Donâ€™t get me wrong. I hate that LeBron James left his hometown for the beaches of Miami. I hate that he ditched the franchise that worked so hard to please him for the hair gel and huge ego of Pat Riley. And I hate that he left his hard-working, loyal teammates for two fellow egotistical superstars.
But I understand why he did it. I understand why he went to Miami. He wanted to win and he wanted to win now. For LeBron James to have the best chance to win a title in the 2010-11 season and to win multiple titles in the next few seasons, his best choice on July 9, 2010, was to go to Miami (although looking back now, it may have been the second-best choice). Before LeBronâ€™s "Decision," James met with six different NBA franchises. On the eve of the NBA Finals, let us revisit these six choices, as to how they looked to James last July, as well as how they look now.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
Then: Donald Sterling's circus was coming off a 29-53 season in its last season under head coach Mike Dunleavy. Ex-Bulls coach, Vinny Del Negro, whom James used to torch in the East, was named the new Clippers coach. When James looked up and down the Clips' depth chart, he saw two types of players: Aging veterans (Baron Davis and Chris Kaman) and youthful potential stars (Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan). What James didn't see were any players in their prime. He had no desire to wait for a group of youngsters to grow into their prime while he faded out of his. He wanted to win as soon as possible. James would have gotten more media attention in L.A. than Cleveland, but there was one problem. LeBron would be going to the one city in the world where Kobe Bryant's name would still tower over his. There was no way in hell LeBron was going to let that happen.
Now: Blake Griffin (22.5 points, 12.1 rebounds) stared down the Greg Oden references and made his delayed rookie season a memorable one. His All-Star performance sent a message to James that the two could have been one of the deadliest scoring duos in the NBA. Eric Gordon also had a breakout season at shooting guard (22.3 points), sparking life into the Clippers faithful. Mid-season, the Clippers sent Baron Davis to Cleveland in a deal that brought in James' old buddy, Mo Williams.
Evaluation: James never would have been a good fit sharing the city with Kobe. His ego would not have been able to survive as the face of a city's secondary team. On the court, James would have had trouble connecting with younger, less established players and holding back from criticizing veterans. With less touches, Griffin and Gordon would not have been able to grow, and LeBron would have spent five years losing in the first or second round of the Western Conference playoffs.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
Then: Cleveland spent seven seasons centering its basketball club and the entire city around James. By the 2010 summer, Dan Gilbert and Danny Ferry had brought in Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison (combined three All-Star appearances) to serve as LeBron's henchmen. But after those two players, the Cavs had literally no one with any sort of respectable skill set. On July 9, outside of Williams and Jamison, the Cavs did not have one player on their roster that had averaged more than 9.0 points in the previous season. Gilbert promised James another max contract free agent, but after Ferryâ€™s June 4 resignation, new GM Chris Grant could not lure another big name to the beauteous factory town of Cleveland, Ohio. The only difference from the previous season in Cleveland was that LeBron would have to get used to a new coach, Byron Scott.
Now: LeBron was right. He really did have the worst supporting cast in the NBA, as exposed by the Cavs' 19-63 record in 2010-11. The team's mid-season 26-game losing streak tied the 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the longest losing streak in American pro sports history. Dan Gilbert also made enough anti-LeBron cracks during the season to send him to a mental institute. On the bright side, Cleveland ended up getting the Clippers pick in the Baron Davis deal with LA, providing the Cavs with the first and fourth overall picks of this June's draft. And they get Davis' veteran leadership, which I guess is a plus.
Evaluation: LeBron would have won in Cleveland. Maybe once, maybe twice. Maybe this season, maybe ten years from now. But he would have done it at least once. James took the Cavs to the NBA Finals once before and gave them the East's top regular-season record in the two seasons before his departure. Cleveland was his kingdom and he felt comfortable playing in front of the fans that had followed him since his high school days. At some point, he was going to dig deep enough, whether it be due to a key trade deadline acquisition or the retirement of Boston's Big Three, that LeBron could bring a victory home to Cleveland. But no, he would not have won as many titles in Cleveland as a place like Miami.
4. New Jersey Nets
Then: The Jay-Z experiment in New Jersey came to a climax as James' decision neared. The six-year plan always called for Jay-Z to lure in a big name NBA star just before the club moved to Brooklyn. From one king to another, Jay-Z promised LeBron the seat on the Brooklyn throne that Jay-Z had held for over a decade. Although playing in downtown Newark with Devin Harris and Brook Lopez did not sound appealing, Jay-Z and Mikhail Prohorov insisted all James needed was patience. If LeBron could stick it out for two years, he'd be playing at a new arena in NYC with Deron Williams or Chris Paul before he'd know it.
Now: The Nets didn't roll over after James chose South Beach. Prohorov, Jay-Z and first-year GM Billy King shipped Harris and rookie Derrick Favors to Utah for Williams. Now, the plan is to court Williams into staying with the Nets on the premise that the front office trio can bring in a second superstar as the team moves to Brooklyn in 2012-13. The growing success of Lopez, Kris Humphries and Anthony Morrow will serve as useful trade bait.
Evaluation: Like the Clippers and Cavs, the Nets were also working with a first-year coach in Avery Johnson. Also, like the Clippers, LeBron would be playing for a city's B-Team. But unlike the previous two teams, James would have been playing with players in their prime within the next three years. The Nets would have been able to use to James to put themselves amongst the top competitors in the East within a few seasons, but the impatience of James never made New Jersey a legitimate option.
