Going into the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery, the chance that the Cleveland Cavaliers would land the number one overall draft pick was 22.5% after finishing 17-65 the previous season. They were tied with the Denver Nuggets, who also finished 17-65 in the 2002-03 season, and knew that if they were lucky enough to land that top pick, they would win the rights to draft LeBron James, who was being considered the greatest high school basketball player of all-time.
The Cavaliers already knew everything they needed to know about King James because he grew up just down the street in Akron, Ohio. His career has been a laundry list of moments of breaks that have given the incredibly talented superstar one of the greatest stories in the history of the NBA. What were the odds that he would end up being drafted by his favorite team growing up in Ohio? Disney could not write that into a script and make it sound believable.
But what if the Cavaliers did not land the number one pick in 2003? What if someone else did and drafted LeBron James? How would that change the NBA as we know it today? Would the snowball effect cause an alternate universe that is nearly unimaginable?
Let’s take a look at 15 different What If? scenarios involving King James and see what could have happened.
15. What If He Chose Football Instead Of Basketball?
A few years ago, former Green Bay Packer strong safety Mark Murphy did an interview with ESPN and was asked about greatness at the wide receiver position and he gave a few names to the writer. He said the obvious choices like Jerry Rice, Steve Largent, and James Lofton. But then he said, LeBron James, whom he got to watch in high school because Murphy was St.Vincent-St.Mary’s defensive coordinator during King James high school career.
He then had to explain the reason and it was simple, LeBron James is a freak that was 6’8″, 250-pounds and had a 44-inch vertical leap with exceptional speed. He played wide receiver during his Sophomore and Junior years where he caught 103 passes for 2,065 yards, and 23 touchdowns. That is almost insane numbers in high school but he was so talented that Urban Meyer, who was a wide receivers coach at Notre Dame, even tried to sign him.
14. What If No One Knew About This Kid From Ohio?
The internet is a powerful tool that has created a society of social media enthusiasts that rely on Facebook, Twitter, or one of the other social media sites for all their information. The benefit to this social media culture is that you can eliminate the stuff you do not care about and get updates on specific interests of your choosing, like basketball. It helped spread the word about this kid from Akron that was going straight into the NBA after high school.
Although he never needed the internet to expose his abilities to the rest of the world, it sure did help. He was already known among amateur basketball fans as the next big thing but the hype grew as his name did following his incredible Senior season where he averaged 30.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.9 steals, and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting at 56% from the floor.
All we are trying to imagine here is that maybe, just maybe, the hype train would not have left the station so early in his career and he could have sneaked up on a lot of fans, instead of everyone simply expecting greatness from a kid.
13. What if “The Decision” Didn’t Happen?
One of the all-time worst decisions ever made in any NBA player’s career was when LeBron James televised his decision on which team he was going to sign with during his first summer, in his career, as a free agent. It is something he regrets and even came out and said, “If I had to go back on it, I probably would do it a little bit different,” before a game against the Brooklyn Nets in the 2010-11 season. It did not take very long for him to realize just how embarrassing the entire spectacle was and how it has changed the league forever.
During the 2011-12 season, he went even further and put himself in the shoes of a fan by saying, “…if the shoe was on the other foot and I was a fan, and I was very passionate about one player, and he decided to leave, I would be upset too about the way he handled it.”
It turned him into a villain when most of the NBA fans still loved him and admired the way he lead the Cavaliers all by himself. So when he chose Miami, joining Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, it made him look even worse.
12. What If LeBron James Was Even Better?
It is not easy to picture LeBron James as the Tom Brady of basketball but what if he was? What if he did win a title in Cleveland when he was just 22-years old and had no one else on his team?
Go back to the first year the Cavs made the playoffs with LeBron James and assume they win that game followed by the next four, when does it end for him? How good could he have been if he had a better team around him that could augment his shortcomings and create a champion? He has never been a disappointment in our eyes so this is simply a question on what the league would look like if he won a title each and every time he made the playoffs, or if he lived up to the hype early on in his career. His scoring, rebounding, and passing would have lead to a triple double average over several seasons, something that has never been done before.
