Reversing 'The Decision': When would the Cleveland Cavaliers have won a championship if LeBron never left?
LeBron James has done some pretty incredible things in his 14 year NBA career. Among the championships, MVP’s and All-Star teams, taking that dreadful 2007 roster to the NBA Finals is up there with the best of them. James carried a starting five that included Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes and Sasha Pavlovic to face the San Antonio Spurs.
Although the Cavaliers would be swept, it just felt like this is where LeBron belonged, on the biggest stage in basketball. That would not be the case, the Cavaliers would be bounced out of early playoff exits for the next three consecutive years, leading to the loss of LeBron James to the Miami Heat.
But what if? What if Danny Ferry had made different trades, different free agent signings, when would the Cavs have returned to the Finals to win the franchises first banner?
Danny Ferry was hired as the Cleveland General Manager on June 27th, 2005. He walked in on the job when LeBron James was a budding 20 year old, fresh after his second season in the league, and the Cavs had posted a 42-40 season.
Ferry’s first order of business was hiring a head coach, and he did so with Mike Brown. Brown would go on to coach 492 total games for the Cavaliers, winning 305 of them and would even win the Coach of the Year award in 2009. But Brown would eventually be fired by the Cavaliers, on two separate occasions.
Ferry made a number of other very interesting acquisitions in his time with the Cavs. Notably acquiring one-time All-Star guard Mo Williams, former All-Star center Shaquille O’Neal, starting shooting guard Anthony Parker, former All-Star Antawn Jamison and re-signing veteran center Žydrūnas Ilgauskas. If he could have his time back, would Ferry change any of this?
On June 4, 2010, it was announced that Ferry and the Cavaliers had come to a mutual agreement to part ways. The Cavaliers went 272-138 under Ferry, but promoted assistant general manager Chris Grant in an attempt to keep James around.
With Chris Grant now at the helm, if he managed to convince LeBron to stay in town, how far off were the Cavaliers from their first ever title?
The Cavs faced a serious cap space logjam at the time, with Antawn Jamison at $13.36M, Mo Williams at $9.3M and Anderson Varejao at $7.03M. Those three alone amounted to 52% of Cleveland’s total cap space, and that was without LeBron on the books.
If the Cavs were to re-sign free agents, Shaquille O’Neal and Delonte West, to respectable one year deals and hand LeBron James his well deserved max contract, Cleveland would have been well into the luxury tax. With that in mind, the Cavaliers would have had one shot at changing the makeup of the team, their mid level exception.
With their MLE, Cleveland had the money to sign one of the likes of Mike Miller, Dorrell Wright, Wes Matthews or Tony Allen. Any of these wing players at the time would have been a major help to a team lacking wing production. Wes Matthews would have pushed the limit on the cap space, but may have been the perfect fit, and the key to a title run.
With Matthews, the Cavaliers would have boasted a likely roster of:
PG: Mo Williams/ Daniel Gibson/ Delonte West
SG: Wesley Matthews/ Anthony Parker
SF: LeBron James/ Jamario Moon/ Jawad Williams
PF: Antawn Jamison/ J.J. Hickson/ Leon Powe
C: Shaquille O’Neal/ Anderson Varejao
Antawn Jamison only had a chance to play 25 regular season games alongside LeBron James, while Shaq only had 53 games. With more time, chemistry would have formed and that alone would have been a massive help.
Now add in the major factor of free agent help from Wesley Matthews.
Matthews signed a bargain contract with the Portland Trail Blazers after a great rookie season with the Utah Jazz. The exact contract he signed with the Blazers (5 years, $32.5M), the Cavaliers could not have afforded but with tweaks here and there it could have been made to work.
After a franchise and NBA best 61-21 record in the 2009-2010 season, Cleveland were so close to breaking through and finding the next gear.
With another year under their belts and another year of experience for the 25-year-old LeBron James, the Cavaliers had the potential to take the 2011 Championship trophy back to Cleveland for the first time.
It’s easy enough to play the ‘what if’ game, and we’ll never truly know what would have happened had the King stayed at home. What we do know is LeBron spent a few years elsewhere, growing up and winning in another city.
Boy, it sucked at the time, but we would eventually reap the ultimate reward and see the King lift the 2016 Championship trophy in a wine and gold jersey.