3. New York Knicks
Then: The stage was set. Literally. The bright lights were shining and the audience was in its seats. New York City was ready for its next big thing. I don't think non-New Yorkers realize exactly how big James would have been. If James would have signed with the Knicks, Michael Bloomberg would have happily handed his mayoral office over to the King, who would play at LeBron Square Garden. Spike Lee would be the tenth-most famous Knicks season-ticket holder and James' sponsorship income would increase by about $200 million. I'm not exaggerating.
And on the court, the Knicks thought they had what James wanted. Amar'e Stoudemire was like no player James had ever played with and Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari were entering their primes as serious scoring threats. Ronny Turiaf looked to be a more defensive Anderson Varejao and Toney Douglas and Anthony Randolph could provide youthful energy off the bench.
Now: Many people thought the Knicks were dead without LeBron, but Donnie Walsh righted the ship. Stoudemire played as the league's first-half MVP and late summer acquisition Raymond Felton made James jealous of Coach Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced system. In Februrary, Walsh sent Felton, Chandler and Gallinari to Denver for Chauncey Billups and Jamesâ€™s close friend, Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks split the season series with Miami and put themselves in a position to compete with the Heat in future seasons.
Evaluation: The Knicks lacked one key piece that James desired: A superstar guard. The Knicks could provide James with a big man like Stoudemire, but with Eddy Curry still eating up the team's payroll, a max contract player at guard was out of the question. With the Knicks' payroll woes, even signing Felton after inking James would have posed a salary cap problem. James wasn't going to wait around two seasons before the Knicks could bring Deron Williams or Chris Paul into the backcourt. And he would have been right. The Knicks wouldn't have won a title with Toney Douglas running the point and once again, James didn't want to wait.
2. Miami Heat:
Then: So James went to South Beach. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, two of James' close friends, had just signed with the Heat. Along with their friendship, Wade and Bosh also had a combined 11 All-Star Game appearances, two gold medals, and one NBA title. Some people called LeBron's choice lazy. He saw it as a good business decision. Wade and Bosh could team with James to develop the greatest team the NBA had ever seen. For LeBron to be the best player on the league's best team, his NBA dream would be reached. He also realized the potential of Wade and Bosh playing together. He knew that he couldn't beat them as a Clipper, Cav, Net, Knick or Bull (weâ€™ll get to that), making those destinations seem pointless. If he couldn't beat his friends, he would happily join them.
Now: Miami got a lot of Heat during the season despite a 58-24 record. The Heat barely slipped into the No. 2 spot in the playoffs, breathing a sign of relief for avoiding the upstart Knicks. But in the playoffs, LeBron's vision began to come into focus. The Heat dismantled the 76ers, Celtics and Bulls all in five games, and the team looks poised for a victory over the Mavericks in the NBA Finals. No, this team will not go down as the best ever, but it does have a legitimate chance at an NBA title.
Evaluation: We get why LeBron did it now. He wasn't going to beat the Celtics or the Magic or the Hawks or the Heat in any other jersey. The East had become stronger and James' title hopes would be minimal with a weaker supporting cast. He has shown us that he can be a winner in Miami and multiple NBA championship rings are likely on the way.
1. Chicago Bulls
Then: Why are we talking about the Bulls after the Heat? Isn't LeBron about to win a title with Miami? Doesn't that mean we now know that Miami was his best choice? Not necessarily. We know now why he did it. He felt Miami gave him the best chance to win now and to win a lot. But that was what he thought. In reality, his best choice to win now was not on the beaches of South Florida, but rather in the Windy City of Chicago. On July 8, the Bulls made a sign-and-trade deal with Utah to bring in Carlos Boozer at around $14 million per year. With Derrick Rose still on a rookie contract, Chicago had the opportunity to give James a max contract in the city that Michael Jordan once ruled over. James looked at the Bulls and thought he saw an average Eastern Conference franchise. Rose was a rising star, but James wasn't sure when he would hit his prime. Rose only averaged six assists as a point guard in the previous season and no other Bull was known for having any passing ability. Boozer and Joakim Noah could rebound the hell out of the ball up front, but would either of them have been able to put up double-digits points night in, night out? Like the Clippers, the Bulls appeared to be too young or too old for James, who wanted to play with the Heat stars in their prime. He also feared that he could never replaces the gaping shoes that Jordan had left to be filled.
Now: Talking about Rose's off-season attitude towards James, Noah told Sports Illustrated, "That showed what kind of guy he is. If you want to come here and be part of this, that's cool. If not, weâ€™re going to try to kick your ass." And thatâ€™s exactly what the Bulls did to James in the regular season. Chicago finished four games better than the Heat at 62-20, the NBA's best record. Rose won the MVP and proved to James that he may be poised to be the best point guard the game has ever seen and can one day fill at least some of the shoes that Jordan left. No, the Bulls didnâ€™t beat the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, but they proved that they have the firepower to be around a long time.
Evaluation: Again, the Heat are the Eastern Conference champions and have a very good chance to take home an NBA title, but let's just think about life with LeBron on the Bulls. Imagine Rose playing like the MVP that he was this season, but dishing the ball to James in the fourth quarter, rather than Kyle Korver. Who is the better trio: James, Wade and Bosh or James, Rose and Boozer? Keep in mind that Rose and Boozer won four more games without James (and Boozer missed 23 games). In a parallel universe, if LeBron went to Chicago, would the Bulls have lost one game in the conference playoffs? Heck, would the Mavericks even show up for the Finals? If LeBron really wanted to be the best player on the best team of all-time, he should have gone to Chicago over Miami.