We all know LeBron James will always carry Akron, Cleveland, and the whole state of Ohio in his heart, but we also know that in the summer of 2010, he Decided to jump ship and join the Heat along with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to form the ultimate team under the warm sun and neon lights of South Beach.
But what if that day in July of 2010 had had another ending? What if LeBron had chosen to remain in Cleveland fighting for the title that had always dodged him? What if he had picked Chicago to turn into the second coming of Mike for the Bulls? What if, in an absolutely crazy plot twist, he had gone crazy and chosen the New York Knicks? I just couldn’t sleep with all of those potential scenarios in my mind, so I had to look into the crystal ball to play out those career arcs and see where they left LeBron’s legacy at when all was said and done.
This one is a little different to the prior two what-if stories I have already written. The basics are the same (I went back to the summer of 2010, and started from there moving LeBron here or there), only now I will sim the whole career of James at once starting at any of the teams considered and let it go from 2010 on without affecting anything. That means that he might spend just four years in the original teams and then exits, or that he remains there forever. Who knows!
I have checked the archives and although there were a bunch of teams mentioned as potential landing places for Bron, only a very select few were in serious consideration—or so fools thought back then in 2010 when they were covering The Decision: Chicago, New York, Miami, and Cleveland.
Although we all know what happened in real life, I have decided to also run a simulation with LeBron as part of the Heat starting in the 2010-11 season just to see how things could have diverted from what has gone on in our universe. It was free to do, so don’t worry about my time machine spending sprees.
Universe One: I’m going to take my talents to... South Beach!
Do you really need any introduction? Wade, Bosh, LeBron. Not one, not two, not three. That’s pretty much it, I guess. Anyways, and just in case you have forgotten, this is the Miami Heat team that LeBron joined/formed back in 2010 (and their stats by year’s end).
Even with some washed-up bodies like those of Magloire, Stackhouse, Zyd-Il, Dampier, and Juwan Howard, the Heat had a pretty ridiculous team if only because they featured three 20+ PER players including James’ monster 34.1 PER on the year! It went for nothing, though, as the Heat fell in the ECF to... the 63-19 Knicks! If you think the Heat were good, New York had a freaking starting-five full of 20+ PER players, seriously. All of Billups, Felton, Melo, Stoudemire, and Gallinari broke the mark and even other two players (Toney Douglas and Wilson Chandler) finished at 15+. No wonder the Knicks snatched the title.
But let’s get straight to LeBron’s career. So James picked Miami. James picked Miami chasing a title, that is. And the title came no later than in 2012. What a coincidence! LeBron and the Heat became back-to-back champs in 2012 and 2013 with 66-16 and 62-20 records. Miami edged Utah 4-3 in 2012 after impossibly acquiring a fourth (a fourth!) megastar in Dwight Howard as a free agent in 2011 (they also signed Rashard Lewis). One year later they kept the same roster and swept the hell out of OKC (a Thunder team featuring Durant, Harden, Russ... and Brandon Jennings!) with a resounding 4-0 Finals win.
That was it for LeBron in terms of gold-chasing in Miami. After those two titles he extended his contract with the Heat until 2019, played impressively good basketball, but with the rings already on his fingers the pressure wasn’t big and he never got another title. Not that he cared that much. When he hit free agency again in 2019, James had a good amount of options to pick from... and LeBron moved West to the Golden State Warriors to close his career in Cali! James played five seasons there, reached 40 years of age while still a pro, only made the playoffs a couple of times... but in 2023 faced his Cavs in the Finals only to get demolished 4-0 (just so you know, Jabari Parker was the go-to guy of those Warriors) before taking on his 2024 Farewell Tour.
Teams: Cleveland (2004 to 2010), Miami (2011 to 2019), Golden State (2020 to 2024)
NBA Titles: Miami 2012, 2013.
Awards: 2x MVP, 2x Finals MVP, 3x DPOY, Scoring Leader (2011), Steals Leader (2011), 7x First Team All-NBA, 1x Third Team All-NBA, 4x First Team All-Defensive, 1x Second Team All-Defensive, 8x All-Star, 1x All-Star MVP.
Universe Two: I’m going to take my talents to... nah I’m staying home!
The universe for the soft of heart and love-story rooters. If LeBron had stayed in Cleveland his legacy would have been automatically changed, the way the world of basketball looks at him would have another completely different opinion of the man, and who knows if he would have ever got that chip for his Cavs, let alone ever donned Lakers’ threads. Thanks to my time machine, though, we can solve all of those questions now. But just looking at the start of this story, things couldn’t be uglier.
