July 11th, 2014 is a date that will live in infamy in the hearts of Miami Heat fans. It was the day that the Cavaliers launched their surprise attack on the Eastern Conference. It was the day that Dan Gilbert made a new ally out of an erstwhile foe. It was the day that LeBron James, who had just won two championships in four seasons in South Beach, announced he was returning home to Cleveland. “Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio,” he wrote in a deeply personal letter published on SI.com. “It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled.”
The reaction from around the NBA was immediate and thunderous as players and executives took to the Twitterverse to voice their opinions. Cavs guard Kyrie Irving welcomed him back with open arms; Heat owner Micky Arison expressed his shock and disappointment; and Sixers center Joel Embiid joked about his lackluster recruiting skills.
You know what happened next. LeBron led the Cavs to the NBA Finals in each of the next three seasons and helped the Wine and Gold become the first Cleveland team to win a championship since 1964.
It was an amazing turn of events, but what if it never happened? What if LeBron decided to stay in Miami and continue to play alongside Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade? Would the Cavs have won a championship? Would Kyrie still be in town? Would the NBA have a new super team? Would Dan Gilbert still be writing letters in comic sans? We intend to answer those questions in our first instalment of Revisionist History.
Over/under on how many titles LeBron would have won in Miami from 2014-15 to 2016-17: 2.5
The Backdrop: While LeBron James may or may not go down as the best player in basketball history, he will certainly go down as the best recruiter. During his first four years in Miami, he convinced Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis, Chris Anderson, Eddie House, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Jerry Stackhouse to join his quest for titles — many, many titles. The city’s warm climate and state’s dearth of taxes doubtlessly helped to sweeten the deal, but make no mistake, those players came with the express purpose of playing with the King. How would the ensuing free-agent periods have played out?
The Alternate Timeline: LeBron works his magic again during the summer of 2014 when he convinces Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to re-sign with Miami on team-friendly deals, and successfully recruits workout buddy and fellow free agent Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe fills the team’s biggest position of need and pushes Mario Chalmers to the bench, where he’s far better suited as a change-of-pace guard. He then pulls off his biggest coup of all when he convinces Carmelo Anthony to join the team on a one-year, championship-or-bust deal.
Team President Pat Riley also comes up big when he signs D-League castoff Hassan Whiteside to a one-year, $769,881 deal. The signing mostly flies under the radar, but proves crucial later in the year when Bosh is limited to 44 games due to the presence of blood clots in his lungs and legs.
Whiteside gives the team a Spalding-devouring rim protector and allows Miami’s already fierce defense to become stingier than Scrooge during a recession. Even without Bosh hitting baseline jumpers, the Heat still rattle off a pair of 25-game winning streaks and finish the season with a stellar 69-13 record. LeBron leads the league in assists; Anthony is spotted in a defensive stance sometime in mid-March; and Whiteside is named the NBA’s Most Improved Player.
The Heat continue their dominance in the playoffs, wiping the floor with the East and downing the over-matched Golden State Warriors in four straight games. It feels a little bit like watching the varsity team playing the JV, and it becomes the lowest-rated finals since the strike-shortened 1999 season.
Content with having won one championship and shutting up Charles Barkley, Anthony signs a monster contract with the Kings in the offseason. Undaunted, the Heat reload with 2015 free agent Draymond Green, who decides that, if you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well join ‘em. Tyson Chandler comes on board to chase a ring, and LeBron convinces free agent J.R. Smith to put down his bottle of Hennessy long enough to accept the veteran minimum and sign on the dotted line.
Once again, the Heat are too much for the rest of the NBA to handle. Miami cruises to a 71-11 record, coming within two games of the all-time NBA mark. Golden State is unable to get out of the West without Green anchoring its defense, and the Heat face the Spurs in a surprisingly competitive five-game series. Kawhi Leonard goes toe-to-toe with LeBron for the first two games, before simply running out of gas. Miami celebrates its fourth championship in five years, and J.R. Smith publicly refuses to wear a shirt until mid-November.
The 2016-17 season finally brings an end to the Heat’s run. Injuries and old age catch up with Bosh, Wade, and Chandler, and the team limps through the season, finishing with a sub-par 59-23 record. They still go undefeated in the first three rounds of the playoffs, but come up short against a younger and hungrier Thunder team led by Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and backed by free-agent addition Paul Millsap. The Heat can’t keep up with the speed and athleticism of OKC’s “Big Three” and go down swinging in a hard-fought seven-game series. For the first time since 2014, fans around the league begin to seriously wonder whether LeBron’s bold declaration of, “Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…” will ever come to fruition.
Odds Cleveland would have won a title from 2014-15 to 2016-17: 75/1
The Backdrop: Imagine trying to make a cake without flour or a pie without filling. That would have been the Cavs’ title quest from 2014-15 to 2016-17 sans LeBron.
The Alternate Timeline: The Cavaliers aren’t a total disaster, but they are clearly missing something important. Kyrie Irving makes three straight All-Star teams and Andrew Wiggins is named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, but the rest of the team’s supporting cast falls far short of expectations. Making matters worse, free agents avoid the city like it’s … well, Cleveland, and the team is forced to rely on internal improvement and the draft. They challenge for the lower playoff seeds but ultimately miss the mark year after year. Luckily, Cleveland still has the Browns and Johnny Manziel to lift its spirits. The wayward QB discovers Jesus during his second season and helps Cleveland win its first playoff game in 14 years when he throws — what else — a Hail Mary to Travis Benjamin.
Odds Kyrie would have wanted out of Cleveland anyway: 1/2
The Backdrop: Have you been to Cleveland? The city smells like urine and regret, and is intersected by a river that periodically catches on fire. It would be one thing if Kyrie Irving was actually from the city, but the four-time All-Star was born in Melbourne, raised in West Orange, and went to college in Durham. He has no real connection to the Mistake by the Lake.
The Alternate Timeline: Kyrie becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2020 and bolts for the Lakers. He’s joined one month later by LeBron James, who decides to join the NBA’s latest alpha dog super-team for one last shot at glory. Their chemistry is off the charts and together they help the Lakers win their 17th championship. LeBron goes to bed every night wondering what life would have been like if he and Kyrie had teamed up sooner.