Every Wednesday, Pick and Popovich will dive down the rabbit hole and explore a different NBA “What if.” The only rule is that the scenario must come from a place that is somewhat realistic and grounded in at least somewhat believable rumor or hearsay. Otherwise, anything goes.
It doesn’t come as much of a surprise. He waits. He makes them sweat. He even lets Cleveland believe that he might just come home after all. But on July 11th, 2014, LeBron James announces that he’ll re-sign with the Miami Heat. The max-deal is notable for its length; James signs only a one-year deal with an option for 2015-16. The message is clear: put the right teammates around me, or I’ll walk.
Similar thoughts are exchanged in Minnesota, where Kevin Love is sick of losing. Cleveland agrees to trade No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins for him, but Love refuses to sign an extension with the Cavaliers so he returns for an awkward new season with the Timberwolves.
Miami starts the 2014-15 season in typical form. Dwyane Wade, having promised to help LeBron share the load, plays in 32 of the Heat’s first 34 games and free agent surprise Hassan Whiteside shows flashes of greatness off of the bench. The Heat even decide not to heavily pursue Goran Dragic at the trade deadline for fear of risking the chemistry that led to their hot start.
That decision proves costly. A day after the trade deadline, Chris Bosh is ruled out indefinitely with blood clots. The Heat have no way to replace his production. Had they known earlier, perhaps they would have made a run at Minnesota’s Kevin Love. The Wolves actually play fairly well despite Love’s desire to be traded. They finish the season with the league’s 9th worst record and flirt with the playoffs for a few months, but by the deadline it becomes apparent that the team has to trade him, even as a rental.
The Boston Celtics, very much on the upswing under Brad Stevens, steal Love for No. 6 overall pick Marcus Smart, a first-round pick they had acquired from Dallas earlier in the Rajon Rondo deal and salary cap fodder. Love gives no assurance that he’ll return, but Boston is prepared to take the risk. Minnesota, meanwhile, grumbles over their disappointing return and wonders if they should’ve traded him over the summer.
Love’s Celtics end up making the playoffs, but losing to LeBron’s Heat in the first round. But without Bosh, Miami doesn’t have enough left in the tank to beat the resurgent Bulls. Chicago wins the East after sweeping Atlanta in the conference finals, and Golden State takes them down in five to win the championship.
Yet all anyone wants to talk about is LeBron’s second free agency in as many years. With Bosh’s future up in the air, Wade’s health declining and no guarantee that the Heat will be able to retain Whiteside after the 2016 season, many pundits actually believe this will be the summer that LeBron leaves Miami.
The one team that’s ironically unconvinced is Cleveland. They use the No. 10 overall pick to select a small forward, Duke’s Justise Winslow. The pick is universally seen as a steal, as many argued that the New York Knicks should consider him as highly as the No. 1 overall pick (which they use on Karl-Anthony Towns). The Orlando Magic take Kristaps Porzingis second, followed by D’Angelo Russell going to the Lakers and Jahlil Okafor to the Sixers.
LeBron makes no secret of his willingness to explore other options once free agency begins. He takes meetings with Houston, Chicago, Phoenix and New York, but a year after spurning them for a second time, James decides that he’s ready to return to Cleveland. The Cavs, with LeBron joining Kyrie Irving, Wiggins, Winslow and Tristan Thompson, are pegged by most as the favorite in the Eastern Conference.
Of course, LeBron is far from the only major domino to fall in the summer of 2015. Dragic signs a max contract with New York and LaMarcus Aldridge heads to San Antonio. But the real story is Love. Initially, his destination of choice is San Antonio, but once the Spurs make it clear that Aldridge is their first choice he moves to another team in Texas. Eventually Love agrees to a sign-and-trade that gets him to Houston where he pairs up with James Harden and Dwight Howard. That trio makes the Rockets an early favorite to unseat the Warriors in the West.
Golden State doesn’t take too kindly to such speculation. They race out to a 24-game winning-streak to start the season and breeze to an NBA record 74 wins. Houston and San Antonio both top 60, but neither appear particularly close to the Warriors. Golden State eventually ends up winning the West with relative ease. They run into a much stiffer test against Cleveland in the Finals.
The Cavaliers begin the season beating a square peg into a round hole. Rather than start their five best players, coach David Blatt insists on playing LeBron James at small forward and starting Anderson Varejao as a second big man next to Tristan Thompson. Luckily for Cleveland, Varejao can’t stay healthy. This forces Blatt to move James to power forward and insert rookie stopper Winslow into the starting lineup.
That substitution makes all of the difference. The Cavs are the second-best defensive team in basketball with James, Wiggins and Winslow switching relentlessly on pick-and-rolls. Even Thompson gets in on the fun, and the four suffocate opponents even with Irving’s lackluster defense. It’s not pretty, but their defense and isolation scoring carry them to a six-game upset over the Warriors in the Finals. With LeBron back home seemingly for good and the young core only improving, it seems like the Cavs are primed to contend for the rest of the decade.