What IF LeBron never went back to Cleveland?

What IF LeBron never went back to Cleveland?

Cleveland have just signed Kevin Love to a four-year, $120 million extension. It is a deal that will pay Love $28.8 million when he is 34-years-old. Meanwhile their rivals only improve. Boston’s and Philadelphia’s young cores continue to grow and Toronto have added Kawhi Leonard. Unless there are unprecedented  plans in play then the Cavaliers are condemned to mediocrity for the foreseeable future and with that we can truly assess LeBron’s second stint in his hometown.

Four NBA finals and one ring later, LeBron James has joined LA and Cleveland aren’t a million miles away from where they began. Now let us just imagine that we are back in the summer of 2014. It is July 11 and, instead of signing back with the Cavaliers, LeBron tosses a coin and stays in Miami. He forgets about his promise to deliver a ring and opts to stay in sunny South Beach with his friend Dwyane Wade. So what happens to Cleveland? Now this is all conjecture, simply an outcome of a vivid imagination, but can you argue that Cleveland would have been better without LeBron’s return? Could the alternative be better than their current reality?

So it’s important to remember the position Cleveland where in 2014. In the 2013-14 season Kyrie Irving had just averaged over 20 points per game for the second straight season. He had been named MVP of the All-Star Game and the team managed to improve by eight wins. The Cavaliers also had a budding Tristan Thompson beginning to emerge and with the first overall pick in the 2014 Draft they elected to go with Andrew Wiggins. His ceiling was high and there was no doubt they were justified to take him at the very top of the draft. Cleveland had set themselves up for the future.

This is when the King announced his return. In order to free up cap space for James’s max contract, Cleveland traded Jarrett Jack and minor pieces to Brooklyn plus their 2016 future first-round pick to Boston in a three-team trade. The Cavaliers were then forced to enter win-now mode. LeBron signed a two-year deal, the second year being a player option. Unlike his four-year deal with LA, this contract forced a window upon Cleveland. Two consecutive number one picks in Anthony Bennett and Wiggins were traded to Minnesota for Love. They proceeded to trade their own 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 second-round picks to clear cap space in a move which allowed them to trade two first-round picks to the Nuggets for Timofey Mozgov. Then swapped their 2017 first-round pick with the Blazers 2019, before sacrificing that pick to the Hawks for Kyle Korver. And last, but not least, their 2019 second-round pick was traded to New York as part of a deal for Iman Shumpert and JR Smith.

In simple terms they took on a lot of bad contracts and parted with a total of three-years worth of picks. 

The alternative would have seen the Cavaliers built around Kyrie. An improvement of five wins or less in the 2014-15 season would have left them with a top 11 pick that year in the draft. Instead of drafting Tyus Jones at number 24 they would have had the opportunity to select the likes of Myles Turner or Kelly Oubre Jr. More likely however, would have been the selection of the Freshman out of Kentucky, Devin Booker. Booker would have been afforded starting minutes pairing him in a backcourt with Kyrie.

With their young core in mind and their available cap space, it is also likely Cleveland could have landed one of the many talented players in the 2015 free agency class. Names such as Marc Gasol, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Draymond Green were all available. Now, despite Cleveland never being the greatest free agency destination, there would be a pull to the franchise. It would be a young core with an emerging superstar talent just waiting for a final piece or two to complete it. Rumours are circulating this off-season that Jimmy Butler wants to team up with Kyrie in New York, so with him entering free agency himself in 2015 could he have opted to do this four years earlier in Cleveland? Even if a superstar is out of the realms of possibilities, would it have been possible to add some good pieces? They could have added players like Tobias Harris (4-years, $64 million in Orlando), Lou Williams (3-years, $21 million to the Lakers), Paul Milsap (3-years, $58 million back to the Hawks), or Kris Middleton (5-years, $70 million to Milwaukee). Any two of four could have signed equal contracts in Cleveland and they still would have been well under the cap.

Then we come to the summer of 2016. Their two picks in the draft that were traded away were wasted on Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Furkan Korkmaz, both selected by the Philadelphia 76ers. However, still available on the board were guards Dejounte Murray and Malcolm Brogdon, along with forward Pascal Siakim. Any two of the three would have added much needed depth.

With the Eastern Conference being as poor as it is, the likelihood is that any team led by Kyrie had a good chance of finishing in the top half of the playoff seedings in the 2016-2017 season. Their pick in the 2017 draft fell to 26 where the Trailblazers selected Caleb Swanigan. However should Cleveland have had the same spot available to them, they would have been able to select Kyle Kuzma or Josh Hart.

By drafting well and making smart free agency choices, the Cavaliers could have built a team ready to contend in just three seasons.

All the above is tenuous. There would be no guarantee that Cleveland GM David Griffin would get things right. However what cannot be disputed is the impact of Kyrie’s loss on the team last summer. They lost their closer and go to guy down the stretch. They lost an All-Star for practically nothing. There and then was the true moment when it was decided that LeBron wouldn’t win another ring in Cleveland. 

Kyrie forced his way out. No one can speak to the exact reason why, but it is obvious that Kyrie wanted his own team. He wanted to be appreciated for the star he was and is. He eventually got his move to Boston, however that doesn’t happen if LeBron doesn’t return to Cleveland. That team would have been belonged to Kyrie. There would have been no LeBron sized shadow for Kyrie to live in. There would be no King to save the Cavaliers, but then again they wouldn’t have needed one. It’s impossible to see why Kyrie would turn his back on his team if those were the circumstances. If LeBron never returns then Kyrie is still sat upon his own throne in Cleveland.

In an alternative universe the Cavaliers would currently be stacked with an abundance of young talent and depth, able to match that of Boston and able to make a run at Golden State should Durant choose to leave next summer or not. A team built around Kyrie to include players like Harris, Millsap, Booker, Wiggins, Thompson, Brogdon, Murray and potentially more isn’t beyond what was possible for Cleveland for this moment in time. Would this not be a team capable of a finals run? Instead they appear to be handcuffed by Love’s albatross contract and committed to battling it out in the low standings of the East for the near future.

Now at no point would you trade LeBron’s four years and that one championship for ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’ but the case can be made that Cleveland would have a better chance to win more than that one ring, if LeBron had never returned. You could have never said no to arguably the greatest player ever but maybe, looking back, LeBron would have better served his hometown team by simply staying away.

Featured photo – via Double Clutch illustration