Their 3-6 start might suggest otherwise, but it’s pretty clear from a quick scan of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ roster and a few glimpses of their play so far in 2013-14 that they are better off than they were a few seasons ago.
But are they better off than they were 40 months (plus a couple of weeks) ago, when LeBron James had yet to play for any other franchise and, as a free agent for the first time in his career, at least was contemplating a re-up with the Cavs?
It’s a classic “what-if,” parallel universe, hypothetical to which there’s no correct or incorrect answer, which makes it ideal for the blogosphere. Bandying about what might have happened, or even what should have, is so much more entertaining than simply chronicling what did or rehashing why it did.
In broad strokes, the impact on the Cavaliers, on James and on the league are easy enough to discern. Cleveland surely wouldn’t be 105 games under .500 over the past three-plus seasons and 0-for-postseason qualifying if it still had the NBA’s most dominant player on hand.
James very likely would have just as many MVP trophies, All-Star appearances and gold medals, and nearly as much endorsement income, but his vault still might have only store-bought jewelry. Notably, the league’s owners and players might be working under a significantly different collective bargaining agreement, because the jolt provided by Miami’s Big Three roundup — a central issue of the 2011 lockout — never would have happened. The road to the Eastern Conference title still would run very much through Cleveland, so the urgency to tighten the new CBA — with its harsher luxury taxes and shorter contracts — wouldn’t have been the same.
Drill down to the details, though, and some of the trickier differences in James’, Cavs fans’ and our realities might leap out at you. Such as:
No Kyrie Irving. No Tristan Thompson, for that matter, and very likely no Dion Waiters or Anthony Bennett either. The Cavaliers had to both be bad, and accept being bad, to get those guys (trading away Mo Williams, one of James’ more competent teammates, in the Clippers deal that delivered the Irving Draft pick). Winning 50 or 55 games a year primarily carried along on James’ shoulders would have meant, instead, more Christian Eyengas and Jared Cunninghams.
No Mike Brown. But then, no Bryon Scott either. Since Brown was dumped and Scott was hired during that week or so when Cleveland thought it could entice James to re-sign, the former wouldn’t be back working at The Q had James stayed. Then again, Scott almost certainly would have chafed with the organization’s superstar-indulging ways, leading to headbutting in general and eventually a predictable outcome to a classic franchise player vs. head coach conflict. Who’d be coaching the Cavs right now? Hmm, maybe George Karl would be the one getting a second shot.
The supporting cast would be different without necessarily being better. The last Cleveland team on which James played included Daniel Gibson, Danny Green, J.J. Hickson, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Antawn Jamison, Coby Karl, Jamario Moon, Shaquille O’Neal, Anthony Parker, Leon Powe, Sebastian Telfair, Anderson Varejao, Delonte West, Jawad Williams and Mo Williams, among others. Varejao, alone, remains. Cavs GM Chris Grant surely would have patched, spliced and caulked as desperately as he could to keep reasonable pieces around James, but Draft positions and the club’s forever difficulty attracting top free agents would have undercut that strategy. (Having witnessed first-hand Kevin Garnett‘s career arc in Minnesota, I can attest: building around a young star is easier, or at least a more synchronized effort, than rebuilding around an impatient veteran star.)
The NBA’s balance of power would be quite different. Miami, relying on Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and, hmm, some third piece way less dangerous than James, likely wouldn’t have gone to three Finals and won two. Oklahoma City might have broken through in 2011 and decided that keeping James Harden for a repeat, perhaps three-peat, was worth it. If Irving sticks in L.A. with that Clippers’ pick in 2011, Chris Paul might actually have wound up with the Lakers — remember, the lockout probably would have played out differently, in tone and in duration. Maybe Dwight Howard stays put in Orlando if James stays in Cleveland. Heck, maybe even Carmelo Anthony stays in Denver – unless he could find a way to hook up with Wade and Bosh.
Fewer rings for James? As in zero? Probably. And if he signed a contract to stay with the Cavs that included an opt-out, the speculation about him moving this summer would be ten times louder than it is now — and far more likely. His choices of destinations might be far different, too (Brooklyn? The Lakers? A reinvigorated push from Dallas?).
There are a hundred things that would be different had James stayed in Cleveland, including the promishing state of the Cavs’ current roster. The Decision wound up being, in its way, “The Butterfly Effect” of the current NBA landscape.