Ten years ago, LeBron James sat inside the Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut and announced to the entire world he would take his talents to South Beach, forming a Big Three with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, making them not only instant championship favorites, but the most hated villains in the sports world.
The Decision was a spectacle, a made-for-TV event, as were the subsequent four years James, Wade, and Bosh played together. They made the NBA Finals every season and won two championships together. But what would have happened if James made a different choice in the summer of 2010?
We know he held free agency meetings with five other teams in the days leading up to The Decision. They were the Knicks, Bulls, Nets, Clippers, and Cavaliers. James’ decision to join Miami was a league-altering move that had ripple effects across several franchises. Below, we consider how James would have altered the trajectory of each franchise he met with in the summer of 2010, if he had indeed signed with them instead:
New York Knicks
What actually happened: In February 2009, the Knicks made a three-team trade with the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings, taking on Tracy McGrady’s $23 million expiring contract and shedding themselves of enough salary to open up cap space to pursue two max-salary players in free agency. They would finish the season with a 29-53 record, their fifth straight year out of the playoffs. The summer objective was clear: sign LeBron James and pair him with another max player in free agency.
Despite reportedly being James’ first choice in free agency, James Dolan and the Knicks failed to impress him at their meeting, even if they did hire James Gandolfini and Edie Falco to reprise their roles from The Sopranos in a recruitment video. Instead, the Knicks settled for signing Amar’e Stoudemire to a five-year, $100 million deal, a contract that exceeded expectations in its first season, then started to become yet another bloated one as injuries slowed the forward down.
The summer of 2010 also saw the Knicks sign Raymond Felton and Timofey Mozgov while trading for David Lee to Golden State for Anthony Randolph, Ronny Turiaf, and Kelenna Azubuike. The following season, they would execute a mid-season trade with the Denver Nuggets to acquire Carmelo Anthony.
What would have happened if LeBron signed: The Knicks had cap space to accommodate James and Stoudemire, which would have been fascinating considering the Cavaliers almost traded for Stoudemire at the 2010 trade deadline, but possibly balked at the asking price which included forward JJ Hickson (Cleveland’s fascination with Hickson deserves its own feature story).
The tandem would have revived Madison Square Garden, and turned the dormant Knicks into a perennial contender in the East. The Knicks could have conceivably still packaged their young core around James to acquire Anthony the following season. In this scenario, we would have watched James and Anthony battle Bosh and Wade’s Heat in the East for the next half decade.
And if we’re really playing what if, imagine LeBron James and Linsanity unfolding at Madison Square Garden at the very same time. Sorry, Knicks fans. Back to reality.
How many championships do they win with LeBron: I’m gonna go ahead and say the Knicks win one championship with LeBron but after two years there are already whispers of him wanting to be elsewhere, as he would grow impatient with the front office and James Dolan. Trades would be overruled, signings would be blocked, and LeBron, ever seeking control of not only being the best player on his team but also wanting to have a say in player personnel, would eventually tire of the Knicks franchise and force his way somewhere else.
What actually happened: According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the Bulls were confident in the days leading up to The Decision that they were in position to at least sign Wade and Bosh in free agency. It even reached a point where the Bulls were exploring the possibility of trading Luol Deng’s contract in order to open up additional cap space to accommodate James.
The Bulls organization was left to wonder whether they would have stood a better chance if Derrick Rose took a more proactive approach in free agency recruiting, or if the tenuous relationship between Joakim Noah and James could have been repaired.
The Bulls—who had just hired Tom Thibodeau as their head coach—spent the rest of the summer retooling their roster, signing Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, CJ Watson, Kurt Thomas, and Keith Bogans. They went 62-20 the following season and lost to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
What would have happened if LeBron signed: Of the five options here, the Bulls provided James with the clearest path to multiple championships. Let’s assume, for a second, that the Bulls figure out how to accommodate all three stars in the process they lose Deng and Taj Gibson. It would have left them with a potential starting five of Rose, Wade, James, Bosh, and Noah. Keep it mind, Rose won an MVP in James’ first season in Miami and just imagine the defensive schemes Thibodeau would have been able to deploy with this group.
Remember, back in the summer of 2010, James was considered by most to be the best player in the game, but he hadn’t won a championship yet. Now imagine James wearing a Bulls uniform, restoring the glory of the franchise, all the while drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan. It does make you wonder whether he would have just spent the rest of his career chasing Jordan’s six titles, wearing the same jersey as he did.
How many championships do they win with LeBron: Health plays a huge factor here with respect to Rose and also Wade, who slowed down in James’ final season in Miami. Assuming a clean bill of health, it wouldn’t be outrageous to say this team could have won not one, not two, not three…okay, let’s say three championships before James gets bored after four seasons and returns to Cleveland anyways.
