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.
He is the most hyped amateur athlete in the history of sports, but as his senior year in high school draws to a close a decision must be made: will LeBron James play basketball, or football? Fearing the barren roster of his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers (winners of the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery), James decides to try his hand at college football knowing that the NBA will always be there should he decide to change his mind. Rather than leave his home state empty-handed, though, he commits to Ohio State as a wide receiver and tight end.
James is a revelation for the Buckeyes, catching 68 passes as a freshman before being named an All-American in back-to-back seasons as a Sophomore and Junior and leading Ohio State to the 2005 National Championship in the Rose Bowl against USC. LeBron is so dominant in that championship game that he shoots up draft boards into the top-five. In fact, many pundits argue that he, not USC’s Reggie Bush, is the once-in-a-lifetime offensive superstar that should go first.
Alas, Houston takes NC State’s Mario Williams and New Orleans eagerly scoops up Bush. The Tennessee Titans, in need of a quarterback, take USC’s Matt Leinart, and despite fans at Radio City Music Hall pleading the hometown Jets to take LeBron, they have to settle for left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson. James ends up as the fifth pick to Green Bay. His consolation for missing out on the New York market? A pretty good quarterback named Brett Favre.
James helps rejuvenate Favre’s career after a dismal 2005 season. He is widely considered the greatest rookie receiver since Randy Moss, catching 16 touchdown passes as a virtually un-guardable 6’8” red zone threat who also happens to catch passes out of the backfield and outrun pretty much every corner in the league. The Packers finish 10-6 and lose a second round road playoff game at New Orleans, but the combination of Favre and James makes Green Bay the NFC favorite headed into the ’07 season.
The Packers don’t disappoint. Led once again by LeBron’s heroics, Green Bay carries a 13-3 record into the playoffs and lose a heavily contested NFC Championship Game in overtime largely due to the frigid weather containing James better than any defender could. And so begins one of the most turbulent off seasons in NFL history.
Favre announces his retirement in February, declaring that he’d rather go out on top. But a Green Bay contingent led by James flies to Mississippi in March to try to convince him to give it one more try. They argue that the Packers came so close in 2007 and with a bit more favorable weather he could go out on top as a Super Bowl champion. Favre relents. The Packers get their quarterback. And lose another.
Backup Aaron Rodgers, feeling as though his chance to start was stolen from him and that the organization lacks faith in his ability, asks to be traded and holds out of training camp. The team wonders if it should release Favre and keep Rodgers. But the chance to win the Super Bowl immediately is too enticing. The Packers trade the unproven Rodgers to the New York Jets and decide to give Favre one last chance to win a second Super Bowl.
It doesn’t pan out. Favre injures his bicep late in the season and the Packers flounder out of playoff contention. Rodgers thrives in New York, and the next few seasons become a living hell for James. Packer fans blame him for the loss of Rodgers, particularly as his highly touted replacement Mark Sanchez struggles. The Packers miss the playoffs in 2009 and 2010, James tells the Packers that he will not sign a long-term extension with the team, preferring to compete in a big market. The team agrees that it is in everyone’s best interest to move on, and after placing the franchise tag on him to retain his rights, the Packers engineer a trade to send LeBron to the Patriots for Randy Moss and several draft picks.
LeBron is so thrilled to join Tom Brady in New England that he takes well below market-value in his new contract. Many consider the Patriots a super team. New England lives up to the hype. Tom Brady breaks several major passing records, rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez prove just as un-guardable as James, and the Patriots breeze to their fourth Super Bowl title.
LeBron becomes the league’s most noteworthy villain. Fans hate him for forcing his way to the Patriots. But with Brady still in his prime and the rest of the roster young and ready to improve, everyone knows that James is on his way to several more Super Bowl titles.