11. What If He Chose The Lakers In 2014?
By the end of the 2013-14 season, LeBron James was ready to move on from the Miami Heat after spending the previous four seasons with them, winning two NBA titles along the way. So he found himself back in free agency, looking for the best offer he could find. Miami was the favorite and almost had him signed but LeBron decided he was best suited to return home and lead the Cavaliers now that they had a legit squad of talented players.
But the Heat were not the only ones on his short list, the Lakers were too. They chased after Carmelo Anthony that off-season too. But they failed to sign him, or LeBron, or even retain Pau Gasol. So pretend, just for a second, that they landed LeBron James, then things could have exploded for them. They could have landed Carmelo too and would have had LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Carmelo Anthony in their starting lineup. They might not have won 70 games but they would have been extremely fun to watch.
10. What If He Choked During The 2015 NBA Finals?
The 2015 NBA Finals failed to deliver the excitement and performances that the 2016 Finals did because the Cavaliers were beaten badly before the games even begun. Kevin Love was injured earlier in the playoffs and was out for the rest of the year before Kyrie Irving went down during Game 2, leaving LeBron James all by himself to battle the Warriors. He could have folded and let them walk away with it but he decided to step it up instead and had two incredible performances in a row during Games 2 and 3, giving the Cavs a 2-1 series lead.
His fight, his determination not to give up is now a part of his story, his legend, his career. In ten years, no one is going to really care that the Warriors won the 2015 NBA Finals, but they will still be talking about how LeBron James single handily defeated the league’s best team in two games during the NBA Finals. Take those performances away from him and all that is left is a guy that can win but not on his own.
9. What If He Missed Against Orlando In 2009?
The Cleveland Cavaliers finished the 2008-09 season with a franchise record 66 wins, which was also the best record in the league that season. LeBron James also won his first ever MVP award when he finished the season averaging 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.1 blocks. No one in NBA history has finished a season with a stat line like his making it one of the most impressive seasons in NBA history.
However, during the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavaliers faced a surprisingly good Orlando Magic team that shocked everyone and beat them in six games. In Game 2 of the series, the Magic were well on their way to a 2-0 series lead but King James thought otherwise and hit a game-winning three to solidify his greatness. Even though they lost the series, that shot transformed him into an icon.
8. What If Andre Iguodala Made That Layup?
One year after the tough loss to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals, LeBron James found himself right back in the same place he was the year before, the NBA Finals. Only this time, he had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, both healthy and playing at their best. Two games into the series, however, the Warriors were running away with it, winning both games by 15 and 33 points. Next thing you know, Golden State was up 3-1 games and Cleveland was watching it happen all over again until they won two straight games to tie the series.
During Game 7, with under two minutes remaining in a 89-89 tied game, the Warriors were running down the court on a fast break led by Andre Iguodala who was just about to make the layup when LeBron James came virtually out of nowhere to make the block and give the Cavs the ball with a chance to take the lead and win the series. Without that block, the Warriors may have locked the series.
7. What If He Actually Decided To Join The Slam Dunk Contest?
Since he entered the NBA, LeBron James has given us highlight dunks and clutch moments that can only help to solidify his greatness. He has teased us for a few years about entering the Slam Dunk contest but chose not to. It has now become a huge part o his career because he has never done it, regardless of how many people request him to. All of the greats before him, that could dunk, have entered and won the dunk contest, but not LeBron. He has since said he regrets not doing it when he was younger because he would have easily won one of them.
If he decided to enter the contest, it would have become the hottest tickets in NBA history. The arena would be stacked with players and fans. Millions more would have tuned in to watch it. It would have become the highest rated dunk contest easily and all because it was LeBron James and people pay to watch him play.
6. What If He Stayed With The Cavaliers In 2010?
If you made a list of your favorite NBA players of all time without including LeBron James, what is the one thing they all had in common? They all had at least one teammate that was an All-Star, All-NBA selection, or even, a member of the Hall of Fame. MJ had Scottie Pippen, Kobe had Shaq, Magic had Kareem, Oscar Robertson had Jerry Lucas, Bird had McHale and Parrish, and the list goes on and on. There is nothing wrong with LeBron James wanting to play in Miami with D-Wade and Chris Bosh but he wanted to stay in Cleveland. He wanted a teammate he could rely on, to help offset some of the burden of having to play great each and every night. No one remembers MJ’s bad games because the Bulls still won thanks to Scottie Pippen picking up the slack.