LeBron shared the court with an ultra washed-up Shaq the season leading up to The Decision. Mo Williams was probably the third-best player of that team, followed by Zyd-Il. In 2011 the Cavs didn’t have them nor pulled off any big FA signing... other than Bron! James inked a four-year contract leading up to the summer of 2014, and in that span, he carried the Cavs to the playoffs three out of four times, each passing year with worse results.
Keep in mind that Cleveland had been a playoff team each year since the 2005-06 season, lost the Finals in 2007, and reached the ECF again in 2009 when they fell to the Magic. Add three more playoff runs to those and you get a sweet eight-year span in which the Cavs made it to the postseason, and one Finals. Yeah, you read that right, LeBron couldn’t get the ring up to 2014 when he entirely missed the playoffs with a 39-43 regular-season record.
The best LeBron did was in 2011 when he carried the Cavs to the ECF again but ultimately fell to New York 4-1 facing an impossible-to-stop Melo that ended lifting the chip that year (funnily enough, Melo did crap from that point on signing with the Lakers in 2016 and riding his paychecks to a fine retirement in just 2018 when he called it quits for good).
Tired of carrying an ultra-bad franchise for half of his life, LeBron decided—this time for real—to ditch Cleveland in the summer of 2014 and move to the dessert signing with the Phoenix Suns. That might sound ridiculous for the alien not following this universe, but this is how the Suns looked by the end of the 2014-15 season.
Talk about a freaking stacked team! Just in 2014 the Suns were able to pair James with Harden and also draft Aaron Gordon sixth overall! And it is not that they didn’t have incredible players in town already (Shawn Marion, Agent Zero) or went in for the kill mid-season (trading for Pat Beverley). All for what? A first-round exit at the hands of a Durant-led, Russ-less Thunder (OKC also had DeMarcus Cousins coming off the bench).
LeBron made Phoenix his second home and spent the rest of his career in the desert, until he retired in 2022 and was insta-elected for the HOF. In his 618 games as a Sun spanning eight seasons James won a lot. A lot of games, that is, but not a lot of gold, which was none at all. That’s right. The Super Suns made the playoffs from 2015 to 2018 but they never went past the second round in pretty disappointing fashion. The last time LeBron made the playoffs in 2018 Phoenix was already down a bunch of players, and by the time the 2019 postseason started the Suns were led by a 35-year-old LeBron whose best teammates were Dame Lillard (16.3 PER), Aaron Gordon (17.9), and a bunch of scrubs picked through the last few years drafts, as Phoenix ran out of money and opted not to spend big after the big LeBronian splash of 2015. James had quite a personal career full of accolades, but the ring straight avoided his fingers.
Teams: Cleveland (2004 to 2014), Phoenix (2015 to 2022)
NBA Titles: None.
Awards: 4x MVP, 3x DPOY, 4x Scoring Leader, 1x Steals Leader, 1x Blocks Leader, 6x First Team All-NBA, 1x Second Team All-NBA, 5x First Team All-Defensive, 1x Third Team All-Defensive, 8x All-Star, 2x All-Star MVP.
Universe Three: I’m going to take my talents to... the Jumpman Empire!
How many teams were more exciting than the 2010 summer Bulls? Derrick Rose had been named ROY just months before, he was in an absolute ascending path, and all of Deng, Boozer, and Noah looked like good enough pieces to form a support-group for the Rose-James tandem. No wonder, they went all in and got the King.
And just a quick look at those silly numbers let you know quite a bit about how things went from the get-go. James and Rose alone almost amassed a 60 PER while Deng and Noah reached 17+ each. With such an explosive duo going for it at ages 27 and 23 you could have expected ultimate outcome: a chip by the end of the 2010-11 season! Against the stacked OKC Thunder team, no less, with a pretty heavy 4-1 series record in just five games. Not even the mighty trio of Russ-KD-Harden could stop those Bully Bulls.
