Games of throne
Anthony Davis Says Lakers Have Better Chance At Winning NBA Title After Hiatus
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 forms the ultimate superteam with the Chicago Bulls.
Championships are all that matter here. Being in a big market is nice, but the Bulls represent LeBron’s best chance at winning by far. If that had been the sole goal, he would have gone to Chicago. The Bulls, at that point, had the ability to not only unite the James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh trio, but pair them with an existing pool of young talent.
The (geographically incorrect) quote
“I’m taking my talents to The Loop and joining the Chicago Bulls.”
How does the next decade of NBA history change?
Chicago’s roster talent is absolutely staggering. I covered the exact roster machinations in more depth here, but these are the broad strokes: LeBron, Wade and Bosh all sign for slightly below the max, but come in sign-and-trades in order to secure an extra year and higher raises on their contracts. Luol Deng gets traded into another team’s cap space, but Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik can all remain with the Bulls. That gives Chicago arguably the most talented starting five in NBA history. Bosh, a likely Hall of Famer, is the only starter to have never finished in the top five of an MVP vote … and he once finished seventh. With Tom Thibodeau coaching them at the height of his powers, they would have been a historically dominant defensive team.
The rest of the league lags far behind the Bulls, and no other 2010 signing poses a threat to them. Amar’e Stoudemire signs in New York, Carlos Boozer returns to Utah, and the Heat come up totally empty-handed. Despite the Bulls’ spacing shortcomings, they are so athletically dominant that they win 68 games in their first season together and waltz through the Eastern Conference playoffs with a 12-1 record. The Dallas Mavericks provide a bit more of a challenge in a six-game NBA Finals series, but the Bulls ultimately come out on top as Rose steps up to account for LeBron’s struggles.
The Bulls are just as good a year later, and by virtue of blowing opponents out so easily, Rose does not remain on the floor at the end of Game 1 of their first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers. Therefore, he never tears his ACL, and the Bulls repeat against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but their incredible roster is what ultimately creates their first real challenger. In reality, the Boston Celtics traded starting center Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder for Jeff Green at the 2011 deadline. They did so because the Heat were light on size but extremely athletic. The Bulls, with Noah, Gibson and Asik supplementing Bosh, are far bigger, and Boston does not make the deal. The ripple effect here is massive, as the money Oklahoma City owed Perkins, whose valued diminished quickly, was in large part what prevented them from offering James Harden a max deal. No Perkins means the Thunder pay Harden the max, and the Bulls have their rival.
Chicago completes its three-peat in a 2013 rematch against the Thunder, but the dynasty quickly begins dissolving from there. Wade’s creaky knees limit his effectiveness during the 2013-14 season. The league’s continued emphasis on shooting begins to leave the Bulls behind, as they are built largely around athleticism. Asik leaves in free agency for a new contract, and their depth is surprisingly thin, thanks to the draft picks surrendered in the sign-and-trades for their superstars (which include the 2011 first-rounder that Chicago used on Jimmy Butler in reality). After three championships, Pat Riley’s famed “disease of more” kicks in. Credit becomes hard to come by on a team with five stars, and with a stellar Thunder team waiting for a third shot against them in the Finals, the Bulls finally relinquish their throne in 2014.
In a stunning decision, James decides to leave Chicago too early rather than too late. He returns to Cleveland both to satisfy his desire to win a championship for his home state and to join a roster brimming with the sort of shooting that the Bulls lacked. As successful as he was as a Bull, modernizing his game would be his best chance to continue winning championships. Chicago keeps the remainder of its core in place, hoping that a still-healthy Rose can keep it in contention. Once a blood clot is discovered in Bosh’s lung, however, any hopes of the Bulls truly fighting for another title disappear.
Kevin Durant’s 2015 Jones Fracture opens the door for new contenders, and while LeBron’s Cavaliers make it back to the Finals, a first-round injury to Kevin Love and a later injury to Kyrie Irving ultimately hand the title to the Golden State Warriors. Both the Thunder and Cavaliers are healthy in 2016, though, and in a seven-game Finals filled with record-breaking offensive performances, Cleveland wins its first championship in 52 years. In response, Durant signs with Golden State that summer. The Warriors beat the Cavs with relative ease in the 2017 and 2018 NBA Finals, and James leaves Cleveland for the Los Angeles Lakers. NBA history proceeds mostly as scheduled from there.
As for the LeBron-less Heat? Their future isn’t nearly as bright. Miami stripped its roster to the studs in an effort to sign the star trio of James, Wade and Bosh, and once Chicago swooped in to steal all three, Miami had little choice but to tank. The worst record in the NBA during the 2010-11 season yielded only the No. 4 overall pick in that year’s NBA Draft, and Tristan Thompson isn’t exactly a savior. They do far better in 2012, nabbing Bradley Beal the No. 3 overall pick, but Beal has never proven capable of leading a contending team.
Beal’s presence, along with Miami’s general organizational competence, lifts the Heat out of the running for top draft picks without vaulting them into true contention. The best they can do in finding a running mate for Beal is LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015 free agency, but while that duo makes the Heat relevant, it is still a far cry from championship-caliber. At no point during the 2010s do the Heat actually compete for the NBA’s top prize. The same is true of every other team that pursued LeBron.
Seven of the decade’s championships belong to either Durant or James, turning them into their generation’s version of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and Durant’s injuries in 2015 and 2019 play a big part in enabling the solo championships won by Stephen Curry (2015) and Kawhi Leonard (2019). Leonard’s decision to team up with Paul George on the Clippers is based, at least in part, on a desire to break up the LeBron-Durant duopoly.
Was this outcome better than LeBron’s reality?
Common sense dictates that it is slightly better simply by virtue of four championships being greater than three. This scenario comes with a number of anecdotal demerits, though. LeBron’s roster in Chicago would be so dominant that some may simply refuse to give him credit for the championships. As epic as a 2016 Finals featuring the fully-loaded Thunder would be, no series could match the excitement of the actual 2016 NBA Finals, and the block is so integral to James’ legacy now that removing it would be somewhat detrimental. Ultimately, this is a toss-up. Those who value ring count above all else likely prefer this outcome to reality. Context favors the journey that LeBron actually took.
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