls proceed to beat the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals. Houston kicks off the 2011 offseason by taking Irving No. 1 overall, but he isn’t the only star point guard whose destiny changes here. Dan Gilbert openly lobbied against the Los Angeles Lakers acquiring Chris Paul after the lockout because, in his mind, the deal would have further stacked the deck against small markets. That was a stance he took on after losing LeBron. With James still a member of the Cavaliers, he doesn’t interfere, and Paul becomes a Laker. Dwight Howard joins him a year later, but is so miserable with the notoriously tough Paul and Kobe Bryant that he joins Irving in Houston in 2013.
Rose’s torn ACL clears Cleveland’s path enough in 2012 for LeBron to return to the NBA Finals for the first time in five years, but there he runs into the young and overwhelmingly athletic Oklahoma City Thunder. James outplays Kevin Durant, but the Cavaliers have no answer for Russell Westbrook or James Harden. The Thunder not only win the championship, but reward Harden with the max contract they didn’t offer him in reality. Oklahoma City’s MVP trio of Durant, Westbrook and Harden doesn’t break up.
For Cleveland’s purposes, that hardly matters. By this point, Williams and Anderson Varejao have hit their 30s, and most of the remaining role players from LeBron’s early years are either gone or have aged out of being valuable. They have had nothing but Mid-Level Exceptions, bloated expiring contracts and late first-round picks to work with in improving their roster. LeBron slowly takes on the role of his generation’s Kevin Garnett, a legend whose prime was wasted in the wrong city. The final two years before his 2014 early termination option both feature playoff losses to Paul George and the Indiana Pacers, who themselves lose back-to-back NBA Finals against the Thunder.
At 29-years-old, LeBron senses that this free agency could be his last chance to find a contending team in his prime, but his options are somewhat limited. Wade and Bosh are past their primes in Miami, so pairing up with them there makes little sense. The same is true with Bryant in Los Angeles. So he resolves to unite with another close friend of his who happens to be a free agent that summer: Carmelo Anthony. But where? The Knicks simply don’t have any way of creating the necessary cap flexibility to sign both, so they look to a team James considered in 2010: the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls, by using the amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer, can get most of the way to one max slot. The other needs to come through a trade, and with LeBron incoming, ball-handling becomes a redundant skill in Chicago. So, to clear the space for their duo, the Bulls deal Derrick Rose into the cap space Anthony vacated in New York. That leaves the Bulls with a core of LeBron, Carmelo, Joakim Noah and the young Jimmy Butler. Taj Gibson remains on the bench, and rookies Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic provide the shooting. James finally has his superteam.
And finally, he snags his first ring. With Durant unable to defend his title following a Jones Fracture in his foot, James and the Bulls defeat the Golden State Warriors to win the championship. A year later, with Durant healthy, the Bulls defend their crown and knock off the Thunder for championship No. 2.
That, unfortunately, would be their last. Durant, seeking a new challenge and a different form of basketball, joins the Warriors in the summer of 2016 as he did in reality, but as the Warriors had not previously won a championship, he supplants Stephen Curry as the Bay Area’s favorite son when he leads Golden State past Chicago in the 2017 NBA Finals. A rematch with the same outcome a year later forces LeBron to reconsider what his final act might look like. Aside from Butler, the Bulls are aging. A younger contender is on the rise, however, in the city that he left.
The actual Cavaliers defied the odds by winning the NBA Draft Lottery three out of the four years LeBron was gone. Our alternate universe Cavaliers do the same here, and with shockingly similar results. Both land one true superstar (Karl-Anthony Towns for the fake Cavs, Irving for the real ones), one outright bust (Markelle Fultz for the fake Cavs, Anthony Bennett for the real ones) and one promising but puzzling ball of physical talent (DeAndre Ayton for the fake Cavs, Andrew Wiggins for the real ones).
James announces in a letter posted by Sports Illustrated that he plans to return to Cleveland and finish his career as a Cavalier. He mentions Towns by name in that letter, but leaves out incumbent No. 1 pick Ayton, as he needs another perimeter scorer by his side, like Irving was in reality, and knows that Ayton will be the trade piece that gets him that teammate. The question is, who? The 2018 offseason had no elite free agent guards, nor did any change teams through trade. It did, however, have a pretty enticing alternative available at forward.
Cleveland would, naturally, be a bit skeptical about trading the No. 1 overall pick for the then-injured Kawhi Leonard, but LeBron insists on the Cavaliers going all-in immediately, so Gilbert takes the plunge and sends his past two No. 1 picks, Ayton and Fultz, to the Spurs for Leonard. The move works out brilliantly. Leonard’s defense protects Towns and allows James to coast on that end of the floor, and their offense together is nearly flawless.
Though it is tainted by talk of asterisks with Kevin Durant out, LeBron finally wins a championship for Cleveland in 2019. Leonard, having seen the adulation James received for winning one for the land, leaves the Cavaliers in free agency to team up with Paul George on his hometown Lakers. Durant re-signs with the Warriors determined to come back stronger than ever and match Michael Jordan’s six championships. The Lakers, Warriors and Cavaliers kick off the 2020s atop the NBA.
Was this outcome better than LeBron’s reality?
Undoubtedly worse. Regardless of what happens afterward, any chance LeBron had at the GOAT title would have been lost if he’d gone the first 11 years of his career without a championship. An asterisk-tainted Cleveland championship wouldn’t be nearly as sweet as the one that the Cavaliers actually won in 2016, and with Leonard gone in free agency, LeBron’s odds of winning a fourth title aren’t great. As amazing as it sounds, The Decision was actually the best thing that ever happened to Cavs fans.