So if he stayed in Cleveland, the Cavs would have had to bring in someone else that summer like Amar’e Stoudemire, or Chris Bosh. But instead, they let everyone walk and were left with nothing but a broken roster of second hand players. The Cavaliers had a chance to setup their future and change the entire league’s in the process, but they failed miserably.
5. What If He Took The Last Shot Instead Of Ray Allen?
With a 3-2 series lead during the 2013 NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs were one game away from winning their sixth title in 16 seasons. During Game 6, they increased their lead to 13 late in the third quarter and were looking like the champions. The Heat fought back and cut the lead to three with just under 20 seconds to go, 95-92. They took the ball down the court and LeBron James missed a game-tying three pointer when Chris Bosh got the rebound, kicked it out to Ray Allen, and watched as he sank the shot we all remember, the epic corner three heard round the World.
But what if LeBron James decided to run down the clock and take the shot as time expired instead of with seven seconds left? That would have turned him into a fan favorite once again and solidify his greatness. Or he would have missed and the Spurs would go on to win, leaving him with only one title instead of the eventual two.
4. What If He Went To New York?
The idea that LeBron James could have partnered with Carmelo Anthony in New York in 2014 is nothing more than a pipe dream started during the summer of 2014. Sure, it would be fun to imagine a league that featured the two men who changed the NBA in 2003 getting together to play side-by-side. Now that would be fun to watch.
And think about how incredible that team would have been, regardless of what anyone thinks of Melo or LeBron. Just look at LeBron’s resume. He lead the Cavaliers for seven seasons, all by himself. He was 19-years old and he turned a 17 win team into a 35 win team in one season. He then carried them to back-to-back 50 win seasons and consecutive 60+ win seasons, also a NBA Finals appearance, all by himself. If you give him a scorer like Melo, and let him be a scorer and nothing else, all bets are off. It would be tough to stop them, let alone beat them in the playoffs.
3. What If He Wasn’t Compared To Michael Jordan Everyday?
Legends do not grow on trees. When it comes to the NBA, there have only been a handful of legends in league history, which dates back to 1948. So when we get a future Hall of Famer like LeBron James, we, as fans, tend to break down his game piece-by-piece to justify whether or not we think he is truly great. Although it is always fun to debate about the greatest athletes in professional sports, it comes at a price for the athlete.
The pressure to live up to hype of any kind is tough but to be compared to Michael Jordan every single day of your career is even worse. It can force a player to make terrible choices during a game. It can cause a good player to pass the ball off instead of taking the game-winning shot because he does not want to let his fans down. There are a million reasons why it is not fair to compare LBJ to MJ but the most important one is that, regardless of what James says about it, it is hard to hear and creates a problem for LeBron’s career.
2. What If He Never Won A Title?
Pretend for a moment that King James was still waiting on his first ring, would you discredit everything he has done so far? Or would you consider him the greatest player of all-time even though he has never won a title? Based on the internet from five years ago, he would be considered a disappointment for failing to win a title before the age of 30, or ever.
In any sport, the measurement of greatness will forever be the number of world titles or championships they own. Take a look at what LeBron James has done over the course of his career and remove all of the titles. He is still one of the greatest all-around basketball players ever, he just is no longer one of the most clutch. A world title is a way of justifying greatness unless a player is so incredible that it simply does not matter.
1. What If Denver Won The 1st Pick Of The 2003 Draft?
With the third pick of the 2003 NBA Draft, the Denver Nuggets selected Carmelo Anthony, passing on Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the process. It turned out to be a good and bad thing as the addition of Melo helped create an offense that was extremely powerful and could outscore the best of them. He also helped the Nuggets reach the postseason eight consecutive times and win 50 or more games four times. He gave them an adrenaline rush that transformed them into winners overnight, just not World Champions.
So what if the Nuggets landed the number one pick instead and used it on LeBron James? Would it have changed the course of NBA history? Of course it would and for good reason too.
King James might have won a few titles in Denver but it would have caused Melo, Wade, and Bosh to all go down different roads and the “Big 3” might not have ever played together after that.
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