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.
Loyalty is important to Michael Redd. The Milwaukee Bucks stood by him and helped him grow into a star player, and he doesn’t see any particular reason to leave them as a free agent. But Cleveland is an exception. He grew up in Columbus, played at Ohio State, and the chance to bring his home state a championship is just too alluring. Of course, playing with LeBron James doesn’t hurt either, so in July of 2005, Michael Redd signs a five-year deal to play for the Cavaliers.
James is still young, so the Cavs have to wait their turn. Miami wins the Eastern Conference and the championship in 2006, and despite an unlikely run to the Finals in 2007 Cleveland is beaten by San Antonio in six games. But everything comes together in 2008, when Redd’s additional scoring pushes Cleveland past the Celtics and Pistons in the east and, eventually, the Lakers in the Finals as well. At only 23-years-old, LeBron James has toppled his greatest rival in Kobe Bryant and brought Cleveland its first championship in over 50 years.
The good times don’t quite last. Injuries pile up for Redd almost immediately after the championship, and Cleveland loses before the Finals in back-to-back seasons. But James is still happy enough with the title that he agrees to re-sign with Cleveland as a free agent in 2010. This devastates several of his suitors, most notably Miami, who still walks away with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and New York, who settles for Amar’e Stoudemire.
Chicago, however, is more than prepared to miss out on LeBron. The ascension of Derrick Rose at point guard gives them the league’s best record, and Cleveland’s roster outside of LeBron is too depleted to put up any sort of fight against the Bulls. Rose leads Chicago to the 2011 title, and James quietly begins to grumble about his support system.
Cleveland’s front office agrees, and after seeing what a sidekick like Redd did for LeBron the first time around, they decide to punt on major roster additions that summer and focus on clearing cap space for 2012. That decision comes back to haunt them in the short term. Rose’s knee injury in the first round opens up the conference for other contenders, but without surrounding talent James can’t knock off the aging Celtics. Boston eventually gets the better of Oklahoma City in the Finals to give Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce their first championships.
But the summer still belongs to Cleveland. They nab Deron Williams to pair with LeBron, setting themselves up as the surefire title favorite for the 2012-13 season. The rest of the league sees a ticking clock and an unlearned lesson, though. Williams’ conditioning is far from ideal and his knees come with some red flags. If Williams is going to deliver the Cavs a title, it’s going to have to come fast, because eventually, he’s going to suffer the same fate as Redd.