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 heads to his favorite borough and signs with the then-New Jersey but soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets.
Cleveland had comfort. The Bulls and Heat were ready to win. The Knicks offered basketball's greatest stage. But if LeBron had joined the Nets, it would have been for the chance to build something entirely of his own. He could have stolen New York from the Knicks and been the first player ever to wear a uniform bearing the word "Brooklyn," which he called his favorite New York City borough in 2008. Given his interest in ownership and narrative, such an opportunity would have been tempting, as would the presence of Jay-Z as a gateway into the entertainment world, and potentially, Mikhail Prokhorov as a ticket to expanding his international brand. So in a stunning move, LeBron announces that he has spurned both his hometown team and the blue bloods pursuing him to sign with the Nets.
The (geographically incorrect) quote
"I'm taking my talents to the boardwalk and joining the New Jersey Nets."
How does the next decade of NBA history go?
Unlike most other possible destinations, LeBron doesn't have a superstar teammate ready to alter their own plans for the sake of joining him. Dwyane Wade made it known that he was turned off by the Nets pitch because Jay-Z skipped it. The same was true during Chris Bosh's meeting with Nets brass. Apparently, only LeBron was famous enough to warrant face time with New Jersey's minority owner. So Wade and Bosh sign in Miami, and the Heat use their leftover cap space to trade for Utah center Al Jefferson as their nominal third star. The rest of free agency proceeds as it actually did with only minor changes. LeBron enters his debut season as a Net playing alongside Brook Lopez, Devin Harris and Derrick Favors trusting that he will be able to attract star teammates down the line.
The first opportunity to do so doesn't take long. It was an open secret in 2010 that Carmelo Anthony planned to leave the Denver Nuggets in free agency. The Nets tried to trade for him at the time, but he squashed a potential deal by making it clear that he planned to sign with the Knicks. LeBron's presence in New Jersey is more than enough to change his mind, so the Nets quickly swap Harris and Favors for Carmelo. But Anthony wasn't the only superstar with the New York metro area on his mind. Anthony got married in the summer of 2010, and the guest list famously included Chris Paul, who made a toast suggesting interest in pairing up with Carmelo in New York. LeBron is the cherry on top.
The Dallas Mavericks win the 2011 championship over the Chicago Bulls, but Paul's future is the hottest topic around the league following the lockout. Despite Dan Gilbert's vocal protests about superteams in big markets, Paul expertly exerts his leverage over the Hornets to force a trade to Brooklyn. Thanks to their lack of long-term salary beyond James and Anthony as well as the amnesty clause granted by the 2011 CBA, the Nets would have no trouble whatsoever clearing out max space for Paul in 2012, when he would sign there without New Orleans receiving anything in return. With their hands tied, the Hornets take what they can get in dealing Paul to the Nets for Brook Lopez and draft picks.
The New Jersey superteam proves every bit as dominant as LeBron had hoped. Despite a thin supporting cast after two megadeals, the Nets breeze their way to the NBA Finals after Derrick Rose's torn ACL essentially knocks Chicago out of the running. There they encounter a brewing superteam that was built the old-fashioned way in the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder take Game 1 at home, but New Jersey wins four straight to give James, Paul and Anthony their first championship.
The Nets move to Brooklyn for their championship defense, and it's much of the same. Ray Allen joins up as a free agent, and ultimately hits the series-saving shot in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. LeBron lost the 2014 rematch in reality, but that was largely because of a declining roster. With one less Finals run under their belts as well as Paul being far healthier than Wade in 2014, the Nets complete their three-peat with another Finals victory over the Spurs. LeBron is so happy in Brooklyn that he elects not to exercise his 2014 early termination option, tying him to the Nets until the summer of 2016. The Nets become a national brand, and Knicks fans defect by the thousands.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn's contention changes two critical pieces of NBA Draft history. First: the 2012 Nets traded their top-3 protected first-round pick to the Portland Trail Blazers for Gerald Wallace in an effort to entice Deron Williams into staying. That pick became Damian Lillard. Second: the Nets traded the Boston Celtics a package of draft picks that would eventually include Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in exchange for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2013. Brooklyn has no need to make that trade here. Garnett and Pierce wind up retiring in Boston, and without the haul of incoming Nets picks that revived them, the Celtics sink into obscurity.
