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.
The lead up to the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery revolves around the Cleveland Cavaliers. Hometown prodigy LeBron James is up for grabs and the entire state of Ohio prays for him to stay put. But when the ping pong balls land it’s not Cleveland, but the team they tied with for the league’s worst record, Denver, that claims the draft’s top prize. With the first pick of the 2003 NBA Draft, the Denver Nuggets select LeBron James.
James leads a Denver renaissance, winning Rookie of the Year and leading the Nuggets to a surprising playoff berth. They are quickly trounced by San Antonio, but LeBron’s ascension comes faster than anyone could’ve hoped. Meanwhile, Cleveland is plenty happy with their consolation prize. Carmelo Anthony has an excellent rookie year, and when they use the No. 8 pick in the 2004 draft on a defensive complement for him in Andre Iguodala, they feel that their wings are secured for the next decade.
The Nuggets are busy themselves that offseason. They strike a deal with free agent power forward Kenyon Martin to beef up their defense, and many wonder if James is already good enough to lead Denver to the Finals. He isn’t, as the Nuggets are knocked out in Round 2 in each of the next two seasons, but most pundits agree that once his front office finds him a suitable co-star, nothing will keep LeBron from winning championships.
That co-star is eventually found in Allen Iverson. He is acquired in a deal centered around Andre Miller after it becomes clear that he can no longer coexist with management in Philadelphia. James happily gives up shots to make Iverson happy, and the Nuggets give San Antonio all they can handle in a seven-game Western Conference Finals loss. The Spurs go on to beat Detroit and win the championship, but all anyone wants to talk about are the young juggernauts growing in Denver and Cleveland. With the Pistons and Spurs aging, most believe LeBron and Carmelo are destined for a duel in the NBA Finals.
Denver holds up their end of the bargain in 2008, but both teams end up losing to the revamped Celtics in the playoffs. The stars finally align a year later, when Iverson is traded for Chauncey Billups and an injury to Kevin Garnett clears a path to the finals for Cleveland.
The series is especially emotional for James. His desire to play for Cleveland in 2003 is the league’s worst-kept secret, and with free agency looming in 2010 many believe he’ll ditch Denver to join Anthony in his hometown. But James is still a Nugget in 2009, and not even Iguodala can keep him from his first ring. James celebrates the championship on Cleveland’s home floor in a bittersweet ceremony. He may want to be a Cavalier eventually, but at this moment, he is the greatest Denver Nugget in team history.