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 fulfills the prophecy that followed him for the first seven years of his career and signs with the New York Knicks.
The Knicks give James two things no other team can. The first is a unique legacy. Championships anywhere are special, but championships in New York are something greater entirely. The idea of being the player that revives the Knicks appeals to LeBron, but so too do the financial advantages of playing in the Big Apple. Already the NBA’s most prolific marketer, moving to New York would have put James in the Michael Jordan tier of athletic advertisers and helped him toward his dream of one day owning an NBA team. With two max cap slots, a top coach and a highly regarded GM, the basketball situation was pretty promising too.
The (geographically incorrect) quote
“I’m taking my talents to Broadway and joining the New York Knicks.”
How does the next decade of NBA history change?
LeBron’s first order of business is securing a running mate. Almost immediately after “The Decision,” Dwyane Wade announces that he will be joining James with the Knicks. The ripple effect of that decision changes virtually every major move of 2010 free agency. Chris Bosh signs with the only option left on the board that gives him a chance to compete against the Knicks, the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls. With Chicago’s power forward slot filled, Carlos Boozer remains with the Utah Jazz. The then-New Jersey Nets eagerly scoop up Amar’e Stoudemire, who, in this scenario, the Knicks choose not to pursue because of the hints LeBron and Wade dropped about their interest in teaming up.
But in the days following “The Decision,” the best potential free agent of the 2011 class also takes his name out of consideration. Carmelo Anthony informs the Denver Nuggets that he would like to be traded to the Knicks alongside James and Wade, and that he will depart in free agency if his wish is not granted. James Dolan is so happy with team president Donnie Walsh’s free agency coup that he does not interfere in negotiations with the Nuggets. A deal is completed before the start of training camp. The Knicks get Anthony. The Nuggets get Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and the expiring contract of Eddy Curry. In this scenario, the Knicks keep Timofey Mozgov, who slots in as their starting center. As talented as this Knicks team would have been at the top, its depth would have been sparse
While that would prove problematic in the postseason, the regular season goes exactly as planned. James, playing in Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced system alongside two elite scorers, becomes the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double. That wins him the MVP award over Derrick Rose, who leads the Bulls to 64 wins alongside Bosh. The Knicks win their Eastern Conference finals showdown, but lose to the Dallas Mavericks as James, apparently struggling with the weight of becoming the NBA’s preeminent villain, falls short in the NBA Finals. They rectify that a year later, winning the 2012 championship over the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games. As promised, LeBron becomes a New York legend.
But the reign of King James doesn’t create a dynasty. The trio of James, Wade and Anthony, while preposterously talented, is fairly redundant. The simplest explanation for why would come in Game 6 of their 2013 NBA Finals series against the San Antonio Spurs. In reality, the second James-Wade championship boiled down to Chris Bosh getting the rebound that led to Ray Allen’s game-tying shot. Anthony is three inches shorter than Bosh, has a wingspan four inches shorter, and most pertinently, is not a center. In the same scenario for these Knicks, D’Antoni leaves a traditional center (Mozgov) on the floor, which allows Gregg Popovich to keep Tim Duncan in the game, and when LeBron misses the game-tying 3-pointer, Duncan comes down with the rebound to secure San Antonio’s championship. A year later, The Spurs defeat the Knicks again, giving Duncan six total championships, three of which have come over LeBron.
From there, the LeBron journey largely follows the original script. With Wade declining, he writes his famous letter to Cleveland in Sports Illustrated and rejoins the Cavaliers. They quickly trade for Kevin Love. Two years later, James blocks Andre Iguodala, Kyrie Irving hits the game-winner, and the 52-year Cleveland drought ends with the first Cavaliers championship. Even though the James story is largely unchanged after 2014, Miami’s path changes drastically … and not necessarily for the worse.
Losing out on James, Wade and Bosh forces the Heat into a rebuild. As impossible as that is to believe, remember that the Heat had only one player under contract when they actually signed their three stars, and that was Mario Chalmers. Short of making incredibly short-sighted moves, even Pat Riley couldn’t build an entire winning roster from scratch with most of the league’s best free agents already signed. So he tanks for two solid years. In Year 1, his Heat have the NBA’s worst record, resulting in the No. 4 overall pick. They use it on Tristan Thompson. Things get far more interesting in Year 2, as the Charlotte Bobcats post the worst record in NBA history, leaving the Heat to settle for the second-worst lottery odds. That gets them the No. 3 overall pick. The No. 3 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft was Bradley Beal.
The team that was most interested in Beal at the time didn’t even have a lottery pick to use on him. That would be the Thunder, who, in reality, offered James Harden to the Washington Wizards for him. The Wizards passed. Riley, the NBA’s foremost star hunter, would not have. the Heat get Harden. the Thunder get Beal. As tempting as it might be to suggest this would drastically change Oklahoma City’s fortunes, the truth is that it likely wouldn’t. Beal didn’t make his first All-Star team until after Kevin Durant left in real life, and Steven Adams actually posted better value stats than Beal in those early years, leading him in Win Shares and VORP during the 2015-16 season. Throw in Beal’s somewhat redundant role with two other elite scorers, and the Thunder still lose to Golden State in 2016.
Miami’s fortunes change entirely with Harden, though. As much as he enjoys the South Beach nightlife, Riley’s maniacal approach to player fitness keeps him running at peak efficiency deep into the playoffs. It takes Riley several years to give Harden a worthy supporting cast, but when he pairs him with Chris Paul for the 2017-18 season, Miami makes it back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2006. There, they upset the Warriors with Durant and Stephen Curry, thanks to improved all-around play from Harden, which in turn lowers Paul’s load and prevents him from getting injured as he did in Houston’s 2018 upset bid against the Warriors. Erik Spoelstra’s more holistic approach to offense prevents an 0-for-27 stretch on 3-pointers, and Miami stuns Golden State in seven games. That title cements Harden as the greatest player in Heat history.
Durant’s relationship with the Warriors is renewed by his desire to avenge the Miami loss. He still gets hurt in the 2019 playoffs, but re-signs with Golden State afterward. LeBron still lands with the Los Angeles Lakers and brings Anthony Davis with him. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George join the Los Angeles Clippers to challenge him. And Kyrie Irving signs with the Brooklyn Nets even without Durant. It goes predictably poorly.
Was this outcome better than LeBron’s reality?
It’s hard to say at this point. To a normal player, one New York title is worth more than two Miami titles, and five consecutive MVP awards, as he would have won in this scenario, is unparalleled in league history. But LeBron is held to a different standard than most players. If the goal is to catch Michael Jordan, every championship counts. His GOAT claim in the eyes of most fans would be pretty flimsy with only two championships entering his Lakers tenure. However, his Lakers tenure is far from over. Winning multiple championships in purple and gold could get him close enough to Jordan in raw ring count that the circumstances of those rings would come into play. Saving the Knicks, ending Cleveland’s drought and pushing the Lakers past the Celtics in total championships is about as impressive as a resume can get. So for now, we’ll say TBD. Check back again when LeBron hangs up his Lakers jersey.