New Jersey Nets
What actually happened: Even with Jay-Z’s presence at the free agency pitch meeting and the allure of moving to Brooklyn in two years, the Nets were never really a serious contender to land James. They were coming off a 12-70 season and in full rebuild mode. After missing out on James, the Nets pivoted and signed Travis Outlaw, Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, and Jordan Farmar in free agency, leading to one of the most iconic (or: saddest) photos in NBA history.
What would have happened if LeBron signed: Even with James, the Nets would still be at least a year away from contention. They did trade for Deron Williams the following season, but the rest of the roster was pretty bleak, with no clear path to acquiring another superstar. It would have likely been a repeat of James’ first run in Cleveland, where he had to shoulder a significant load especially in the postseason.
How many championships do they win with LeBron: Perhaps the most interesting scenario of the what ifs, after acquiring James, and assuming they bring Williams on board as well, do the Nets still go ahead and make their ill-fated trade with Boston to acquire Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett? I’m gonna say yes just because, as we all know, James has very little patience when he joins a new team, and this is exactly the type of win-now move he would push the front office to make.
Now imagine James being on the same team with Pierce and Garnett instead of mortal rivals. That’s an interesting thought. Would that have been enough to win a championship? My prediction would be they make the Finals but ultimately fall short.
Los Angeles Clippers
What actually happened: LeBron James on the Clippers? The Donald Sterling-owned Clippers?? It seems far-fetched although with Kobe Bryant still very much the face of the Lakers franchise, if James wanted to make a move to Los Angeles in the summer of 2010, the Clippers were his only option. Their roster had promise. James would have been joining Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, along with incoming rookies Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu. Championship ready? No. But not exactly a barren roster like the Nets.
After the Clippers swung and missed on James, they signed Brian Cook, Ryan Gomes, and Randy Foye in free agency. The following year, they would make a franchise-altering move by trading for Chris Paul and starting the Lob City era in Los Angeles.
What would have happened if LeBron signed: James on the Clippers would have been fascinating on so many levels. On the court, picture a big three of James, Griffin, and eventually Paul. Off the court, the Lakers-Clippers rivalry would finally be a thing, as Bryant and James would have gone up against each other during the regular-season and in the playoffs.
Assuming everything else plays out on the same timeline, James would have been on the Clippers when Sterling was finally ousted by the league. Also, what would James’ legacy be if he were to go to Los Angeles and revive a Clippers franchise best known for playing second fiddle to the Lakers and having never made it even to the conference finals? It would have been a spectacle.
How many championships do they win with LeBron: James in his prime playing in the Western Conference would have been must-see TV. With Griffin and Paul by his side, I would say the Clippers win at least one championship.
What actually happened: After a disappointing second round exit, the Cavs made a last-ditch effort to convince James they were going to do what was necessary to build a contender around him. They replaced head coach Mike Brown with Byron Scott and replaced Danny Ferry by promoting Chris Grant to general manager. In truth, this created instability within the organization and the roster itself was aging. With little cap room, the Cavs didn’t have a realistic path to improving the roster around James even if he did return (The Cavs did consider the idea of a sign-and-trade with Toronto to acquire Bosh, but he had no interest in coming to Cleveland anyways).
After The Decision, Dan Gilbert released his comic sans email and the Cavs went into full rebuild mode. Their key signings in the summer of 2010: Christian Eyenga, Joey Graham, Samardo Samuels, and Manny Harris. Not impressed? They also traded for Ramon Sessions and Ryan Hollins. The 2010-11 Cavs finished with a 19-63 record. Somewhere in there was a 26-game losing streak.
What would have happened if LeBron signed: It would have been more of the same. James would have spent his prime putting up MVP-caliber numbers on a team that would come up short in the playoffs. The Cavs spent years trying to surround him with the right pieces and ended up cycling through disappointing signings and trades including Larry Hughes, Ben Wallace, Antawn Jamison, and Shaquille O’Neal. They held on to JJ Hickson, who didn’t turn into the superstar they envisioned.
Looking back on The Decision 10 years later, there wasn’t really a basketball argument for returning to the Cavs in 2010.
How many championships do they win with LeBron: The Cavs would not have won a championship if James returned in 2010.
Ironically, The Decision actually helped jump start the rebuilding process that would end up convincing James to return to Cleveland in 2014. The Cavs had three first overall picks in the NBA Draft in a four-year span. One of those picks was Anthony Bennett (which didn’t pan out). The other two were Kyrie Irving (who hit the biggest shot in Cavs’ franchise history in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals) and Andrew Wiggins (who was traded for Kevin Love, who made the biggest defensive stop in franchise history in the same game).
The Cavs also landed Tristan Thompson with another of their lottery picks while James was in Miami and he played an integral role on the 2016 championship team. Add it all up, and the Cavs being terrible and having terribly good luck in the lottery after James left helped pave the way for not only his return, but the end of the city of Cleveland’s epic championship drought.