Only New York prevented Chicago from getting a three-peat of titles in LeBron’s first three seasons in Windy City. The Knicks ousted the Bulls in the 2012 ECF but other than that, Chicago came back hungrier than ever in 2013 and got itself the second Larry OB in three years with another 4-1, this time over Golden State facing a team led by the diminutive duo of Steph Curry and Monta Ellis, plus the forgotten giant Greg Oden. LeBron won two rings in his first two years with the Bulls, correct, but I have skipped the best of details: Chicago won 67, 73 (all-time best), 75 (mega-best), and 70 regular-season games in their first four seasons after signing Bron. That, folks, is some crazy historical basketball right there. The best of all is that the core always remained the same: Rose, James, Noah, Deng, Boozer. Only Ronnie Brewer and Jimmer Fredette played 20+ MPG for those Bulls.
With not much more stuff to get in Chicago, LeBron took his talents to Hollywood in 2016 inking a five-year deal with the Lake Show that he would later extend to 2024—although he ultimately decided to retire in 2022 though, entering the HOF then. The Lakers tenure wasn’t as good as the Bulls one. James joined a team in which Greg Monroe and Zach LaVine were the best players in the roster and reached the WCF in his first year before falling 4-0 to the Pels and the duo of Andrew Wiggins and James Harden who would meet... the Bulls (!) in the Finals and get the championship after beating them 4-1 in a pretty one-sided series. Chicago never did a lot after James left, and the Lakers never helped Bron that much, making it again to the WCF in 2020 but dropping the series to the Kings—and an impossibly great Mario Hezonja—and never ever making the Finals in LeBron’s years there.
Teams: Cleveland (2004 to 2014), Chicago (2015 to 2016), Los Angeles Lakers (2017 to 2022)
NBA Titles: Chicago 2011, 2013.
Awards: 1x MVP, 1x Finals MVP, 5x DPOY, 1x Scoring Leader, 3x First Team All-NBA, 1x Second Team All-NBA, 5x First Team All-Defensive, 6x All-Star, 1x All-Star MVP.
Universe Four: I’m going to take my talents to... Manhattan!
Oh man, what Knickerbockers fans have been dreaming about forever taking place... in a fake basketball blog. Meh, I guess it’s something, hey New Yorkers? The 2010 free agency was always going to be a big one, Decision or not. New York hoped to land the King, and in this alternate universe they did on top of acquiring big-man Amare’ Stoudemire. Quite a coup for the Knicks, who formed a duo at least as strong as that of Wade and Bosh down in Miami. No more need to bring Melo home destroying their team, either!
That was a sweet, balanced team. Billups at the point? Stoudemire inside? James all around the place? Sounds good to me. So good, in fact, that I see a champion here... Or multiple ones!
The Knicks signed LeBron and never looked back to their mediocre days, it seems. New York won three titles in a row with James in town. A three-peat, that is, something unheard of since the start of the century. Not only did they win, they dominated. The Knicks racked up 68, 71, and 72 wins in the first years of James’ tenure in Manhattan, putting them on par with the Jordan Bulls of the 90s by equaling their regular season and postseason exploits. The Triumphant Trio of Billups, STAT, and Bron turned into a bone-crunching machine, such that Chauncey ended next to James in the HOF when he retired and Amare’ fell short if only because he was gone by 2016 at age 34 (you bet if the game had considered his full career he’d be in too, so there’s that).
After running his first contract, James re-upped with the Knicks for a second time extending his deal until at least 2019. Why move back to stinky Cleveland, he must have thought back then? At the end of the day, the Knicks had finished 63-19 in 2014 and fell one game short of another trip to the Finals. So basically LeBron remained a New Yorker and he’d do so for his whole career until he retired in 2024 at age 38.
Under James, the Knicks went on to make the playoffs again every year except in 2017, 2023, and 2024. They even reached the Finals again in 2020 but couldn’t handle a Mavs team (4-2) led by Trey Lyles, Anthony Barber, Brandon Knight, Russell Westbrook, and Troy Daniels—no joke these Mavs: they made it to the WCF in 2018 and later on in 2022 too, sandwiching that title.
LeBron himself broke basketball. To his two MVP awards as a Cav he added six (6ix!) more in New York winning eight overall and beating Kareem big time in the historical leaderboard. He added eight All-Star nods (three of them ending in MVP trophies), made a bunch of All-Whatever teams, scored points at will, etc, etc. What could have been Knicks, what could have been...
Teams: Cleveland (2004 to 2010), New York (2011 to 2024)
NBA Titles: New York 2011, 2012, 2013.
Awards: 6x MVP, 3x Finals MVP, 4x DPOY, 6x Scoring Leader, 1x Steals Leader, 1x Assists Leader, 8x First Team All-NBA, 5x First Team All-Defensive, 8x All-Star, 3x All-Star MVP.