As for the young stars? Tatum and Brown still wind up together. The Phoenix Suns selected after Boston in both cases, so we'll say the Suns take both to pair with Devin Booker. Lillard's situation is a bit more complex. The team that picked after Portland in reality was the Golden State Warriors. They would not have selected him with Stephen Curry in place. Therefore, he falls to the Toronto Raptors at No. 8, and with Lillard as their point guard of the future, they elect not to trade for Kyle Lowry. This could have proven problematic for, of all teams, the Houston Rockets, as the pick Toronto sent the Rockets for Lowry wound up being a key part of the James Harden trade. Fortunately, the Knicks nearly traded for Lowry in 2013, but elected not to because James Dolan was afraid of trading with Raptors exec Masai Ujiri. In this case, he trades with Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who he should be just as afraid of, but isn't due to a lack of prior history. The Rockets still get Harden using the pick they get from the Knicks.
Back to Brooklyn. Injury problems catch up to the Nets in 2015, as Anthony is knocked out for the playoffs after midseason knee surgery. LeBron and Paul are still enough to get to the NBA Finals, but there they run into the greatest offense in NBA history: Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Love with the Golden State Warriors. Without James back in Cleveland, Minnesota has no alternative suitor for Love, so is forced to accept Golden State's low-ball offer of Harrison Barnes and little-known reserve Draymond Green. The Warriors beat the Nets in six games to steal the championship.
A year later, Paul is the one who gets hurt, this time in the first round of the postseason, and the Lillard-DeMar DeRozan-led Raptors reach the NBA Finals. There, they lose to Oklahoma City, which gets past the defensively underwhelming Warriors in the Western Conference finals. Kevin Durant, as the reigning Finals MVP, re-signs with the Thunder in 2016.
James, however, decides to test free agency for the first time since 2010. With Anthony and Paul aging, he needs a new supporting cast if he plans to keep winning, and the allure of home is sorely tempting. So, in a letter posted on Sports Illustrated, James announces that he is coming home. Using the extra financial flexibility provided by the 2016 cap spike, the Cavaliers sign Wade, who admits he should have followed James in 2010. Per LeBron's request, Cleveland deals 2014 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins in exchange for a big man that can shoot, ultimately settling on a package built around Nikola Mirotic from the Chicago Bulls.
That core is enough for James to win the Cavaliers their first-ever championship over Oklahoma City, and while the moment cements LeBron as a Cleveland legend, the city's bliss is short-lived. Wade's age and the team's overall defensive deficiencies cost Cleveland the 2018 championship in a rematch with the Thunder. Wade re-signs with the Heat for one last season that summer, and Kyrie Irving asks for a trade by threatening to depart in 2019 free agency. He gets his wish as the Celtics, desperate to step back into the limelight in some way, shape or form, give Cleveland a boatload of draft picks for the chance to rent Kyrie. Toronto, with Lillard and the newly acquired Kawhi Leonard, win the title in 2019.
With his legacy secured, James decides to finish his career somewhere better suited to both his lifestyle and business interests. He considers Los Angeles, but having grown accustomed to the New York lifestyle, James returns to the Nets to finish his career in Brooklyn in 2019. Irving, wanting to play in his hometown but having little interest in a reunion with LeBron, signs with the Knicks, and convinces the injured Kevin Durant to join him. Leonard ventures out west to revive the Lakers alongside Paul George. With no obvious destination, Anthony Davis decides to give Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson a year to try to convince him to remain in New Orleans.
Was this outcome better than LeBron's reality?
Very slightly, but only for the moment. Four championships beat three, and the list of players to have won three in a row is short, but only playing in two markets is a bit less exciting, residual bitterness from unturned Knicks fans would somewhat taint his success in Brooklyn, and there is no guarantee that he could build a contender like he has with the Lakers in his second Nets stint. Essentially, it boils down to this: If LeBron wins a championship as a Laker, he probably chose the correct path. If not? The Nets have a real argument.